Sara Schechner, Ph.D. is the David P. Wheatland Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University. She is a historian of science, specializing in material culture and the history of astronomy. At Harvard, she is a Lecturer on History of Science in the History of Science Department and has been on the faculty of the Museum Studies program. She brings forty years of museum and academic experience to the Harvard community.
Schechner earned degrees in physics and the history and philosophy of science from Harvard and Cambridge. Before returning to Harvard’s History of Science Department, Schechner was chief curator at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and curated exhibits for the Smithsonian Institution, the American Astronomical Society, and the American Physical Society.
Her books include Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology (1997), Time and Time Again: How Science and Culture Shape the Past, Present, and Future (2014) and Tangible Things: Making History through Objects (2015, with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Ivan Gaskell, and Sarah Carter). After years of research into sundials, science, and social change, Time of Our Lives: Sundials of the Adler Planetarium (2019) is the first of two interpretive catalogues that set these time-finding instruments in North America's most comprehensive collection into cultural and social context. Other projects concern scientific instruments of glass, especially telescopes and optical glass produced or sold in America; colonial astronomy; instrument-making workshop practices in America; and the representation and iconography of astronomers and their instruments in works of art.
Schechner has served as the Secretary of the Scientific Instrument Commission of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IUHPST), and the chair of the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). She is a founding member of the AAS Working Group for the Preservation of Astronomical Heritage. She has also served on advisory boards for the Center for History of Science of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the American Institute of Physics, and other organizations. She is currently the Vice President of the International Astronomical Union's Commission C3 for History of Astronomy and President of the IUHPST and IAU Inter-Union Commission for History of Astronomy.
She has been deeply engaged in museum education through curated exhibitions and object-based teaching for diverse Harvard courses and programs. She regularly re-enacts electrical experiments performed at 18th-century Harvard and added a Frankenstein electrical show in 2018 in honor of the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's book. She has also devised innovative hands-on workshops and activity kits that put replica historical scientific instruments into the hands of students in order to teach them cultural history and early science. Other projects have included interactive sundials for outdoor learning centers. For the 2004 Transit of Venus, Schechner organized a sunrise festival at Harvard that included observations not only with modern instruments but also with the same telescope used by Professor John Winthrop in 1769, and the Harvard Band performing John Philip Sousa’s Transit of Venus March. In 2013, she was a principal organizer of the Summer Solstice Festival of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture.
Schechner's research, teaching, and exhibition work has earned her many awards. In 2021, the North American Sundial Society awarded her the Sawyer Dialing Prize--the "Oscar" of the sundial world because the recipient receives a customized window-sill sundial--in recognition of her career in education and conservation of our dialing heritage and in particular her authorship of Time of Our Lives: Sundials of the Adler Planetarium. In 2020, the American Astronomical Society named her a Legacy Fellow. She is the 2019 recipient of the Paul Bunge Prize from the German Chemical Society and the German Bunsen Society for Physical Chemistry; this is regarded worldwide as the most important honor in the history of scientific instruments. In 2018, the American Astronomical Society presented her with the LeRoy E. Doggett Prize for Historical Astronomy. Awarded biennially to an individual who has significantly influenced the field of history of astronomy through a career-long effort, it is the most prestigious prize internationally in the discipline. Schechner was the first woman to receive this award. In addition, Schechner's innovative teaching in and outside of museums and academia was recognized by the prestigious Joseph H. Hazen Education Prize of the History of Science Society in 2008. Her exhibition, Time, Life, & Matter: Science in Cambridge, on permanent display in the Putnam Gallery of Harvard’s Science Center, took First Place in the 2007 International Design Awards competition, and Body of Knowledge: A History of Anatomy (in 3 Parts) received the Great Exhibitions Award of the British Society for the History of Science in 2014.
In her spare time, Schechner is an award-winning quilt artist and enjoys Scottish country dancing. She lives in a historic house in West Newton, Massachusetts, which is on the National Register and has an archaeological site in her back yard.