Watching the eclipse from the top of the world

When I learned that a meeting of my division of the American Astronomical Society would be held in the path of totality of the August 21st eclipse, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Having never been to Idaho, my family and I planned a winding trip from Salt Lake City through Twin Falls and on to Sun Valley, where the meeting is being held.

On the morning of the eclipse, we woke to beautiful blue skies. We took the Challenger Ski Lift 3,000 feet up to the 9,100 foot summit of Bald Mountain, our viewing location for the eclipse. Sun Valley is near the southern edge of the 70-mile wide path of totality, so we would only get about a minute of darkness. With such a short eclipse, I planned on taking zero photos of the moment itself.

Ski lift
Going up!
Ski lift
My 6-year-old daughter, Tabetha, wife Amy, and sister Amy. Yes, that’s as confusing as you would imagine.
Mountain selfie.
Our surroundings for the eclipse, with the author obstructing the otherwise spectacular view.
We made many new friends on the summit, including this fella. I’m not sure what sort of caterpillar it is–any ideas?
For weeks leading up to the eclipse, we 3D printed pinhole projectors. Here you can see a crescent sun in projection.
Family photo
About a minute before totality and we’re all excited. (Although my daughter may have been more excited for the visit she received from the tooth fairy earlier on our trip!)
Moments before totality, several parasailers took to the air!
This was the only moment during totality when I wasn’t looking at the sky.
Totality again.
During totality, but the hills in the distance to the east are still in sunlight!
An iPhone shot of totality from eastern Idaho. (Photo courtesy Jason Westlake.)

The moment of totality is indescribable. As an astronomer, I knew that I would see the corona–the Sun’s tenuous outer atmosphere–but I wasn’t prepared for how it would make me feel. One of the things I’ve always loved most about astronomy is the beauty of the universe. You don’t have to know about stellar evolution to appreciate the arcing tendrils of a supernova remnant. But so many astronomical images are not what the objects look like to our eyes. The corona is different. It’s as magnificent as the best pictures of it you’ve ever seen, but the only way to see it is to be in a tiny geographic area at exactly the right moment… and get really lucky with the weather. I took a brief moment to look around the sky and see Venus and a few bright stars in the daytime sky–always there but hidden by the light of day.

And then, with a flash of light on its edge, the Sun returned. All the emotion, the elation, the joy came pouring out. Everyone was hugging and crying, high-fiving and whooping. It’s a remarkable coincidence of nature that our Moon and Sun are nearly the exact same size in the sky. Were the Moon larger or closer to the Earth, we would still have eclipses but the magic of the corona would be obscured. Any smaller or further away, and all eclipses would be partial. To experience such a rare cosmic event from such a beautiful place in the world was humbling and awe-inspiring.

And now the work begins. I will spend the next few days at my conference. Learning, working with collaborators, sharing results, but the conversation will always turn to the eclipse.

Totality from Lee Carpenter
Another shot of totality. This time from Rabun County, GA. (Photo courtesy Lee Carpenter.)


Solar Eclipse Viewing at VVO, August 21st starting at 1pm

Come to the Van Vleck Observatory on August 21st, 2017, to see the partial eclipse of the Sun! We may not be in the narrow path of totality, but we’ll still be able to see 65% of the Sun disappear. We will have telescopes set up at 1pm. The eclipse begins around 1:20pm with mid-eclipse falling at ~2:40pm.

In addition to telescopes and eclipse glasses for safely viewing the Sun, you can also tour our historical exhibition and see images from the 1925 solar eclipse that passed directly over Wesleyan and learn about Wesleyan’s expedition to New Hampshire for the 1932 eclipse.

You can read about the 1925 eclipse here. 

1925 Eclipse over Middletown
The 1925 total solar eclipse over downtown Middletown. (Collections of the Van Vleck Observatory)

2017 Sturm Lecture

The 2017 Sturm Memorial Lecture

Speaker: Dr. Daniel Eisenstein, Harvard University

Date: Monday, April 3, 2017, 8:00PM

Where: Ring Family Performing Arts Hall, Wesleyan University

Reception and telescope viewing at the Van Vleck Observatory to follow the lecture.

Capturing a moment that wasn’t

Late last autumn, while looking over the calendar of events for VVO’s centennial celebration, I noticed something penciled in for February 6th by Michaela Fisher, one of the students working on our history project. “Frederick Slocum’s Birthday Party.” What should we do to celebrate the 143rd birthday of VVO’s first director? Then I remembered another idea from a brainstorming session last summer…

That’s how I found myself on the evening of February 6th, in the Observatory, wearing a vintage 3-piece suit, and preparing to recreate a 1916-era astronomy lecture for the public.

Collars were more challenging a century ago!
Collars were more challenging a century ago! (All photos in this post are courtesy of my wife, Amy Myerson.)

Assisting me in this endeavor was my colleague Professor Amrys Williams from Wes’s history department, who jumped at the chance to play dress-up.

Amrys with Professor Cybele Moon from Wes's Costume Shop.
Amrys with Professor Cybele Moon from Wes’s theater department. This photo would’ve been scandalous 100 years ago!

Our observatory is full of many wonders from the past, so it was relatively easy to put together a talk from original lantern slides, many of which were photos taken by Slocum himself during his time at Yerkes Observatory before coming to Wesleyan. We also used our circa 1910 Bausch and Lomb lantern slide projector, although we replaced its original 500 Watt incandescent bulb with a modern 40 Watt LED light source. (The chamber in which the original bulb sat is lined with asbestos. You know, for safety.)

Early 20th century powerpoint slides.
Early 20th century powerpoint slides.
The Bausch and Lomb Balopticon can project an image up to 30 inches across.
The Bausch and Lomb Balopticon can project an image up to 30 inches across. Not quite HD!

As we dimmed the lights, Amrys set the stage for the audience with colorful tales from early 20th century life in Middletown and beyond. The show was about to begin.

Here I am showing off images of Jupiter captured with the Lowell Observatory 26" refractor.
Here I am showing off images of Jupiter captured with the Lowell Observatory 26″ refractor.
Amrys changes slides during the talk.
Amrys changes slides during the talk. The slide carrier can hold two slides, so one can be presented while the next is being swapped in.

1916 was an interesting era in astronomy–although Einstein’s work on relativity had recently been published, the connections with the universe were not yet made. We were a few years away from the groundbreaking work of Cecilia Payne, which heralded in the era of modern astrophysics. Planetary science was in its infancy. And the realization that the great spiral nebulae were in fact separate galaxies at tremendous distance was only beginning to be considered. Trying to place ourselves in this era, even for a few minutes, is a powerful reflection on the progress that has been made in the last century, both in astronomy and in society as a whole. Lest the audience get too philosophical, we provided cake!

Amrys says this was a fun cake to order!
Amrys says this was a fun cake to order!
Happy Birthday, Frederick Slocum! I feel closer to you than I imagined.
Happy Birthday, Frederick Slocum! I feel closer to you than I imagined. Seriously, how did you endure those collars?

Many thanks to Cybele Moon and Christian Milik from Wesleyan’s costume shop, the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford for operating telescopes and generally being awesome, and the Under Connecticut Skies team.

Our new Diversity Journal Club

Editor’s note: I’m posting this on behalf of Kevin Flaherty, postdoctoral scholar in our department. You can find his web page on diversity in astronomy here. -RK

Diversity has been a popular topic of discussion on campuses across the country. In Astronomy, we are particularly aware of diversity, or the lack thereof, within our own field. 73% of astronomers are men, and 83% are white [1]. Recent months have seen headlines exposing professional astronomers across the country for their sexual harassment of students. Clearly we have some work to do…

But there are signs that things are getting better. The American Astronomical Society has made strong statements in the past year reaffirming that harassment has no place within astronomy [2] and in support of policies that increase diversity within graduate programs [3]. Our department is home to members of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy, and the newly-formed Working Group for Astronomers with Disabilities. Over the last fifteen years the students in our Masters program were 81% female, and over the last five years, 60% persons of color [4].

And as of this semester, we have started a Diversity Journal Club. Inspired by similar efforts across the country [5], the focus of a Diversity Journal Club is on discussing published research on demographics, sources of bias, methods to counteract bias, as well as topical issues such as the ongoing Thirty-Meter-Telescope construction controversy. By using social science literature, we can tackle some of these complex topics in a venue where students, faculty and postdocs are able to freely share their ideas and experiences.

Honestly, I was hesitant at first to start this meeting, given the stretched schedule everyone already faces. Who has the extra time to spend reading psychology papers? But the enthusiasm from the faculty and students is overwhelming and bodes well for the future. I am looking forward to a semester of fruitful and informative discussions!

  • Kevin


Public Programming for 2016

It’s our Centennial year, and we have an exciting program of events for the spring semester! First up, our popular Kids’ Nights will resume on Friday, February 5 at 8pm.

Then, on Saturday, February 6 at 7pm, we will have a special public program: in celebration of the 143rd birthday of Frederick Slocum, Wesleyan’s first Observatory Director, our own Roy Kilgard will be presenting a 1916-era public astronomy lecture in period-accurate attire using original vintage lantern slides and projector.

Finally, our normal program of Wednesday evening Space Nights will resume on February 10th at 8pm.

We’ve got a lot more in store for the semester, so stay tuned!

A Body in the Observatory

On November 6 and 7, we officially kicked off the celebration of the centennial of Van Vleck Observatory with a series of performances by world-renowned modern dancer Eiko Otake in the historic refractor dome. I had the distinct honor of playing a (very) small part in Eiko’s performance–operating the restored 20″ telescope through a series of motions choreographed to Eiko’s dance. Below are a few photographs that capture the beauty of this unique event.

My own experience was one of delight and terror. While teaching is in many ways a form of performance, it is a solo act. The “audience” depends solely on the performer’s ability to engage them. And though I spent much of my early life as a musician, it was either solo or in larger ensembles; it is not since my childhood of playing duets on piano with my sister that I’ve had one other performer so dependent upon my actions. I’m not under the illusion that any mistake I could make would have ruined Eiko’s work–one need only glance at a list of locations where she has danced to see that she clearly enjoys an element of unpredictability. Still, it was that thrill that kept me from getting totally lost in Eiko’s etherial movements.

As a professional astronomer, the experience of getting to know and work with a performer like Eiko is one that can only happen at a place like Wesleyan. I feel incredibly lucky and humbled.

-Roy Kilgard, November 2015

Eiko at Van Vleck Observatory_110515_0204 Photo by Wm Johnston
Eiko gazing at the universe with audience in the background. Photo courtesy Prof. William Johnston.
Eiko at Van Vleck Observatory_110515_0338 Photo by Wm Johnston
Eiko and reflection. Photo courtesy Prof. William Johnston.
Eiko at Van Vleck Observatory_110515_0399 Photo by William Johnston
There I am, playing my small part and trying not to look too awkward. Photo courtesy Prof. William Johnston.
Eiko at Van Vleck Observatory_110515_0414 Photo by William Johnston
Eiko during rehearsal. Photo courtesy Prof. William Johnston.

Dance Performance and Public Reopening of the 20″ telescope this weekend

Friday night 9-11pm and Saturday night 8-10pm marks the Grand Re-Opening of the restored 20″ refracting telescope!  Wesleyan is host to the 8th-largest refracting telescope in the country, but you might not have seen it before since it has been closed for the past 1.5 years while it has been completely disassembled, lovingly restored piece-by-piece, and reassembled into a marvel of old and new astronomical instrumentation.  The views are simply spectacular.  For more information about the 20″ restoration, check out the website.

As part of the observatory centennial celebration, Dance Professor and former MacArthur (“Genius Grant”) Fellow Eiko Otake will be giving a dance performance called “A Body in the Observatory,” which is free and open to the public.  There are performances Friday at 6:30 and 8pm, and Saturday at 4 and 6:30pm.  For more information, check out the Center for the Arts page. You can find a video of Professor Otake discussing the performance on our Facebook page.

Rain or Shine Space Nights at Wesleyan

Starting on February 4th, 2015,  the Van Vleck Observatory at Wesleyan University will be opening its doors to the public every Wednesday night, rain or shine, for a series of space nights.  Come talk to students and faculty about the latest space-related discoveries by scientists at Wesleyan and around the world.  For the spring semester, the events will start at 8pm, beginning with a half-hour interactive presentation by students and/or faculty, followed by a chance for everyone to see the sky through Wesleyan’s telescopes (weather permitting).  Presentations are intended to be accessible to visitors of all ages, although aimed primarily at high school level and above.  A series of monthly kids’ nights is in the works as well.  For more information and a schedule of events, check out the Astronomy department website at or follow us on Twitter at @WesAstro .

To stay informed about all the latest Astronomy events at Wesleyan, sign up for our mailing list here:

VVO 20″ Restoration Update

The dust has settled and restoration work for the summer is nearly complete. Our two excellent summer students, Becca Hanschell (’16) and Julian Dann (’17), spent 10 weeks disassembling, cleaning, and painting under the supervision of antique telescope expert Fred Orthlieb. You can see pictures and lots of time-lapse video on our twitter feed and youtube channel.

As of August 9, both axles and the OTA joiner have been remounted on the telescope pier. Almost all of the cleaning and painting has been done. We have sourced the parts for the new drives and telescope control system and will be acquiring those over the coming months. This is a time of careful thought as we design, build, and acquire new parts. We’re designing the system with the goal of another century or more of operation.

In the coming weeks, we will be announcing details about the VVO Centennial Celebration. Stay tuned!