Bring the stars to the light

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It is a Harvard story within a Harvard story: Screenwriter Graham Sack ’03 and producer Jennifer 8. Lee ’99, two college-educated scientists turned filmmakers, have developed a television series about Harvard computers, a team of women who mapped the night sky while working at the Harvard College Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women have analyzed photographic plates of stars, and over the years have helped discover galaxies and nebulae and created methods to measure distance in space. They also received a fraction of what their male colleagues earned (both in terms of salary and respect), and although they rose to fame in their own lives, their contributions were mostly forgotten over the century. that followed. “I had classes at Harvard Observatory when I was a student,” says Sack, who considered focusing on astrophysics before devoting himself to physics. “This building remains a bit of a museum for Harvard computers, and that’s where I first encountered some of the fragments of stories about women.

Jennifer 8. Lee and Graham Sack
Photograph courtesy of Jennifer 8. Lee and Graham Sack.

He and Lee began exploring the idea of ​​turning these stories into a series several years ago, amid the early rumbles of the #MeToo movement and a growing reassessment of the role of women in STEM fields. 2016 book by scientific author Dava Sobel on Harvard Computers, The world of glass, and the 2017 discovery of thousands of additional pages of women’s notebooks in the Harvard Archives, provided new insight into their work and personal lives. For Sack and Lee, this story lends itself to a different kind of scientific narrative than the lone genius portrayal commonly seen in films about scientists and mathematicians like Alan Turing, John Nash, and Marie Curie.

In contrast, the work of Harvard computers was a holistic effort of day-to-day science, spanning decades and generations. It all started in the late 1870s with Williamina Fleming, a newly arrived Scottish immigrant who worked as a maid for the director of the Harvard Observatory, Edward C. Pickering. Impressed with her intellect, he hired her for the observatory staff as the first “computer” there, analyzing the images of glass plates produced by the telescope’s camera. Pickering recruited other women to join her; Soon Fleming was supervising a staff of tens. Between about 1880 and the mid-1920s, about 80 Harvard computers in total worked at the observatory, and more and more, over time, the women who came to the observatory were themselves specialists in the field. – accomplished theorists like Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan. Leavitt, whose developments and discoveries altered the way astronomy was practiced.

“And so there is a kind of bridgehead structure in science that is also starting to allow women to move up the chain of status and importance of science as a profession,” Sack says, “and this way they lay the groundwork for each other. Each woman takes a foothold for the next. This part of the story also sets up one of the main arcs in the series, Lee adds, revolving around the question of recognition in science: “Who gets the credit for what kind of discovery in science.” And that’s obviously not just a problem with Harvard computers, but it repeats itself over and over again throughout history.


Harvard computers at work in 1898 – Williamina Fleming stands in the back.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Library Archives

This period also overlaps with big social changes – women’s suffrage, immigration, the labor movement – as well as very local changes: “Our second season centers around 1885,” Sack says, “when Radcliffe begins to graduated its first female science graduates. , and they have nowhere to go. The observatory was one of the few places that wanted and wanted to hire women with undergraduate science degrees. “

Earlier This year, the planned series received a boost when the Sundance Institute named Sack and Lee as Sloan Episodic Fellows. The duo will spend part of the summer working with scientific and creative advisers to refine and further develop their script, and ensure it has a solid science base, before presenting it to distributors. “It’s kind of the recognition of our dreams for this project,” says Lee. Similar scholarships and grants from the Sloan Foundation have supported science-related films like Hidden figures, the imitation game, Tesla, the Martian, and First man. “Sloan has such a history of high-caliber realistic representations of science and scientists,” says Lee. “It’s a great encouragement for us.”

This project is not the first together for Sack and Lee, whose collaborative energy comes in part from a shared diversity in their professional backgrounds. Sack became an actor on Broadway at the age of 10, and as a physics student years later at Harvard he also became interested in film and television and active at the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club. After college he started writing and in 2015 a romantic comedy he co-wrote, Septillions against one, entered the blacklist (created by Franklin Leonard ’00); he has also created films and installations in virtual and augmented reality. Last winter, he defended his thesis in digital humanities at Columbia.

Lee’s path is also kaleidoscopic. Ledecky undergraduate scholar in this magazine specializing in applied mathematics and economics, she worked as a journalist for The New York Times and wrote a 2008 bestseller, The Chronicles of Fortune Biscuits, who dived deep into the history of Chinese cuisine. From there she developed into documentaries –The search for General Tso, on Sino-American cuisine, and Image character, on the world of emojis (currently vice-chair of the Unicode Consortium’s emoji subcommittee, she also calls herself an “emoji activist”). A few years ago, she co-founded Plympton, a literary digital publishing studio, through which she collaborated with Sack. More specifically, they worked together in 2017 on Lincoln in the Bardo, a virtual reality experience for The New York Times, adapted from George Saunders’ novel of the same name. Sack wrote and directed the film; Lee was his producer.

Both have seen their current project as a layered work of art for a long time. “There’s kind of a basic metaphor that sits at the bottom of this series, around visibility and invisibility,” Sack says. “This clearly plays out with these women, who for probably a hundred years were largely invisible to history, even though they did most of the empirical and hard work upon which the great discoveries were based.” But the metaphor also touches on something else: the work itself, “which consisted of discovering the invisible objects in the night sky,” says Sack. “You know, when they started, there were about 2,000 stars that were known.” At the time they were made, 40 years later, there were 400,000 of them. “So this work of retrieving things that have always been there, but that are invisible because of our limited perspective at one point, is a kind of central metaphor. ” This is also what the series itself tries to do: “make these women visible again, as participants in the history of science”.

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