“The Lost Honour of Henrietta Leavitt” now on the IAC video channels

Daniel Sanginés, Débora Ávila, Sigrid Ojel, Verónica Redrado, Lidia Medina y Judith González durante la interpretación de la obra de teatro "El honor perdido de Henrietta Leavitt" en el Teatro Leal, en La Laguna. Crédito: Daniel López / IAC.

Henrietta Leavitt was one of those hidden figures in science, who carried out brilliant research at the Harvard Observatory. The outstanding achievements in astronomy of this astronomer from the United States, notably her discovery of the period-luminosity relation of the Cepheid variables, used to determine large distances in the universe, were not considered sufficient in her time for her to receive the recognition she deserved. For this reason the IAC, in collaboration with the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) paid tribute to her with the multidisciplinary project “The return of Henrietta Leavitt. From school to a research career via the Theatre”. This initiative included free outreach activities, among them a performance of the play incorporating the innovation of performers in sign language so that the hard of hearing could attend. Henrietta Leavitt, and Annie Cannon, another Harvard astronomer who figures in the play, were both partially deaf. With these activities the IAC stressed its commitment to science outreach, to gender equality, and to integration of the discapacitated.

The plot

Music plays, the singer is Shirley Bassey. The fact that this American TV channel wants to pay her tribute surprises Henrietta Leavitt who, nevertheless, accepts being interviewed. Her friend and colleague at the Harvard Astronomical Observatory Annie Cannon accompanies her for the majority of the sessions. Everything goes along normally until the journalist tries to extract information about some matters which Henrietta seems to want to hide, such as her relation with the Director of the Observatory, Edward Pickering, and the reason why she did not receive in her time the recognition she merited.

This is the plot of the multimedia play “The Lost Honour of Henrietta Leavitt” by the journalist and head of the Unit of Communication and Scientific Culture (UC3) of the IAC Carmen Del Puerto. This 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 the FECYT, in the context of the International year of Astronomy 2009. The play was performed 8 times, six in the Museum in 2009, and two in the Palace of Conference and Auditorium of Navarra “Baluare” in 2010, coinciding with the V Conference of Social Communication in Science “A new culture” organized by the Planetarium of Pamplona. Although this was not the first time the Museum of Science and the Cosmos had taken on the presentation of plays for education and entertainment, convinced of the great potential of theatre as a resource for science outreach, on that occasion this was done controlling the full process of creation using the resources and capacities of the Museum, and with the close collaboration of the actors Natalia Ruiz, Débora Ávila and Javier Martos, and others who participated in the project.

In 2017 a new adaptation of the play was presented, directed by Helena Romero, a professional with wide experience of science theatre, and with the company TURBOCULTURA, including the actors Sigrid Ojel, Débora Ávila, and Daniel Sanginés. The performances were accompanied by sign language actresses, Judith González, Verónica Redrado, and Lidia Medina. The mise en scene of this play includes an audiovisual track to explain the scientific concepts, produced by Iván Jiménez, music performed by Shirley Bassey, and an expressionist scene setting, which the artist Diego Guiliano designed when the play was first performed.

Fragmentos de las funciones de la obra de 2009 y 2010:

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Paralajes Magazine: "Mujeres en Astronomía" (pp. 102-117): https://webpro-cms.ll.iac.es/en/outreach/iac-publishing/paralajes-women-astronomy

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PARALAJES Women in Astronomy
PARALAJES Women in Astronomy deals with the role of women in astronomy, picking out important figures in the history of this science until the present day.