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Women Astronomers Get Their Story Told In 'Silent Sky'

Rachael VanWormer, left, plays Henrietta Swan Levitt in Lamb's Players Theatre's production of "Silent Sky" in an undated photo.
Ken Jacques
Rachael VanWormer, left, plays Henrietta Swan Levitt in Lamb's Players Theatre's production of "Silent Sky" in an undated photo.
Women Astronomers Get Their Story Told In 'Silent Sky'
Women Astronomers Get Their Story Told In "Silent Sky" GUEST: Lauren Gunderson, playwright, "Silent Sky"

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. When men were making discoveries about how the world works and how to understand the universe, where were the women? Most women were keeping house and living lives far away from laboratories and observatories. Some were right there. Even though they've been ignored by history. A play at the theater tells the story of three of those women who helped chart the stars at the beginning of the 20th century. Joining me on Skype is the author of silent sky award-winning playwright Lauren Gunderson. Welcome to the program. Thank you. I know the theme of this play has been compared to the movie hidden figures and the exploration of women's roles in science but you wrote it well before the movie came out. Why were you drawn to the story? I think there is such great history and the true story of the women behind the man. Over and over again in history it is the work that was relegated to the women because it is tedious or detailed oriented. That is the case with the computers. These were women like the women in hidden figures that were called computers because they computed all the math for the Mills trauma nurse. By being so close to the numbers and so close to that tedious work of looking at these little images of stars from the very first photographic plate that they produced. One Henrietta Swan Leavitt was able to see a pattern in the stars . From that pattern she discovered a letter to the stars. We never knew how far away stars and galaxies were from planet Earth and her work with this kind of star lettuce to this great leap in science were suddenly we were able to measure things. Would you say that the women discoveries in silent sky were by accident? No. I think they were part of what happens when you are focusing on the smallest elements of this science. They were right next to the math map I think they were looking for new galaxies and stars and they were on the lookout for it. I think her discovery if it was accident it was the way that so much of science is happy accident. This is one of several plays that you've written about women in history. You've written about women in the French Revolution. History has forgotten about these women. How do you find out about them? There is wonderful books written and I am just a sponge for this history and the kind of corners of these great moments that really do define our current understanding of science of feminism and the progress of human ingenuity. There was always a side story or sub story. I find endless fascination and endless great trauma to these side characters and the world that they represent. Do you have to add in some elements to fill in details their missing in some stories which might Sometimes we do not know very much. That is the case with Henrietta Swan Leavitt. There is some information but not a diary. Knowing that this is fictionalize that is kind of lovely. I like to add fun and fill in some of the great corners and add drama and we know that she had those things but we don't know them specifically so I get to invent them. There have been skeptical reactions to recovered history like hidden figures. There are some challenge the extent of it. Have you ever encountered similar criticism? Not very much because the men of history at this time who knew her personally and you others they gave them credit. They specifically said these women did this work and they did not claim as her own and even Edwin who use her work as a basis for his extraordinary understanding of the universe gave her credit. So I think if and when acknowledges her part I think we all should. You started as an actress and then became a playwright and in order to complete roles for women and now your plays are among the most produced in the country. Why do you think that is? I have no idea. I would like to think that certainly when I try to do my work is to ignite the mind in the audience by focusing on history or politics or something that's mentally stimulating but I really try to offer that with Haruna can offer hope in bitter sweetness or sorrow but the combination but the combination of the mind and heart is the expense of the human experience. I try to make sure that the stories are really rich and exciting and funny. Have some romance to them or some great raw. I think hopefully it is the combination of all of those things that hopefully satisfy. Do you get as much satisfaction at being a playwright as he did at a being then being actress I was a terrible actress. I love writing so much because it helps me explore the corners of my experience and allows me the kind of deep pleasure of imagination and creativity but it is also technical. I love the solving of a story in the kind of architectural mathematics of dramatic structure and that excites me and keeps me coming back to tell every story that I can think of. A writer is quoted pricing that your plays are helping reclaim history and science for young women. Is that one of your motivations? That means so much to hear that. Yes absolutely. I will say that it's also self-serving because telling the stories of women in science actually make such a great drama. There is extra struggle for these women to prove themselves to achieve and even if they do achieve to get credit for their work and that makes for an even more interesting drama on stage. So it is a feminist in me but it's also the storyteller that wants the riches story possible. I've been speaking with Lauren Gunderson. Her play is playing now through May 28 at the theater in Coronado. Thank you so much. Thank you. Be sure to watch the evening addition at 5:00 and again at 6:30 tonight on KPBS television. 20s again tomorrow for KPBS Midday Edition at noon. If you ever miss a show you can check out the midday edition podcast at . I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Thank you for listening.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt is hardly a household name. But it was her work on measuring stellar distances that helped famed astronomer Edwin Hubble determine that certain clouds of gas and dust were actually galaxies far beyond the Milky Way.

Leavitt worked at Harvard College Observatory in the early 1900s as a “computer,” a relatively menial position noting the details of stars in photographs. Leavitt had a passion for astronomy, but she and other computers were hired by Harvard’s Edward Charles Pickering because they could be paid less.

Leavitt and two other computers are the focus of Lauren Gunderson’s play, “Silent Sky,” at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.


Gunderson has written several other plays about women scientists, including Ada Lovelace and Émilie du Châtelet and said science lends itself to drama.

“A play has to have a moment when everything changes,” Gunderson said. “That’s a classic scientific eureka moment. Watching someone have a world-changing idea is just riveting. The audience leans forward, there’s such momentum there. That’s why science deserves to be onstage.”

Gunderson joins KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday with more on Leavitt’s discoveries and what it’s like to be the most-produced living playwright in America.