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When most people look at the glass plates preserved at Harvard College Observatory, they see black dots, smears, and smudges. Astronomers see a chance to learn how the stars, galaxies, and clouds those markings represent have changed over the past century or longer. And artists see the beauty of the universe and the hard work of the women who analyzed the plates.
The original plates are negatives — they show the stars in black and the background sky in white. At Harvard, women “computers” marked and labeled the astronomical objects in the images. They also measured the brightness of those objects and made many other notations.
The plates have been scanned to make it easier for astronomers to find them. As part of that process, the hand-made notations were erased, although all of the plates were photographed first, and some of the originals have been preserved.
To commemorate the work of the women computers, artist Erika Blumenfeld created “Tracing Luminaries.” It’s a set of six prints. She erased the stars, leaving only the written notations, which were hand-layered with 24-karat gold.
Lia Halloran interpreted the plates themselves in “Your Body is a Space that Sees.” It’s a series of prints depicting comets, galaxies, and other objects. The titles include the names of the women computers, including Henrietta Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon — two of the most important astronomers of the 20th century.
Script by Damond Benningfield