Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #201. First published in the St. Cloud Times online, April 7, 2024

“Life is about getting appropriately upset.”

On March 10 I heard these words spoken from GREAT Theatre’s Helgeson Learning Lab stage by Kristin Stang, customer services administrator at Mastey Financial Group, playing Henrietta Leavitt in Lauren Gunderson’s drama, “Silent Sky.”

Who Leavitt was, where and when, what she was doing, and why she was “appropriately upset” — these I will come to. Just three days before, however, I had heard another woman speak, clearly upset but inappropriately so. The contrast between Henrietta Leavitt and Katie Britt has highlighted for me some fundamental issues that are roiling us.

Why was Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921) appropriately upset? Edwin Hubble, who revealed the expansion of the universe, thought she should have won the Nobel Prize. A crater on the moon is named for her. But during much of her life she was constrained by long-standing and deeply rooted prejudices about women’s abilities and woman’s “place.”

These prejudices flared up anew when Sen. Britt responded to the State of the Union address. In what she said, how she said it, and where she was (in a kitchen), she invoked, for purely political purposes, a timeworn stereotype about women — and implied it stood for most women — when she appealed “in particular to my fellow moms, many of whom I know will be up tossing and turning at 2 a.m. wondering how you’re going to be in three places at once and then somehow still get dinner on the table.” Yes, those are real worries. But it’s also possible for a woman, like Henrietta Leavitt, to toss and turn at 2 a.m. wondering “How big is the universe?”

“Silent Sky” condenses into two hours a story of two decades, from Leavitt’s employment at the Harvard Observatory until her death in 1921 at age 53 from cancer. She and two other women, Annie Cannon (1863-1941), played by Jessica Scherer, Operations Service Professional at Cetera Investment Services, and Williamina Fleming (1867-1911), played by Susan Schleper, Health Science Librarian at CentraCare, are hired (at pittance wages) as “computers,” tasked with calculating information gathered from the telescope. Leavitt assumed she would get to be an actual astronomer. Peter Shaw, played by Burke Tagney, IT Coordinator at Midwest Financial Partners, intermediary between the observatory’s director and the women, responds to Leavitt’s query, “Now when may I use the telescope?” “Well. you can't.”

Despite the constraints imposed by male chauvinism, Leavitt detects the relation between luminosity and periodicity of a certain class of stars that permits — indeed demands — the recognition that the Milky Way is not at all the extent of the universe.

And if Leavitt stands as a counterweight to the “place” of women — as today in the denial of women’s control over their own reproductive health — so she demonstrates the reality of science as, gloriously, having a question for every answer. This goes against the all-too-common caricature of science as changing its mind to suit some ideology, as in anti-vax and anti-mask conspiracy theories that because scientists change their minds you can’t trust anything they say. When Shaw says “the universe is exactly the same thing as the Milky Way Galaxy,” Leavitt responds, “Well it's a good thing the universe doesn't care what you think. Or me. Or Newton, or Kepler. It just marches on.” Imagine a conversation between Henrietta Leavitt and Anthony Fauci — “Oh my! You too?”

In addition to challenging chauvinisms about women’s intellectual and creative capacities, “Silent Sky” takes aim also at their exclusion from politics. Annie Cannon appears on stage wearing pants and a “Votes for Women” sash, and says to Leavitt and Fleming, “We need a vote, girls. It's about equality — and it's about time! … If we can organize the sky, we can organize our minds to choose our own future.” In real life, Cannon was a leading suffragist; in 1923 the National League of Women Voters named her one of the 12 greatest living women in America.

Leavitt got the right to vote only one year before she died. For 56% of the time between the Constitution and today, women had no say in the shaping of the history that is so venerated by Sen. Britt and those like her who chant “Make America Great Again.” The Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in Congress 101 years ago, languishes.

At the end of the play Leavitt, from beyond the grave, recounts the sequel — “harness the atom, then orbit the Earth, then stand on the moon, then a telescope named Hubble, with wings set for space, shows us how vast and beautiful it all is.” And, finally, words from one who got “appropriately upset” that I intend to hold on to during the coming fraught months: “Wonder will always get us there — those of us who insist that there is much more beyond ourselves. And I do.”