On a perfect rainy afternoon a sold out crowd gathered at Theatre Works Silicon Valley for a panel and penultimate performance of Silent Sky. The space was packed with eager and inquisitive women who came to hear stories of accomplished presenters and see Silent Sky, the story of Henrietta Leavitt’s life and landmark astronomical discovery.
The afternoon began with an incredibly talented group of women who offered the audience an exclusive look into the challenges of success. Dr. Natalie Batalha, a research astronomer at NASA spoke of the challenges of being a mother and astronomer. She bravely confronted the work-life balance myth by announcing the difficulties of being judged as a parent. She defiantly suggested that all women should hold their ground as mothers and not give in to a corporate culture that may rob them of the right to parent and be successful at work. She said this while presumably having her boss in audience.
Ann Bowers, first director of Intel and former VP of Human Resources at Apple suggested that support was key to success. She spoke of early guidance and encouragement from her mother that led her to believe she could do anything. The unwavering support was echoed by her husband while at Intel. Her insightful talk pointed to the possibility that few girls enter STEM fields because they lack encouragement rather than intelligence. It's obvious reassurance is critical to success.
Randi Zuckerberg, founder of Zuckerberg Media, was the last of the speakers and offered a vibrant youthful viewpoint. Her sometimes self-deprecating, humorous approach to telling stories made her entertaining and fun to listen to. She spoke of joining Facebook in 2005 and throwing herself into situations she was never quite sure of. Uncertainty coupled with fearless desire to learn seemed to be the key to discovery of her success.
After the panel, playwright Lauren Gunderson introduced her play. Silent Sky is based on the life and work of Henrietta Leavitt and the drama takes audiences behind the doors of her scientific research at Harvard Observatory. Based on actual events, Leavitt’s landmark discovery of the Cepheid period-luminosity relationship unfolds on stage as she toils to understand the Cepheids. We see the absorption and single mindedness of a scientist aching to solve a puzzle. We are drawn into the challenges she faces being a woman in a male dominated field -- objections a woman might still feel in today’s world. Gunderson takes meticulous care to highlight Leavitt’s work as integral to the science of astronomy. After all, Leavitt paved the way for well known astronomers like Hubble to make calculations and calibrations between galactic speed and distance therefore creating ‘standards’ and laws based on Leavitt’s work. Although Leavitt has not been given enough of the accolades and credit she deserves for such an important discovery, Gunderson's play gives her life's work a prize she may never have anticipated.