Silent Sky, a play written by Lauren Gunderson, is a show about a young woman working in the Harvard Observatory where she is unable to fully express her genius brain due to her lack of rights as a woman in the early 1900’s. That woman is Henrietta Leavitt. Through hard work and pushing boundaries, Leavitt was able to make huge impacts in astronomy. In order to fully understand her as a character, it is important to learn fully who she was in life.
Henrietta Leavitt was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts on July 4th, 1868. Her father was George Leavitt, a congregational church minister. Her mother was Henrietta Kendrick. She was the oldest of seven children and spent most of her childhood moving around for her father’s job. While living in Ohio, she enrolled in Oberlin College. Her studies included music, classical Greek, calculus, geometry, fine arts, and philosophy. She wouldn’t discover her interest in astronomy until her last year at college.
Once her family moved back to Massachusetts, Leavitt continued her education at Harvard. Harvard did not accept women at this time, so she had to enroll into the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women. This is known as Radcliffe College today. During her senior year she took an astronomy course where she excelled. In 1892, she graduated Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts and a new love for astronomy. The next year she began to earn credits in order to obtain a degree in astronomy through volunteer work at the Harvard Observatory, however, she never completed this degree.
Henrietta continued her love of astronomy through her volunteer work as a “computer” at Harvard. Her task, along with other women, was to measure the brightness of stars from the photographic plate collections and catalog them. She left around 1896 to travel to Europe, then to where her father lived in Wisconsin, where she became an arts assistance at Beloit College. Around 1903 she returned to Harvard Observatory where she was hired again by Edward Charles Pickering, who directed the department she once worked it. She started unpaid but would later earn 30 cents per hour for her work. Despite her training and incredible knowledge in astronomy, Leavitt could fully not use her ability. She was not allowed to touch the telescopes or work on anything that was not assigned to her by the director. She could not express her ideas or theories. This would not stop her from later making discoveries that would change the course of astronomy and how we think of the universe.
Leavitt made many discoveries during her time at the observatory. According to PBS.org, she discovered more than 2,400 variable stars. She was able to publish her findings in the Annals of the Astronomical Observatory at Harvard. Within these findings she stated, “it is worth of notice that the brighter variables have longer periods” (Leavitt). This would eventually lead to her huge breakthrough discovery later. She also developed the “Harvard Standard” that was accepted by the International Committee on Photographic Magnitudes in 1913. This was the standard photographic measurements, and she spent the rest of her life perfecting this. Henrietta continued to make her impact on the world of astronomy that would help later astronomers in their discoveries.
In 1912, Leavitt published a paper that was her breakthrough discovery. In this paper, she reviewed the relation between periods and brightness of stars through a sample of Cepheids variables in the Small Magellnic Cloud. This explained the time it took a star to go from bright to dim and how bright it was. This was known as the cepheid variable period-luminosity. Scientist now had a standard candle could measure the distances of objects in space. This was huge and was used by many others to help make their own breakthrough discoveries. Through her work, astronomers like Edwin Hubble and Harlow Shapley were able to change the way we pictured the universe, moving the sun and our galaxy from being the center of the universe. Hubble also used this to discover the universe was constantly expanding. Leavitt’s work paved the way for future scientist and the way they could measure and view the universe and all that lies within it.
This image shows her incredible discovery. It explains that if you double your distance from a star, the amount of light is reduced by a factor of four. This continues as you increase your distance from this star. This is how Leavitt was able to determine the relation between periods and brightness of stars. (famousscientists.org)
Leavitt became the head of stellar photometry at Harvard in 1921, where she studied stars to determine their magnitude. She also became involved in many associations and societies for those that were advanced in the world of science and math. This included the American Association of University Women, American Astronomical and Astrophysical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Phi Beta Kappa, and she was an honorary member of the American Association of Variable Stars. Edwin Hubble believed she deserved the Nobel Prize for her works, however, she was unable to be nominated for her work in 1924 due to her death in 1921, as they do not give awards post humorously.
There were many challenges that Henrietta faced through her years as an astronomer. Being a woman in her field, she was heavily restricted in what she could do and what she could say. Her paper that included her discover on the measurement of stars had to be signed and communicated by the director of her department, Edward Pickering, though he did include at the beginning that it was prepared by her. She was also plagued with illnesses throughout the entirety of her career. At one point, she had to spend several years at home with an illness that left her mostly deaf. Her vision was also affected by her illness. This took a toll on her work, as the type of work she did required her to closely examine images all day long, which needed someone with a sharp eye and the mental strength to sit, stare, and catalog all day. Henrietta Leavitt had everything going against her, and yet, her passion for astronomy was so strong that she continued to push past the prejudice and the illness in order to give the world of astronomy all she had.
Henrietta Leavitt passed away from stomach cancer in 1921. She had no husband or children, as she dedicated her entire life to her work. Leavitt spent her life working where she could not show the world her true abilities, yet she still managed to leave such a huge impact in astronomy and help others with their own discoveries. Leavitt provides such a strong role model for young women in the field of science as well as those who are deaf or hard of hearing in a science. With the knowledge of her struggles, her achievements, and her legacy, she can be more accurately portrayed in a production of her life story.
- Bartusiak, Marcia. “Finding a Cosmic Yardstick.” Natural History, vol. 118, no. 7, Sept. 2009, pp. 14–17. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=44269266&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Goldstein, Alan. “Finding Our Place in the Milky Way.” Discover, vol 37, no.4, May 2016, pp 66-69. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=113694896&site=ehost-live&scope=site
- ‘Henrietta Swan Leavitt.’ Famous Scientists. famousscientists.org. 10 Feb. 2017. Web. 10/5/2019
- Henrietta S. Leavitt. “1777 Variables in the Magellanic Clouds”. Annals of Harvard College Observatory, Vol. 60, No. 4, pp. 87-108.3, 1908
- PBS.org. A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/baleav.html