Eyes to the Stars: Henrietta Leavitt’s Legacy

by Elizabeth Watkins

Henrietta Leavitt, Photo via Space.com

On October 3rd, “Silent Sky” opened at Ohio University. The plot of the play covers the life of Henrietta Leavitt, a graduate of Radcliffe College and an astronomer working in the Harvard College Observatory. The lab where she worked made for the main set of the play. In this space, she worked with Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, two of the women who were part of the “Harvard Computers,” or as they were also known, “Pickering’s Harem.” Edward Pickering was the director of the observatory during her time working there. 

Her job at the university was to study the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, and the Cepheid variable stars within them. A Cepheid variable is a star one whose brightness fluctuates and can be seen from Earth. The Small Magellanic Cloud is the name of a dwarf galaxy near the Milky Way; the Large Magellanic Cloud is considered a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way. Pictures of the clouds were printed on photographic plates that Leavitt and the other women would study at their desks. 

She has been credited with discovering a relationship between the luminosity of Cepheids, and the distance between them. This finding allowed astronomers to begin mapping the universe. 

To start, cepheids are a type of star that pulsates at intervals, allowing astronomers to measure distance. Leavitt began her work when she discovered that these seemingly random intervals, were not, in fact,  random. These stars have a consistent brightness, regardless of where they are in the sky. 

Edwin Hubble, best known for his namesake, the Hubble Space Telescope, used her research to discover the distance between us and the Andromeda Nebula, which is the nearest large galaxy to the Milky Way. In order to get to this conclusion, he measured the “redshift” of the light of receding stars who’s light is pulled to the red side of the spectrum. 

Leavitt was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1924, three years after she had passed away. Nobel Prizes are not awarded after death, however, so she did not receive it. This nomination was still well deserved, as her work is still being used over ninety years later. In 2012, the North Star Polaris was found to be about 100 light years closer to the Earth than had been originally thought. 

The play encapsulates this amazing life of this woman, from the beginning of her journey until the end. Manda Neal, who plays Leavitt, does an amazing job of portraying someone who is extremely passionate about the universe and her work. Stephanie Carrilo and Hannah McCauley, who played Cannon and Fleming respectively, both performed as women who went against the conventional norms of the early 1900s. Gillian Abrams as Henrietta’s sister, Margaret Leavitt, served as a foil to Henrietta herself, while still being an endearing and helpful character. Peter Shaw, played by Philip C. Matthews, was Henrietta’s love interest through the first act. He also was a voice to and from Pickering to the women in the office. 

Leaving the play, Kevin Roque, a sophomore in attendance  at the show said, “It was surprisingly powerful, I fell in love with it as soon as it began.”

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