A new play about Henrietta Swan Leavitt and the real women "computers" working at the dawn of modern astronomy. A celestial romance and true story of discovery in production at TheatreWorks - Jan 15 - Feb 9, 2014

thefirststarr:

There is a road that connects the Northern to the Southern Cross but you have to be at the right place and time to see it. The road, as pictured above, is actually the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy; the right place, in this case, is dark Laguna Cejar in Salar de Atacama of Northern Chile; and the right time was in early October, just after sunset. Many sky wonders were captured then, including the bright Moon, inside the Milky Way arch; Venus, just above the Moon; Saturn and Mercury, just below the Moon; the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds satellite galaxies, on the far left; red airglow near the horizon on the image left; and the lights of small towns at several locations across the horizon. 
Image Credit & Copyright: Nicholas Buer

thefirststarr:

There is a road that connects the Northern to the Southern Cross but you have to be at the right place and time to see it. The road, as pictured above, is actually the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy; the right place, in this case, is dark Laguna Cejar in Salar de Atacama of Northern Chile; and the right time was in early October, just after sunset. Many sky wonders were captured then, including the bright Moon, inside the Milky Way arch; Venus, just above the Moon; Saturn and Mercury, just below the Moon; the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds satellite galaxies, on the far left; red airglow near the horizon on the image left; and the lights of small towns at several locations across the horizon. 

Image Credit & Copyright: Nicholas Buer

A World of One’s Own

Often you see plays about “strong women” surrounded by men. Hedda Gabler, Lady Macbeth, Antigone, not to mention the grand tradition of female super heroes with tight suits and no female friends. Even though these are tremendous roles for women to play, they are played in a man’s world where our heroine is alone. 

The thrill of SILENT SKY is that we are telling the story of a strong woman in a strong women’s world. Not only is Henrietta (our hero) ambitious, funny, romantic, nerdy, and sharp; all three other women in the play are the same. The gender balance is reverse in our play as the only male role, the affable and adorable Peter Shaw, is quite alone in the self-described “women’s world up here.” He is the one to seem out of place and alone, unsure of his footing in the office of all women.

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The great thing about this is that it’s based in history. The “ladies of the logbook” were a real cohort of women recruited my Edward Pickering at the Harvard Observatory to “count stars.” This group of creative, curious, dedicated women pushed astronomy forward, and they did it in a room of their own. Many of the women who worked in that office along with Henrietta accomplished great feats of intellectual and creative strength. I suspect that more than a little of this accomplishment was at each other’s encouragement.


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(the real computers of Harvard Observatory, circa 1890) 

 As Virginia Woolf said of creative women, 'a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.' I think we could agree that substituting “do science” or “be political” or “write plays” would amount to the same requirements. And while Henrietta and her colleagues earned a pittance, they did have that special room that was all their own. Out of that room came Annie Cannon who gave us the spectral classification we still use, and Williamina Fleming who catalogued myriad stars and nebulae, Henrietta and her period-luminosity relation, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin who described the chemical make-up of our sun. 

Most of our story takes place in the women’s world of that office.  The parts that don’t are in another kind of woman’s world, the home. Henrietta’s sister, Margaret, helps her sister succeed through support, care, understanding and a bit of tough love. 

All of this is to say that women, like men, are not strong on their own. There are fewer lone wolves out there than we like to think. And the one’s of us that succeed do so with help and encouragement from a community. In Henrietta’s case a community of brilliant, compassionate, funny women with a few rooms of their own to show off the worlds that they can discover if allowed a bit of space and time to do so.

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Henrietta would approve…
sagansense:

“There is a fundamental reason why we look at the sky with wonder and longing—for the same reason that we stand, hour after hour, gazing at the distant swell of the open ocean. There is something like an ancient wisdom, encoded and tucked away in our DNA, that knows its point of origin as surely as a salmon knows its creek. Intellectually, we may not want to return there, but the genes know, and long for their origins—their home in the salty depths. But if the seas are our immediate source, the penultimate source is certainly the heavens… The spectacular truth is—and this is something that your DNA has known all along—the very atoms of your body—the iron, calcium, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and on and on—were initially forged in long-dead stars. This is why, when you stand outside under a moonless, country sky, you feel some ineffable tugging at your innards. We are star stuff. Keep looking up.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Henrietta would approve…

sagansense:

“There is a fundamental reason why we look at the sky with wonder and longing—for the same reason that we stand, hour after hour, gazing at the distant swell of the open ocean. There is something like an ancient wisdom, encoded and tucked away in our DNA, that knows its point of origin as surely as a salmon knows its creek. Intellectually, we may not want to return there, but the genes know, and long for their origins—their home in the salty depths. But if the seas are our immediate source, the penultimate source is certainly the heavens… The spectacular truth is—and this is something that your DNA has known all along—the very atoms of your body—the iron, calcium, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and on and on—were initially forged in long-dead stars. This is why, when you stand outside under a moonless, country sky, you feel some ineffable tugging at your innards. We are star stuff. Keep looking up.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

"The words that we utter reach through all space and the tremor is felt through all time.” astronomer Maria Mitchell. #SilentSky 

"The words that we utter reach through all space and the tremor is felt through all time.” astronomer Maria Mitchell. #SilentSky 

Not with Numbers But with Notes: Math + Music On Stage

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(Jen LeBlanc and Elena Wright in Silent Sky at TheatreWorks 2014.)

The very real mathematical relationship discovered by our main character, Henrietta Leavitt, in the play Silent Sky is explained not with numbers but with notes. Henrietta’s sister, Margaret, is a pianist and just when Henrietta can’t stare at the tables of measurements describing her Cepheid variable stars any longer, she listens… then looks up… then sees/hears what she’s been searching for: a pattern.

That moment is what made me write this play, because it could only work in a play. It’s theatrical, it’s musical, it’s not a moment of dialog but a moment of overwhelm, everything changes in this moment.

Earlier on Henrietta’s mentor Annie tells her to not give up on her instinct but to “think about how you’re thinking.” Henrietta needed to take a break from thinking like an astronomer, and start thinking like a musician. When she does she sees the inherent pattern in her stars. She sees that what would become her famous (and still used) Period-Luminosity Relation can be thought of as a tonal pattern. Cepheid stars are pulsating stars. But if you shift your sense of  pulsating as  bright-dim and reframe it as high-low notes, there is music in it. 

Look at this short silent video of Cepheid star, RS Puppis (more on this star here) in the Milky Way and everything time it brightens think of a high note piano key being pressed…

What Henrietta saw was that the longer the Cepheid star takes to blink (or complete it’s cycle from bright to dim to bright), is exactly  in proportion to how large the star actually is. A massive cepheid would take 2 months to blink, a baby cepheid would take 2 days. Simple, beautiful, constant. 

If you think of the billions of Cepheid stars across the universe all blinking/singing at different intervals, what a dynamic, oceanic symphony of sound it would be.

Asking the amazing composer Jenny Giering to craft this moment with our intrepid lighting design team led by Paul Toben was, I admit, a tall order. But they did it. 

Listen to that moment here

Here’s the music Jenny created to accompany Henrietta’s eureka moment, which was further accompanied by blinking stars all around the set. The notes align with the blinks that aligns with Henrietta’s “Oh my god, I finally get it!” revelation. Pretty damn great as an act break. 

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 Also this is perfectly appropriate:

Scientist Creates Music From Voyager Space Probe Data

The beautiful original score by Jenny Giering for the astronomy play Silent Sky

This song leads to the eureka moment at the end of the first act. 

Some of the most fun I had in writing SILENT SKY was the awkward, uncool, terribly-timed, hiccupping romance between Henrietta and Peter. 

They are both unprepared for each other, and have no model for how to flirt, communicate, or proceed in love. Peter was more likely trained by his father to talk to women and procure a wife. His future had more flexibility and shades of possibility than Henrietta’s. He could marry late or early or not at all. 

But Henrietta likely counted herself a solo act when she didn’t marry at a younger age. She would have assumed that she wouldn’t marry, choosing her work at Harvard Observatory over a family. 

But there is nothing to suggest that Henrietta didn’t have room for romance at some point. This story allows her to step out of the spinster stereotype and breathe in the fuller life of a complete woman, mind and heart firing at once. 

In the end the play focuses more on independence and self-possession than romance. A kind of feminism that allows for love and loss and friendship of all stripes. 

What a thing to imagine.

So so so proud of this show and the interest it’s driving toward women in science and art both now and historically. Also it’s nice to be called radiant. And magical. 

#SilentSky is a play about sisterhood and the co-life of close family. 

Here Jen LeBlanc plays Henriett’a sister Margie, and Elena Wright plays Henrietta Leavitt. 

Thought of Henrietta and #SilentSky at the @DeYoungMuseum yesterday seeing  “A Particular Lind Of Heaven”  by Ed Ruscha (1983).

Thought of Henrietta and #SilentSky at the @DeYoungMuseum yesterday seeing “A Particular Lind Of Heaven” by Ed Ruscha (1983).

Curiosity," said Natalie Batalha, whose team in recent years has announced the discoveries of new planets, "is innate to the human species. Curiosity is blind to gender. Scientific inquiry is the most basic expression of human curiosity.
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'Silent Sky': Scientist light-years ahead of her time

San Francisco Chronicle, 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Our brilliant Henrietta Leavitt (Elena Wright) in TheatreWorks' gorgeous prodyction of #SilentSky

Henrietta Leavitt hard at work in #SilentSky at @TheatreWorksSV…

Henrietta Leavitt hard at work in #SilentSky at @TheatreWorksSV…