Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad Gobierno de Canarias Universidad de La Laguna CSIC Centro de Excelencia Severo Ochoa

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The return of Henrietta Leavitt

Aug. 21, 2017

The Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias recovers this American woman asronomer as a character in a multimedia play within an outrreach project whose aim is to stimulate scientific careers for women, and to point up their role in Physics and Astronomy.

“The return of Henrietta Leavitt, from school to a researcher career, via the Theatre” is an initiative of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) with the collaboration of the Spanish Fund for Science and Technology (FECYT) of the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitivity. The project includes a set of free activities of science popularization which will start with a re-run of the multimedia play The Lost Honour of Henrietta Leavitt. The performances will take place from October 20th to 27th in the Municipal Auditorium of Tacoronte, and in the Teatro Leal of La Laguna, which implies that the project can count on the collaboration of the City Councils of both of these municipalities.

The idea of this project stems from the context of the “Gender in Physics Day España 2017 (GiPD). Policies of Equality in Physics: from school to a research career” of the European Project GENERA (Gender Equality Network in European Research Area), within the H2020 Programme of the European Union. This event, which is being organized by the IAC, will take place on October 23rd and 24th 2017.

The play was originally a project of the Museum of Science and the Cosmos (MCC) of Museums of Tenerife, and of the Planetarium of Pamplona, in collaboration with the IAC and with the FECYT, in the context of the International Year of Astronomy, 2009. The play is a special tribute to the American woman astronomer who formulated a method for calculating astronomical distances, by finding a relation between the period and the luminosity of stars which vary in brightness regularly.  She was a woman who was eclipsed in a men’s world, and who might have won the Nobel Prize for Physics if she had not died young. The play, which was written by Carmen del Puerto, Head of the Unit for Communication and Science Culture of the IAC, and who was at the time director of the Museum, was presented eight times, six of them in the museum in 2009, and two in the “Baluarte” Palace of Conferences and Auditorium in Navarra in 2010 coinciding with the 15th edition of the Conference on Social Communication in Science “A new Culture” organized by the Planetarium of Pamplona.

In the current presentation, a new adaptation of the play will be presented, directed by Helena Romero, a professional with wide experience in the theatre of science, and with the TURBOCULTURA theatre company, including the actor Sigrid Ojel, Débora Ávila and Daniel Sanginés. Entry will be free until the theatre is full, and the presentations will be open to the general public. There will be morning sessions for schoolchildren, requiring previous booking. Two of them will be accompanied by experts in sign language (Verónica Redrado, Lidia Medina, and Judith González) so that people who are hard of hearing can attend, because Henrietta Leavitt herself, and another character in the play, the astronomer Annie Jump Cannon also suffered from hearing difficulties.

The argument of the play

A song by Shirley Bassey is heard. The astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, well known for her “ruler” for measuring distances in the Universe, receives a visit by a famous CBS journalist Edward Murrow. The interest of this American TV channel to pay tribute to here is a surprise to Henrietta who nevertheless agrees to be interviewed. Her friend and colleague at the Harvard Astronomical Observatory Annie Cannon accompanies her during most of the interview sessions. The interview runs normally until the journalist tries to get her to talk about certain questions which Henrietta seems to want to hide, such as her relation with Edward Pickering, the Director of the Observatory, and the reason why she did not obtain, in her day, the recognition she deserved.

“With H for Henrietta”

The project also includes talks on astronomy in educational centres, by girls to the rest of their classmates, in the presence of women astrophysicists and engineers at the IAC who previously will have helped them to prepare the talks. This activity is in the context of a programme with the title “With H for Henrietta”. The talks will coincide with the Science and Technology Weeks in the Canaries 2017”. At the same time there will be workshops for school students, based on making astronomical measurements, and a talk about Henrietta Leavitt in the Museum of Science and the Cosmos, and edition of the IAC magazine Paralajes, with articles about the work of women in astronomy, centered on those working at this Institute, a video about women astrophysicists and technologists at the IAC, and graffiti in the streets to support the spread of information about the project, as well as specific contents on the IAC blog “Vía Láctea s/n” (under the heading Astroféminas), in social networks, and media communications.

Gender Equality

Social inequalities are complex phenomena, and policies for equality do not always satisfy the criterion of covering more than one set of people, which is recognized as one of the principles of good practice by the Special Working Group of the United Nations for the elimination of discrimination against women in legislation and in practice. In our society there are particular forms of discrimination at the intersection of groups variables such as gender, race, class, sexuality, handicap, functional difference, ethnicity, nation, age, and so on, which multiply the discrimination when they combine. In this case the IAC is aiming at covering more than one combined types of discrimination during its work towards equality in Science, combining the issues of gender and hearing difficulty via the figure of Henrietta Leavitt, She should be a reference model for girl students and also an inspiration for all those who are handicapped.

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