On June 16, 2016, one hundred years to the day of the dedication of Van Vleck Observatory, the Astronomy Department hosted a Centennial Symposium and reception. Over one hundred people — about 1/3 alumni, 1/3 current Wesleyan staff and students, and 1/3 community members, including Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford members, attended. The Symposium program is available here. At the reception, we were treated to music of the early 1900’s by the West End String Quartet and Centeni-ale from our master brewer Roy Kilgard. Costumed visitors from the past, including such luminaries as George Ellery Hale and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (played, respectively, by Professor of Physics Lutz Huwel and Professor of Romance Languages Ellen Nerenberg) mingled among us. For more information and pictures visit the University blog.
Mae Jemison is the 2016 Sturm Lecturer and will be giving a public lecture next Tuesday, April 19th at 8pm in the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall (formerly the CFA Hall). Her talk is entitled, “Exploring the Frontiers of Science and Human Potential”. She is a former astronaut, served in the Peace Corp, is a physician by training, majored in engineering and African and Afro-American Studies at Stanford, is a fierce advocate for STEM education, and is currently leading the 100 Year Starship Project… and that is just some of the things she has done.
Tell your friends, family, classmates, and encourage all to come see her speak. There will be a reception following the public lecture at the Observatory (and the telescopes will be open if it is clear).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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 . 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  and in support of policies that increase diversity within graduate programs . 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 .
And as of this semester, we have started a Diversity Journal Club. Inspired by similar efforts across the country , 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!
Our own Clara Moskowitz, who graduated as an Astronomy major in 2005, was selected as Woman Physicist of the Month by the American Physical Society! Clara is currently an Editor at Scientific American. Read all about it here:
Many Wesleyan staff, students and alums attended the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society from Jan. 4-9, 2016, in Kissimmee, FL. Here are a few pictures from the event including research posters by current students Girish Duvvuri and Jesse Tarnas, as well as post-doc Wilson Cauley. Also shown are former students Amy Steele, now in the Ph.D. program at U. Md. and alums Josh Wing, Evan Tingle and Marshall Johnson, who stopped by Roy Kilgard’s poster to say “Hi”. Marshall is just finishing his degree at U. Texas.
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!
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.
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.