Women In Stem: On the Shoulders of Giants

Henrietta Leavitt, along with her team of female scientists profiled in Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson, made amazing discoveries about the universe and our place in it. If you’ve never heard of Henrietta, you are not alone. You’ve probably never heard of Carolyn Porco either but her career and accomplishments in the world of astronomy are no less groundbreaking than those of Ms. Leavitt and her colleagues. Last year, the Cassini spacecraft burned up in the atmosphere of Saturn after 20 years in space. Dr. Porco was the team leader of Cassini Imaging. This edition of Drama Unfolds provides an introduction to Carolyn Porco and her career of looking at the “promised land beyond the sun.”


One of the Top 25 US Women in Stem

Carolyn Porco

September 15, 2017 — The end is now upon us. Within hours of the posting of this entry, Cassini will burn up in the atmosphere of Saturn … a kiloton explosion spread out against the sky in a meteoric display of light and fire, a dazzling flash to signal the dying essence of a lone emissary from another world. As if the myths of old had foretold the future, the great patriarch will consume his child. At that point, that golden machine, so dutiful and strong, will enter the realm of history, and the toils and triumphs of this long march will be done.

For those of us appointed long ago to embark on this journey, it has been a taxing 3 decades, requiring a level of dedication that I could not have predicted, and breathless times when we sprinted for the duration of a marathon. But in return, we were blessed to spend our lives working and playing in that promised land beyond the Sun.

My imaging team members and I were especially blessed to serve as the documentarians of this historic epoch and return a stirring visual record of our travels around Saturn and the glories we found there. This is our gift to the citizens of planet Earth. So, it is with both wistful, sentimental reflection and a boundless sense of pride, in a commitment met and a job well done, that I now turn to face this looming, abrupt finality. It is doubtful we will soon see a mission as richly suited as Cassini return to this ringed world and shoulder a task as colossal as we have borne over the last 27 years. 

To have served on this mission has been to live the rewarding life of an explorer of our time, a surveyor of distant worlds. We wrote our names across the sky. We could not have asked for more. I sign off now, grateful for knowing that Cassini’s legacy, and ours, will include our mutual roles as authors of a tale that humanity will tell for a very long time to come. — reprinted from CICLOPS.org, the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations.

Dr. Porco was the Imaging Team Leader on the Nasa/Esa/Asi Cassini mission. She was also instrumental in helping frame the Earth for its famous Pale Blue Dot portrait by Voyager. You can follow Dr. Porco on Twitter and read more about her work and that of her imaging team on the CICLOPS website.
Were it not for Henrietta Leavitt, there may be no Carolyn Porco. There is no better way to learn more about Henrietta Leavitt than by seeing the Commonweal version of Silent Sky opening Saturday, April 7. For more information, visit the show page on this website.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the theatre — Jeremy

The Female Scientists Made Famous in “Silent Sky”

In the theatre profession, the people involved with doing background research for stage productions are called “dramaturgs.” Put simply, the dramaturg does exhaustive work to help a director build the “world of the play” by finding information not included in the script. Very little of that work actually appears on the stage but it can be invaluable to the entire creative team of a play especially to actors in their character development. Lizzy Andretta, one of the Commonweal’s newest resident ensemble members, serves as the dramaturg for our upcoming version of Silent Sky and for this edition of Drama Unfolds, she gives us a glimpse into the world of the famous women of the play in their own words.
Professional Resident Ensemble Member Lizzy Andretta

                                 Lizzy Andretta

Around the turn of the century when women were denied basic rights like voting and owning property, Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, the real-life women of the play Silent Sky, were doing work that would redefine the way we view the universe. Working at the Harvard Observatory for 30 cents an hour, these female scientists (dubbed “computers”) would primarily gather information found on glass plates containing photographs of the stars and record the data they found. While writing in her diary, Williamina Fleming said of the work, “From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination…and of work involved in the reduction of these photographs.” Despite the tediousness, the women found comfort in their work and in each other. Annie Cannon (who would create a standard for classifying stars that is still used today) wrote about her work: “My heart, my life is now the study of astronomy… (I) am able to find contentment in my surroundings; I could not help it, thrown as I am with such kind people.”

One of the famous female scientists in Silent Sky

                  Henrietta Leavitt

While they were restricted to mostly clerical duties, some of the women found ways to pursue their own research. Henrietta Leavitt managed to do this when she noticed that some of the stars she was observing appeared brighter than others. When she pursued this, she discovered that the brightness of the stars was related to their distance from the Earth, which she dubbed “The Period-Luminosity Relation.” When she published her work, Henrietta described her finding as follows: “A straight line can readily be drawn among each of the two series of points corresponding to maxima and minima, thus showing that there is a simple relation between the brightness of the variables and their periods.”

Though most of them would be forgotten by history, the female scientists of the Harvard Observatory continued to work behind the scenes without complaint, even as they were passed over for the recognition they so deserved. Annie Cannon, in particular, continued to work into old age and would do so right up until she died, commenting that, “In our troubled days it is good to have something outside our planet, something fine and distant for comfort.” Today, astronomers still use the work of these women to measure the stars and universe. Although history may have forgotten these important women, playwright Lauren Gunderson has not by memorializing them in Silent Sky and setting them among the most famous women in history. It has been my pleasure to provide research materials to shine a light on the lives of these famous scientists and their groundbreaking work.

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson opens in two weeks as the featured event of the Stars and Pearls Gala Opening Weekend April 6, 7 & 8 at the Commonweal.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the theatre!

One Man in a Woman’s World

In three weeks, the doors of our 30th Season at the Commonweal will officially open. That season kicks off with the compelling true story of Henrietta Leavitt as told by Lauren Gunderson in Silent Sky. Although the play is based on true events and real people, there is one person who is an embellishment on historical facts. That character is Peter Shaw, Henrietta’s romantic interest and fellow astronomer at the Harvard Observatory. Commonweal resident ensemble member Eric Lee is currently busy rehearsing and creating the role of Peter Shaw for our version and he is this week’s Drama Unfolds contributor to introduce you to the man he will portray.

Commonweal Professional Resident Ensemble Member Eric Lee“I come around.” So says Peter Shaw in Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, and so he does. In so very many ways. In the most literal sense, he is tasked with coming around to check in on the “computers” of the Harvard Observatory. These were the women working at detailed calculation and computation in the lab, therefore named “computers.” And in this case, those brilliant women were Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, and the most recent addition, Henrietta Leavitt. 

About himself, Peter is forced to “come around” to the knowledge that the women whom he is tasked with supervising are very much in positions they had to work for; had to make every conscious effort to attain. Meanwhile, he holds his own position in a career he never really wanted, for which some strings were apparently pulled. 

Megan Pence, Eric Lee, Abbie Cathcart at the Page to Stage for Silent Sky

Megan Pence, Eric Lee (center), Abbie Cathcart at the Page to Stage for “Silent Sky”

Then there are the ideas themselves. The size of the universe was about to get much bigger at the beginning of the twentieth century. And there are those who are not so comfortable with change. Such a one is Peter. He is hesitant. He bristles at these ideas which seem to uproot the whole of what is known which is where he is firmly grounded. And kindly, generously, and on these ideas, Lauren Gunderson allows Peter to evolve, as it were. 

As he speaks fondly of his rounds, I am given the sense of a planet that is aware of its place, orbiting his sun, which is Henrietta Leavitt. Her brilliance burns brightly and, luckily for us all, was given a chance to shine. We would live in a very different world had her mind been shut out of the world of ideas. And I, like Peter, find myself so deeply fortunate to get to spend my time “coming around” to the world of these talented women, whose story I am grateful to tell.

This is a gorgeous play and the relationship between Peter and Henrietta is simply a joy. Take it from me, you do not want to miss seeing Eric’s creation in person. Tickets are NOW on sale for Silent Sky and you can get yours by CLICKING HERE. Opening night is Saturday, April 7th and the production gets a three month run through June 23rd.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the theatre!—Jeremy