by OSET BABÜR
IN A NEW EXHIBITION at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, artist Anna Von Mertens uses both drawings and hand-stitched quilts to focus on the life and work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, A.B. 1892, a female astronomer and “computer” who studied glass-plate astronomical photographs at Harvard a century ago, and whose work led to the first method of measuring distances between stars.
The craftsmanship throughout the exhibit, titled Measure, is careful and meticulous, but Von Mertens, a textile artist, said she hesitates when she hears the word “patient.”“I think [that word] can be very gendered and sort of passive…but it’s not a sweet and passive action to be patient—it’s an active, constant engagement in whatever you’re doing. I notice that nobody ever describes men’s work as patient.”
After visiting the Harvard Observatory last year at the invitation of Jennifer Roberts, Agassiz professor of the humanities and Johnson-Kulukundis Family faculty director of the arts at the Radcliffe Institute, Von Mertens became fascinated by a glass-plate collection that is also the world’s oldest and most comprehensive record of the stars. She was also curious to learn more about the women who studied photographs of the night sky in order to create them. Leavitt was one of those astronomers who tediously, painstakingly—not patiently—tracked the changes in variable stars, which slowly pulse from bright to dim to bright again. She discovered a correlation between the length of time it took a star to pulse and how bright that star actually was, a relationship that allowed astronomers to calculate the star’s distance from Earth. The ultimate result? The first comprehensive picture of the space around us.