Friday, March 29, 2013

How High is the Sky?

March 29 - Today's post contributed by Robert Burleigh


How High Is The Sky? The Story of Henrietta Leavitt



Let me state first that I’m not a woman! But as the father of two daughters, a husband, and a friend of many women, I feel both an obligation and a wish to tell the stories of women—whether they were famous and celebrated or forgotten and marginalized (as so many were, and often still are).

How do we bring to light the struggles, triumphs (and even failures) of people who are no longer here to tell us what happened to them—people like Henrietta Leavitt? Why is it important to do so? How did these people think and feel about their experiences? What is the best way to convey this to a child? These are intriguing questions that have drawn me to the biographical form and led me to write many biographies of sports figures, explorers, scientists, artists, and writers for children over the years.

But I define the term “biography” pretty loosely in my biographies! Typically, while attempting to always base them on facts, I try to find a moment or event in a life that I can use to bring that person to life—hopefully conveying a sense of immediacy that will enliven and engage readers. For instance, the story of my recently published biography, Night Flight (illustrated by Wendell Minor, Simon & Schuster, 2011), follows Amelia Earhart’s solo flight across the Atlantic in 1932. She was the second person and first woman to make this crossing. The facts in Night Flight—the horrific weather, the engine problems—are true. But I also wanted to express how Amelia felt. And to do so, I had a helpful start: her own later brief retelling of her dangerous journey, which became the starting point for my own retelling.

Writing Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer presented another problem.  Much less is known about Henrietta Leavitt than is known about Amelia Earhart. In a certain respect, Henrietta is a classic example of women in science. You haven’t heard of her?  That’s what I mean. Only a series of accidents—along with her own inquiring spirit—led to her being singled out at all—and at last recognized as a significant player in the history of astronomy.

The book was inspired by my editor at Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman, who suggested that I read George Johnson’s fine book (for adults) titled Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. I found Leavitt’s story compelling and decided I wanted to attempt a biography of her.

Born in 1868 in Lancaster, Massachusetts, Henrietta first attended Oberlin College and then went to Radcliffe College, graduating in 1892. Little is known about her very early life, though I surmise that she must have had some special interest in the stars. At Radcliffe, she took an astronomy class in her final year, where she was reportedly the only woman in the class.

A year later she was working at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge.  Hard to believe, but she started out working for nothing! This was because her family was well off, and was therefore expected to support her. Still, she wanted meaningful work. (She later received a salary: all of $10.50 a week!)

Henrietta was assigned (along with a number of other women working at the Observatory) to review the nightly photographs taken by the Observatory’s male staff members. The women workers—or “computers,” as they were called then— examined the photos and recorded star positions in separate notebooks.


Although her assignment was a routine one, Henrietta took things further. She noticed that certain stars (called variable stars because their light varied, or changed from dimmer to brighter) had fixed patterns to their changes. She slowly realized that the “blink-time” of a variable star was related to the star’s true brightness. And from knowing a star’s true brightness, astronomers can actually ascertain the star’s distance from the earth.

Using Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery, it became possible for astronomers to figure the distance from Earth to more and more stars. The Milky Way was seen to be far bigger than people had earlier thought. And soon it became apparent that it wasn’t the only galaxy in the universe. The new world of twentieth—and twenty-first—century astronomy had been born, due to one woman’s interest, curiosity, and hard work.

But for Leavitt, recognition came slowly. We don’t know the circumstances of her reporting her findings at the Observatory—how they were initially received, and how (if in any way) her findings changed her relationship to the hierarchy there. Even at a later date, the then-director of the Observatory suggested that it was his interpretation of Leavitt’s data that deserved the major credit.

Only years later did a Swedish scientist consider nominating Leavitt for the Nobel Prize.  But he found out that she had died in 1920, and thus withdrew his nomination. (Nobel prizes cannot go to a deceased person.)

Look Up! is beautifully illustrated by the artist Raúl Colón . It is also bookended by a simple phrase, which I like to think Henrietta Leavitt might have uttered both as a small child and a serious scientist: How high is the sky?  If she didn’t ask the question in those words, her life and work—against incredible odds—went a long way toward answering it.



About Robert Burleigh 

Over the past 35 years, I have published poems, reviews, essays, many filmstrips and videos, and around 50 children's picture books. 

Born and raised in Chicago, I graduated from DePauw University (Greencastle, Indiana) and later received an MA in humanities from the University of Chicago. I've published books for children since the early 1990s. My books - including numerous unpublished ones! - run a broad gamut, from stories geared for pre-schoolers to survival stories and biographies aimed at seven to eleven-year-olds. My work is wide-ranging because, basically, I'm a generalist by experience - and inclination! 

In addition to writing, I paint regularly under the art name Burleigh Kronquist (Burleighkronquist.com), and have shown work in one-person and group shows in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere around the country.


1 comment:

  1. I'm glad that girls finally get more women scientist role models. They are so important in helping girls realize that STEM is a place for girls too!

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