Her countless hours at Harvard mapping the stars are central to understanding the universe. Though she didn’t live to see the far-reaching implications of her work, a new Radcliffe exhibit shows how her efforts helped unlock mysteries of the cosmos.
Radcliffe graduate Henrietta Leavitt was one of the more than 80 women who worked at the Harvard Observatory from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s carefully analyzing a record of the heavens on glass-plate negatives, a collection that includes more than 500,000 celestial moments and is considered the oldest and most comprehensive archive of the night sky.
But Leavitt died in 1921, before others used her observations of Cepheid variable stars (those whose brightness pulses at regular intervals), and her key discovery of the relationship between a Cepheid star’s luminosity and how frequently it pulses, to make a range of key discoveries about our galaxy. Her work enabled other astronomers to measure the distance to the stars and determine the shape of the Milky Way. American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble built on her findings, proving the existence of galaxies beyond our own and showing that the universe was expanding.
Leavitt’s research became the first rung “on the distance ladder to the stars,” said artist Anna Von Mertens, whose needle and thread honors the “Harvard Computer’s” life and work in the show “Measure,” on view at Byerly Hall through Jan. 19.
In a diptych on the walls of the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery, Von Mertens’ series of meticulous white and gray hand-sewn stitches on a black background — mapped out with help from star calculation software — depict the stars fading from the skies above Lancaster, Pa., on the morning Leavitt was born, July 4, 1868, and the stars returning to view over Cambridge, Mass., on the day she died, Dec. 12, 1921.