Astronomy Department Statement on George Floyd, Racism, and Police Brutality

We are living through a tumultuous moment in our nation’s history: one that has both caused and brought to light a great deal of pain, anguish, and suffering, especially for people of color in the United States.  This moment presents an opportunity to take a stand and renew our commitment to actively work against the racism and violence against people of color that permeates the fabric of our society as well as our scientific community.  We stand in solidarity with the protestors insisting on an end to violence against individuals and communities of color, a dismantling of systemic institutional racism, and reform of police. We unequivocally affirm that black lives matter.  We acknowledge that the impact of recent events, particularly the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, is disproportionately heavy for people of color in our community, and affirm our support and care for those most directly affected by racism and the efforts to combat it.

We acknowledge that, together with all segments of our society, science has contributed and continues to contribute to the history of violence and oppression of Black and Brown Americans.  We acknowledge that systematic barriers to the full participation of scientists of color exist today, woven into the fabric of the field of astronomy, and that we must actively work to dismantle them and create opportunities for scientists of color.  Our community of learning and discovery requires us to actively work to build an anti-racist organization and support our community members that bear the additional burden of inequity in our society.  Here are a few ways that our department pledges to do some of that work in the coming months and years:

– While the physics GRE has always been optional for applicants to our MA program in astronomy, this year for the first time we will not accept scores at all.

– The astronomy faculty are building and expanding upon modules that explicitly weave STEM equity and inclusion and scientific ethics into the astronomy curriculum.  Two examples include the ethics component of Astronomical Pedagogy seminar, which will be expanded this fall, and the CIS321 seminar on STEM equity and inclusion, which will be taught for the third time this fall.  The latter course explicitly encourages students to design evidence-based initiatives to increase STEM equity and inclusion at Wesleyan, in collaboration with existing groups and structures, and includes both logistical faculty support and funding for those efforts.  We welcome and encourage all members of the Wesleyan astronomy community to join us in these endeavors.

– We will reignite the conversations that have taken place in our department as part of our Diversity Journal Club series, which has lapsed for the past two years, to provide a regular departmental forum to discuss issues related to STEM equity and inclusion, particularly anti-racist efforts, and to plan future action we can take as a department.

– We have benefited from discussions in the department of underrepresentation in astronomy which were driven by visiting researchers who spoke to these issues. This academic year, we will seek to bring in a speaker to give a department-wide seminar on anti-racism in astronomy, with appropriate recognition and compensation for their time and expertise.

– We are committed to a sustained community presence, particularly in K-12 schools that serve demographics underrepresented in astronomy, as part of our public outreach in astronomy.  We will also redouble our efforts to invite children and parents of color into our observatory.

– As individuals, we reaffirm our commitment to dismantling racist structures in our broader Wesleyan campus, our home communities, and our families.

We acknowledge that these actions are a small part in an ongoing and evolving effort. Above all, we pledge to educate ourselves, to do the work of becoming a better and more equitable department, and to support and care for the safety and well being of all of our students and colleagues, but especially those most vulnerable to the systematic oppression embedded within science and our broader human society that we have been reminded of so vividly in recent weeks.

Bill Herbst
Meredith Hughes
Roy Kilgard
Ed Moran
Seth Redfield

Department Holiday Party 2019

As usual, our holiday party was a festive event, thanks to the incredible hard work of Linda Shettleworth and the good spirits of students, faculty and families. The food was great, the company was fabulous and a good time was had by all. It is so much fun for the elders to watch the next generation coming along. The pictures say it all!

Mercury Transit Observed at VVO

Hundreds of students, staff and townsfolk joined us on Foss Hill Monday, Nov. 11, to observe a transit of Mercury. The sky cooperated for the most part and we were treated to a gorgeous view of this rare event. Thanks to Roy, Seth, John Sillasen, and all the Astronomy Dept. staff and students who helped out!

Students Speak at Keck Undergraduate Research Symposium

Wesleyan students and faculty attending the 2019 KNAC Undergraduate Research Symposium at Vassar College.

Eight Wesleyan undergraduates presented results of their summer research to the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium sponsored by the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC). This year’s symposium was held on October 5 at Vassar College and attended by 125 astronomy students and faculty, primarily from the consortium colleges (Bryn Mawr, Colgate, Haverford, Middlebury, Swarthmore, Vassar, Wellesley, Wesleyan and Williams). KNAC was founded in 1990 to enhance research opportunities for astronomy students at smaller institutions in the northeast by sharing resources. Today it operates a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program funded by the National Science Foundation through a grant to Wesleyan. Astronomy majors Mason Tea and Rachel Marino and sophomores Alex Henton and Ava Nederlander gave oral presentations of their projects conducted on campus this summer. In addition, astronomy majors Fallon Konow, Hunter Vannier, Gil Garcia and Terra Ganey gave poster presentations of their summer research. The presenters were joined by an equal number of first and second-year students who went to hear the talks, participate in breakout sessions on various astronomical topics and network with potential future colleagues.

Alex Henton presents his work on asteroids.
Mason Tea presenting results on a gravitational lensing telescope.
Rachel Marino presenting her work on a debris disk.
Ava Nederlander presenting work on a brown dwarf in a debris disk.
Professor Seth Redfield, the PI of the NSF grant supporting KNAC addresses the audience.
Wesleyan students in the audience enjoying a presentation.
Professor Roy Kilgard discusses some research ideas with a student.
Professor Bill Herbst with Alex Henton.
Gil Garcia presented his work on black holes.
Hunter Vannier reported on his work on the interstellar medium.
Terra Ganey (back) presented her work on the development of a spectrometer.
Group photo of attendees at the 2019 Undergraduate Research Symposium of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium. Vassar College, Oct. 5, 2019.
Fallon Konow presented her work on the interstellar medium.

Andrea Ghez visits as 2019 Sturm Lecturer

Andrea Ghez, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UCLA and the world’s leading expert on the black hole at the center of our galaxy visited the department for two days this week. She delivered the 2019 Sturm Lecture to an audience of 200+ on Tuesday night and gave a colloquium to the Astronomy Department on Wednesday. She also had breakfast and lunch meetings with astronomy department students and with the Wesleyan Women in Science program. Her visit was co-sponsored by the Center for Integrative Science. Ghez described her amazing studies of the stars orbiting the supermassive black hole in the Milky Way, showing how the work is testing General Relativity and challenging ideas of galaxy evolution.

Roy Kilgard, Anthony Santini and Andrea Ghez
Cassidy Soloff, Michael Henderson, Justin Perea, Katharine Hesse and Andrea Ghez
Bobby Baldocchi, Jonas Powell, Andrea Ghez, Ed Moran and Stew Novick
Andrea Ghez and Bill Herbst
Andrea Ghez meets with members of Wesleyan’s Women in Science program

Astronomy Grad Student Receives Award from the American Astronomical Society

We are pleased to announce that Jessica Klusmeyer, a second year graduate student in our MA program, received a Chambliss Student Achievement Award from the American Astronomical Society at its 233rd meeting in Seattle, WA in January, 2019. The award recognizes her outstanding poster presentation at the meeting and her ability to discuss the research underlying it with professional astronomers who serve as judges. We note that Jessica was competing in the graduate division against many more senior graduate students enrolled in Ph.D. programs around the country. This is a wonderful achievement and we are very proud of her work and deserved recognition. Jessica’s research poster was entitled “A Deep Search for Five Molecules in the Debris Disk around 49 Ceti”. Her research advisor is Professor Meredith Hughes and she had a number of co-authors, including former Wesleyan post-doctoral fellow Kevin Flaherty.

The Seattle Meeting of the American Astronomical Society

It was amazing to see how many Wesleyan folks, past and present, were a part of the 233rd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle. Here is just a partial list of contributors and attendees I ran into. Apologies to those I missed! Please add additional names and pics below.

Current Staff and Students: Roy Kilgard, Michael Henderson, Allison Quintana, Jessica Klusmeyer, Ismael Mirales, Anthony Santini

Recent Grads: Hannah Fritze, Aylin Garcia Soto, Prajwal Niraula

Recent Summer Students: Karina Cooper, Sadie Coffin, Aleezah Ali, Katie Chapman, Diego Garcia

Alumni: Amy Steele, Nicole Arulanantham, Colin Littlefield, Mark Popinchalk, Marshall Johnson, Emily Leitner, Anna Williams, Ken Rumstay, Taft Armandroff, Phil Choi, Anil Seth, Evan Tingle, Diana Windemuth, Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein, Clara Moskowitz

Former Staff: Vicki Sarajedini, John Cannon

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)