Pioneering Female Astronomers Take Center Stage in 'Silent Sky'

Oct 5, 2017

There’s been a lot of recent attention paid to women’s accomplishments in math and science - from the film Hidden Figures, which showcased the contribution of four African-American women to the US space program in the 1960s. 

Currently on stage at Next Act Theatre is Silent Sky, a play about pioneering women in the early 20th Century and their unheralded discoveries in astronomy - discoveries like the scale of the universe. These women, then known as computers, labored in obscurity in the early 1900's. 

"These computers back in the Harvard Observatory were taking the photographic plates that the men with the telescopes were taking of the stars, and these women would catalogue the stars one-by-one off of these 8 inch by 10 inch plates," says David Cecsarini, the director of Silent Sky

Kelly Doherty plays the role of Williamina Fleming, an astronomer noted for her discovery of the Horsehead Nebula.

"It's really amazing and kind of mind-blowing work they did, and how detailed and painstaking this work was. And they continued to persevere, year after year," says Doherty. 

"The work that they were doing was incredibly tedious - the patience that it required for these women to do this, work for day upon day upon year upon year is mind-blowing," says Deborah Staples, who plays Henrietta Leavitt, whose journey as an astronomer is the main focus of the play. 

Although she was given little credit during her lifetime, Leavitt's discoveries made it possible for astronomers to measure the distance between earth and far-off galaxies. They also set the stage for Hubble's Law - the determination that the universe is expanding. 

Next Act Theatre's production of Silent Sky runs through Sunday, October 22, and stars Deborah Staples, Kelly Doherty, Carrie Hitchcock, Karen Estrada and Reese Madigan.