Silent Sky: Exploring Outer Space When You're Not Supposed to be Out at Night

The women aren't allowed to use telesopes. It was considered unfit for them to work late at night in the dark. But in the early days of the modern era of astronomy, just after the turn of the century in 1900, women brought something special to the science: they were patient, they were careful and they could record detailed observations. In Silent Sky, playwright Lauren Gunderson tells the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt and other women working in the Harvard Observatory who would study photographs on glass plates of the night sky and record everything they saw.

“They were called computers because they measured,” says Rebecca Greene Udden who is directing the play and as Main Street Theater's artistic director selected this work to begin their 40th anniversary season, this time in a newly remodeled facility. “It's hard to comprehend the painstaking and detailed work that these women did. Originally men did this work but the men didn't have the patience for it.”

The women weren't considered astronomers – although some had intense interest in the sciences – but were brought in by James Pickering who ran the Harvard Observatory at this time – and who started by hiring his housekeeper who ended up running the department for a while, Udden says. “Pickering's goal was not to make extraordinary discoveries; it was simply to catalog the stars in the sky and provide data that other people could work with. And the women did the cataloging.,” she says.

As it turned out, the women made discoveries of their own and Leavitt (there really was a Henrietta Swan Leavitt who graduated from Radcliffe) made a very important one that made it possible for scientists to calculate the distance to the stars.

Udden says she was drawn by both Gunderson's writing and the story she told. “I like the language. I think it has a very musical quality. I, of course, love the story of this unsung woman whose discovery made so much possible. Her finding actually allowd people using her finding to measure the distance to the stars. Somebody would have figured this out but she did it. It was just an incredible advance for the field. But you never hear about her; She's completely forgotten. She was respected in a very small circle, but she wasn't an astronomer; she wasn't one of the big boys. I love her story I love the passion this character pursues her goals.

Performances of Silent Sky are scheduled for November 7-29 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sunday (no performance on Thanksgiving). 2540 Times Boulevard. For information call 713-524-6706 or visit 20 - $39.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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