Tuesday, we’re talking about the 19th-century women who measured the cosmos. Science journalist Dava Sobel is among our guests. Her latest book is about the women employed by Harvard Observatory to serve as “human computers.” They did calculations based on the observations of their male counterparts, but became astronomical pioneers in their own right. Pygmalion Theatre Company is staging a play based on the life of one of these remarkable women, which gives us an excuse to talk about them and discoveries.
Dava Sobel is a former science reporter for the New York Times. She’s the co-author of six books and the author of five, including her newest, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
Mark Fossen directed Pygmalion Theatre Company’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s play Silent Sky. It’s about the life of Henrietta Leavitt, an astronomer at Harvard Observatory in the 19th century.
Hannah Minshew plays Henrietta Leavitt in Pygmalion Theatre Company’s production of Silent Sky.
Lauren Gunderson’s play “Silent Sky,” opening this week in a regional premiere at Pygmalion Productions, seems grounded in the cultural zeitgeist as it tells a sweeping, starlit story about another hidden figure in science.
“Sky” is based on the groundbreaking discoveries of Henrietta Leavitt and her female colleagues, who in the early 20th century were employed with other women as human “computers” at Harvard College Observatory, charting the stars for a renowned male astronomer.
Henrietta isn’t allowed to use the sophisticated telescope. But her irrepressible ambition drives her to explore how to calculate the size of the universe based on the variable brightness of stars, while she’s negotiating the scale of other relationships in her life.
“Following this curiosity was not easy,” Henrietta tells her male boss, who has a crush on her. “I had to insist, which requires a dedicated desire unmatched by reason, which is called passion.”
To many outside of the working world of science, the most important work of discovery might seem mundane and inconsequential – especially when it was conducted by women. Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 nonfiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (Harper Collins) was adapted to film which has been an eyeopener at the box office (nearly $250 million in box office gross revenues) and among the general public.
Released this year, Dava Sobel’s book The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (4th Estate) examines the ground-breaking work of Henrietta Leavitt and her colleagues in the Harvard College Observatory, starting in the 1890s. As Sobel explains in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, he first heard of Leavitt when he asked astronomer Wendy Freeman about her work on the expansion of the universe as part of the Hubble Space Telescope Project. He dug further, adding that “I found out that Leavitt had been working with literally a room full of women at Harvard, which was a big surprise because Harvard in the 1890s was not really a place one thinks of as being especially welcoming to women. But the observatory was a separate institution with its own director and its own financial responsibility. It already had a history of women working there. That struck me as powerfully interesting, as well as the notion that the work these women were doing was really important.”