How are we going to find out about women in science? Certainly not from textbooks. When Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize for their work on DNA, no one mentioned Rosalind Franklin but without her work, the genetic code could not have been cracked. Thank heavens there’s a play about Franklin. And bless the Flat Earth Theatre for their splendid production of SILENT/SKY (playing through March 25th) about the Harvard Observatory women who singlehandedly mapped the skies.
Bet you’ve never heard of Henrietta Leavitt! Without her groundbreaking method of measuring distances in space (based on time and the brightness of pulsing stars) astronomers like Edwin Powell Hubble would never have been able to discover the existence of other galaxies or formulate the famous “Hubble Constant” (about the ratio between a distant galaxy and the rate at which it’s receding from us).
You, no doubt, recognize the Hubble name from the giant orbiting space telescope launched in 1990. Imagine my surprise, when I turned to my trusty, dog-eared copy of Webster’s New World Encyclopedia for the correct spelling of Hubble … and found that Hubble is credited for Leavitt’s work with Cepheid variable stars! (Why am I not surprised!)
If you want the real story—and a first rate play, to boot—you must see Lauren Gunderson’s lovely SILENT/SKY which chronicles three actual female “computers” (i.e. star counters) at Harvard—and the appealing back story Gunderson imagines for them. Her dialogue is smart-as-a-whip and plenty witty, viewing these turn of the century women with a twenty-first century eye!
If Gunderson’s name seems familiar, you may have seen Theatre On Fire’s crackerjack production of her EXIT PURSUED BY A BEAR a couple of seasons ago. Boy, can she write! There you sit, learning intricate scientific theories without even feeling the pinch—because the story and the characters are so damned compelling.
Director Dori A. Robinson’s production is just as compelling, with (dare I say) a star turn from Erin Eva Butcher as the unsatisfied Ph.D. mathematician relegated to repetitious star counting. Leavitt left Wisconsin for Cambridge so she could view the sky through the Observatory telescope. She is thwarted from the get-go by an officious male supervisor (Marcus Hunter in a nifty “transformation” role) and by her two co-counters who see little value in a confrontation with Harvard’s male establishment.
Annie Cannon’s resolve is softened as the play progresses (Cassandra Meyer as the tough scientist/suffragette) while Juliet Bowler as the Scottish Williamina Fleming provides gentle comic relief. Leavitt’s supportive but disapproving sister (a charming Brenna Sweet) is the playwright’s invention, as is Hunter’s smitten supervisor, both conjured to provide contrast to Leavitt’s cloistered observatory life.
See it for the remarkable script or the superb Flat Earth production: This is what a fringe company can do with good material and a boatload of passion!