Public invited to reading of play about female astronomer

April 26, 2004

The public is invited to a free reading of “Comet Hunter,” a new play about the life and career of a female astronomer who helped shape the modern history of her field. The event begins at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 3, on the UW–Madison campus.

The play is not entirely about astronomy,” says Jim Lattis, director of UW Space Place and a science historian. “It is as much about the real people who shaped the way we see the universe.”

At the heart of the play is Caroline Herschel, a self-taught astronomer who begins her career in the late 18th century when she leaves Germany for England, where she joins her brother William – also a young astronomer. As the two begin their careers, they work side-by-side to discover the planet Uranus, profile the Milky Way by studying its stars and pioneer a new type of telescope that is the standard today.

“The kind of astronomy they did was fundamentally different from the astronomy of the day,” notes Lattis.

Despite their collaboration, Caroline Herschel has historically been portrayed as her brother’s assistant. This play, however, documents the professional independence she gains in her own right. This independence grows, in part, out of a series of personal changes she must make when her brother decides to marry, displacing Caroline from the head of his household. With a stipend from the King of England, she conducts her own research and, along the way, discovers a number of comets and achieves professional recognition among the scientific community.

Directed by Richard Corley of the Madison Repertory Theatre, the reading of the play will take place in the Hemsley Theatre in Vilas Hall. Everyone is invited to meet the playwright Chiori Miyagawa – a theatre professor at Bard College in New York – during a reception starting at 6 p.m. outside Vilas Hall’s Mitchell Theatre. A panel discussion about the play will follow the performance.

The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Science and Technology Project commissioned the play. It will be presented by the Madison Repertory Theatre and the UW–Madison department of Theatre and Drama. The May 3 reading is co-sponsored by UW Space Place; the UW–Madison Division of Continuing Studies; the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters; the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy; the Wisconsin Alumni Association and the UW–Madison Department of Astronomy.