Celebrating 100 years of astronomy

Cybele Moon of the Theater Department poses with guests from the past who made an appearance at the June 16th centennial.

Cybele Moon of the Theater Department poses with guests from the past who made an appearance at the June 16th centennial.

Last month’s Centennial Symposium was a huge success.  In addition to a daylong series of talks and presentations by current and former faculty, staff, and students, guests enjoyed a reception and ceremonial rededication of the observatory, complete with guests from the past.  Happy Van Vleck Observatory Day in Middletown!

You can read more about the event on the Wesleyan Astronomy Department blog and see more photos from the reception at News@Wesleyan.

New video page

Over the past year, we have gone through the footage we captured last summer in our shoots with Linda Shettleworth and the Mann measuring engineFred Orthlieb and the telescope, and Roy Kilgard and the Millionaire mechanical calculator, and Melissa Sullivan of the New Media Lab has helped us turn them into a series of wonderful videos.

We shared many of them with the public at our exhibition opening and other events, but you can now check them out at home by visiting our new Videos page.  We also hope to make these videos available in the exhibition space from time to time.

One week to go! An Exhibition in the Making

Today is Friday, April 29, 1016. The Under Connecticut Skies exhibit formally opens Friday, May 6, 2016, exactly one week from now. That can only mean one thing: it’s crunch-time. Saying that there was a lot going on in the Observatory from the hours of 9am-7pm today would be an understatement.

To even properly explain what went on in the Observatory today, I need to tell you a bit of what went on yesterday. Essentially, Matt and I cut a lot of muslin. The cabinet shelves (which will hold all of the exhibit objects) will be covered in muslin to protect the wood and lighten up the exhibit aesthetics. So each cabinet needs a piece of muslin cut-to-size. Matt trimmed the fabric, which came in giant sprawling unwieldy sheets, for a couple of hours and then I took over and finished cutting 29 pieces of muslin for 29 similarly-sized shelves.


Fast-forward 24 hours: I arrive at the Van Vleck Observatory around 10:30am and get to work ironing. Before all the muslin can be placed in the shelves, all the creases need to be tamed, and so I spent hours–literally hours–ironing.  Believe it or not, muslin is a very crinkly fabric, so we were mostly concerned with ironing out the giant creases from having folded it all up the day before. When I left to get some lunch, Roy asked me to label everything with great detail so that if someone else came in–also to iron for hours–they would know where to start. I completed this task with great pleasure.


When I came back to the observatory a couple hours later, I found Roy, Paul, and Linda huddled around a table in the hallway with a giant piece of paper. When they saw me come in, I was immediately greeted with exchanges of “Abby! You’re back!” and “Do you know how to use an Exact-o knife?”

“Yes, yes, yes! I have used an Exact-o knife many-a-times,” I replied.

“Awesome, now can you help Linda with this?”

“Yeah, sure! But what is ‘this’?”

I feel like that could be the motto of museums everywhere: “yeah, sure, but what is ‘this’?”

Anyway, I helped Linda with cutting the paper because I’m quite comfortable with Exact-o knives. One time in high school, I accidentally cut myself really badly with an Exact-o knife, and ever since, I practice the utmost in Exact-o knife safety. I’m weirdly proud of this. While I was cutting the paper, sometimes I was pressing the blade so close to the ruler, that I actually started peeling wood off of it! In any event, we cut some paper to a certain size and then filed into the library.


Turns out that the paper we were cutting was going behind the glass plates with astronomical images in order to minimize shadowing. While trying to stick the paper to the back of the cabinets with double-sided tape, I heard Linda use all kinds of expletives like “this horse’s patootie.” She also repeatedly asked me, “Aren’t you glad I got you out of ironing?” to which I repeatedly emphatically replied, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Astronomical images backlit from inside the cabinets

Astronomical images backlit from inside the cabinets. Photo by the author.

Meanwhile, Paul was working diligently on quite a few other essential tasks.


Sometime in the afternoon, astronomy students that had been working in the observatory knocked on the library door and offered to give a hand. I delegated the task of ironing to the one person who said he had “ironed at one point in [his] life”: Julian. Later Girish relieved Julian of ironing-duties, mercilessly teasing the retired player. Apparently not many Wesleyan students know how to iron, so we were lucky to find two people who kinda did.


Julian was then faced with task of hauling many many boxes of very very old books out of the Van Vleck office and into the library. Roy has been saying for months now that we have a ton of books ready to be sorted and go on the shelves. The books come from the Exley Science Library, and although they will be resting on the Van Vleck library’s shelves from now on, the books can still be found in the Wesleyan catalog. A bit of a conveyor belt-system while moving books around formed.

Moving books across the room in a most-efficient style

Moving books across the room in a most-efficient style. Photo by the author.

While the team of astronomers–AKA the greatest volunteer help we could’ve ever asked for–was working on moving books around and sorting the “new” ones, I helped Roy finish up the interior light fixtures. That mostly involved tightening a few screws, laying down velcro on the undersides of the shelves, and applying velcro to the light fixtures themselves so that they could be attached to the undersides of the cabinet shelves. In a couple of hours, all of the exhibit lighting fixtures were complete and installed!

The inside of the exhibit cabinets fully-fitted with DIY light-fixtures

Ta-dah! The inside of the exhibit cabinets fully-fitted with DIY light-fixtures. Photo by the author.

By the time all the light fixtures were done, some of our helpers had to say goodbye for the day. So I took over repopulating the historic library shelves with historic books. I stood at the top of the library ladder as Kevin sorted books below. When he had a couple in the right order, he would hand them off to me.


When Kevin finished the last books in the box he was working on, we decided to call it a day. By that point, it was already 6:30 in the evening! Everyone was ready to leave. When I finally made my way home and had collapsed on my bed, I logged onto Twitter and saw all the pictures of the hard-work us student laborers had been up to (Roy had been tweeting throughout the day). It was a very sweet feeling, and I was so happy to have a chance to work with such lovely people for such an excellent project.

We’ve got one week to go! Come see the fruits of all our labors soon!

Photo of the author stacking books on the formerly-empty Van Vleck library shelves

Photo of the author stacking books on the formerly-empty Van Vleck library shelves. I appear to be floating because I was standing on a step-stool (not pictured) at the time the photo was taken. Photo by Roy Kilgard.

Digging Deep in the Archives: We keep finding cool stuff!

Correspondence from Henry Bacon to Frederick Slocum

Correspondence from Henry Bacon to Frederick Slocum. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

A lot of our exhibit artifacts, in a way, come straight from Wesleyan’s Special Collections and Archives. We’ll be displaying correspondences between the first Van Vleck Observatory Director, Frederick Slocum and the Observatory’s architect, Henry Bacon (correspondence pictured right), reproductions of many historic photographs, and even a commemorative plate with an etching of the historic observatory; we could not display any of these objects, of course, without the help and support of the Wesleyan SC&A.

Moreover, one of our tasks for the last several weeks of the project has been to perform a final sweep of the archives for relevant images, documents, and things of the sort. I posted earlier about our sweep through Wesleyan’s yearbooks, and now I’d like to share some more images that I happened upon most-recently.

I’ve been working with Melissa Sullivan at the Wesleyan New Media lab, trying to get some of our footage from the summer turned into to polished, comprehensible videos to go on this website soon, hopefully! (If you’re interested about our film shoots over the summer, you can check out this post, this post, or this post). I was looking specifically for pictures of the IBM card-reader in the the Exley basement, and so I asked Leith if he had seen anything of the sort. He said he hadn’t, but that I could take a look at the file for the original Exley computer room. I said “Ok, sure why not?” and scheduled an appointment for a couple days from that point.

Boxes and folders of archival material at Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives

Leith set up a space for me in the Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives with several boxes to examine. The most fruitful folder was the “[Exley] Computer Room” folder. Like some other things in our exhibit, I handled all photographs with white gloves. Photo by the author.

Looking through the photographs of the Exley Computer Lab, I saw some crazy things. Computers as big as rooms! The original desk-sized computers, that were themselves desk-sized! Students and staff crunching numbers! And a random photograph of Frederick Slocum thrown into the mix?

Computers as big as rooms

Computers as big as rooms! Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Student at Desk-sized computer

Desk-sized computers! Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Image of Frederick Slocum

Random picture of Frederick Slocum thrown in the mix? Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

I didn’t know quite what I was looking at or why there was an image of the Van Vleck Observatory’s very first director (long deceased by the time the Exley Science Tower was built) in a folder for the Exley Computer Room, so I snapped a bunch of photos and showed them to Roy at our Monday meeting the following week. Zooming in and rotating the photos a bit on my tiny cellphone screen, he mumbled, “This might be…well, this actually is the VVO basement.” And I kinda just stood there dumbfounded, like, “really?”

“Abby, these might the only photographs we have of the Van Vleck Observatory computing room [AKA the basement]. This is amazing.”

My rather lame response: “Ok, cool! I’m glad I looked in that folder then.”

That very Monday morning, Roy and Amrys were sending out a finalized list of images to get reproduced for the exhibit, and they wanted some of these new pictures. I emailed Leith and asked him to take high-quality scans of 6 of the images; in less than an hour he had written back to me, explaining the scans plus a few extra were uploaded to our shared folder. I forwarded the email to Roy and Amrys, and now several images of the original “computers” (i.e. those students and staff who did computations) are in our exhibit!

Although we cannot be certain of the dates of the photographs, Leith guesses they’re mostly from the late 1960s. Check out some of the images below!

Student working at IBM keypunch machine. Van Vleck basement identifiable based on the chalkboard (that's still there).

Student working at IBM keypunch machine. Van Vleck basement identifiable based on the chalkboard (that’s still there). Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Students working in the Van Vleck computing center basement.

Students working in the Van Vleck computing center basement. You might recognize the radiators, chalkboard, and windows–which let us know this is the Van Vleck. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

A puzzle at the data processing unit.

A puzzle at the data processing unit. Image courtesy of the Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Row of keypunch machines with students and secretaries working.

Mac desktop computers have since replaced this row of keypunch machines. Alas, ’tis naught but nostalgia. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Museum Exhibit or Construction Zone? 2nd Edition!

Roy works on his computer in the library

Roy works on his computer in his new office space. Photo by the author.

Recently, Roy and Amrys have moved into the Van Vleck Observatory library. I’m not sure if they ever actually leave these days…they’re so dedicated to this project!

A random sample of what was on the table one day I was in the library.

Roy works on his computer in his new office space. Photo by the author.

The content of the tabletops is always in flux. There are light fixtures, coffee mugs, paper towels, 5 different varieties of velcro, various objects in the exhibit, post-it notes and other office supplies, post cards, exhibit scripts, tchotchkes, computers, books, books about computers, books about human computers, full-scale reproductions of historical images, cameras, eye glasses, water glasses, glass plates, commemorative plates, and lots and lots and lots of notes and to-do lists.

Very very old unopened Campbell's soup can

Very very old (18-years-old) unopened Campbell’s soup-can. Photo by the author.

Furthermore, the 18-years old Campbell’s soup-can (it expired in 1998) has joined Roy and Amrys’s office table, which is really just one of the library tables that was there all along. Roy has called the soup-can the “talisman” of the project, and that sounds about right to me. I asked him if he thought that there might be a black hole inside the soup-can that would make opening the can rather risky. Because Roy studies black holes for a living, I trusted his answer of “it could be.” Additionally, a tiny moon-shaped stress-ball now sits on top of the soup-can because “sometimes you just need to squeeze a tiny moon-shaped stress ball.” That also sounds right considering the amount of things going on in the library these days.

Our exhibit also has the help of several tiny plastic soldiers who keep a faithful guard on the Van Vleck Observatory at all times.

Tiny plastic soldier on library windowsill

Tiny plastic soldier watches for the enemy (light pollution!!) outside the Van Vleck library’s window. Photo by the author.

Suffice it to say that some of us are going a little loopy up on Observatory Hill, where the air really isn’t that much different. In any case, all these tchotchkes and historical artifacts and office supplies all mixed together at once really does make me happy in a very silly way for which I cannot truly account. I share this post with you now, because if you come visit the exhibit, you most-likely will not find expired soup-cans, tiny plastic soldiers, yards of velcro, boxes of lightbulbs, or even office supplies in the exhibit.

Or will you? (*wink wink*)

Museum Exhibit or Construction Zone?

Door to the Van Vleck Library while the exhibition creation is underway.

Door to the Van Vleck Library while the exhibition creation is underway. Photo by the author.

At this point, it’s hard to tell. Creating a permanent museum exhibit on a budget is…let’s say…challenging. To cut down on costs, we’re creating a lot of what goes into the exhibit ourselves. Everything from the lighting to the shelving to the mat board that goes behind the shelving is student and staff-constructed. We’ve got Roy, Amrys, and Paul calling the shots, Tom Castelli at the Science Machine Shop doing all sorts of crazy things with leftover wood, leftover plexiglass, and an assortment of power tools, and the students who are willing to do just about anything else.

Tom has put together a bunch of the museum cabinet covers. When actually placed in front of a cabinet, it really feels like we are creating a museum!

Protective glass for cabinet space against cabinet.

Door to the Van Vleck Library while the exhibition creation is underway. Photo by the author.

Melissa’s been cutting and trimming mat board to fit into the cabinets, brightening up the space a bit with a soft green hue.

Cut mat board to go in cabinets.

Cut mat board to go in cabinets. Labor by Melissa Joskow. Photo by the author.

Matt’s been assembling light fixtures, literally brightening up the cabinet spaces. The lights will illuminate exhibit objects.

Matt creates lighting fixtures for the museum cabinets

Matt assembles lighting fixtures for the museum cabinets. Photo by the author.

Matt shows off a light fixture that he'd been working on.

It works! Matt shows off a light fixture that he’d been working on. Photo by the author.

Michaela’s cleaned up the vitrine in the hallway and lathered on a new coat of paint. The cabinet used to display objects like the Van Vleck guestbook, chronomoters, sextants, and other cool astronomical artifacts. Now a lot of that will be going into the permanent exhibit!


Note the protective plastic bagging of the Fisk telescope on the left. Photo by the author.

As for me, I started on cleaning all the shelves in the library itself. Paul gave a hand, and then Roy and Melissa finished the job up another day.

Materials for cleaning the library shelves.

Materials for cleaning the library shelves. Photo by the author.

There’s a thousand things left to do for this project, but everyone seems really excited and ready to work! Can’t wait to see how things shape up in just the next couple weeks!

Kids’ Night at the Observatory: Extending the Centennial Celebration to people of all ages

Wow, did we have fun.

Our history-themed kids’ night at the Van Vleck was a great success! Luckily for the historians in the bunch, no one really asked for explanations of cosmic rays or black holes, but Roy probably could’ve answered anyway. In any case, we had two activities planned, each demonstrating a different facet of the history of the Van Vleck Observatory. The first activity sought to teach about the teaching of astronomy over time and the second activity involved some mystical musical creations.

Exhibit cabinet with lantern slide projector and hand-painted lantern slides

Preliminary mock-up of exhibit cabinet with lantern slide projector on bottom shelf and hand-painted lantern slides on top shelf. Photo by the author.

The first activity, which took place upstairs in the classroom, involved a history lesson on how astronomy lessons used to go. Roy brought out the lantern slide projector and explained that before the advent of photography, astronomers would take detailed sketches of their observations and use delicately-painted glass slides as teaching tools. Of course this meant hauling the Van Vleck’s very own lantern projector and slides out of their current resting place in the preliminary mock-up of the Under CT Skies exhibit in the library. And of course Roy gave a demonstration of the lantern slide, showing off cool plates, painted, photographed, and otherwise.

Roy explaining images of Mars on a lantern slide.

Roy explains a lantern slide with 6 images of the planet Mars, 5 of which are blurry photographs and 1 (center) which is a detailed drawing. Photo by the author.

While showing some lantern slides with images of Mars, Roy touched on one rather silly chapter in history. Back in the late 19th century, after viewing some fuzzy images of the Red Planet and being victim to a miscommunication or two, one American astronomer theorized that Mars hosted an intelligent-life civilization that had built a complex network of water-carrying canals. The theory has since been decidedly debunked.

Kids' Night attendee's drawing projecting on overhead.

Kids’ Night attendee’s drawing projecting on overhead. I believe this is a representation of a black hole’s accretion disk. What a kid! Photo by the author.

After Roy showed off some cool slides with the projector himself, we invited everyone to make their own old-timey astronomy teaching materials! We substituted glass plates for plastic transparencies and oil paints for sharpies. With the aid of a cranky overhead projector, and then the actual lantern projector itself (with transparencies cut-to-size), we displayed everyone’s work on the big screen.

Next activity: Down in the basement, Melissa and I (Abby) were stationed with another pack of sharpies, another bunch of transparencies–primed with blank musical staffs, a stack of star charts, and a portable mini-keyboard dating back to the 80’s that Amrys generously provided. After telling the story of John Cage at the Van Vleck, we invited everyone to channel their own experimental music composer.

Amrys with the very large original Atlas Eclipticalis

Amrys displays the Atlas Eclipticalis book that John Cage used for his orchestral composition. The star charts still rest in the Van Vleck Library ever since Cage checked them back in. Photo by the author.

The story goes that Cage, while a fellow at Wesleyan, wandered up one day to the Van Vleck Observatory and took out Atlas Eclipticalis from the library to use in one of his compositions. Essentially, his method was to draw musical staffs on tracing paper on top of the different star charts and wherever the stars fell on the staffs, a musical note was inferred. So, in the basement during Kids’ Night, we asked people to make their own musical compositions with the stars as a guide, and I would play the compositions when they were complete.

Each composition, all designed with great care by our tiny John Cages, were completely unique and completely compelling. The room would hush the second I started to play; everyone wanted to hear the kids’ handiwork and the universe’s musings! Some people included time and key signatures, others just drew lines “connecting the dots.” I tried to be as faithful to what was written as possible. I also really enjoyed the titles of many of the compositions, such as “Symphony of the Stars” and “Not my fault.”


Parents, grandparents, and Melissa look on as the kids of Kids' Night write music.

Parents, grandparents, and Melissa look on as the kids of Kids’ Night write music. Photo by the author.

All in all, history-themed Kids’ Night was a lot of fun! Hope you can make it to the next one!

Our First Official Museum-Goers: First Exhibit Preview

Exhibit objects with their exhibit labels in preparation for our first exhibit run-through.

Exhibit objects with their exhibit labels in preparation for our first exhibit run-through. Photo by the author.

Today, the Under Connecticut Skies museum had its very first visitors. The museum is in its first draft state, and the purpose of inviting people in was to receive preliminary feedback on the script and overall flow of the exhibit. Our VIP guests? Jessie Cohen’s Museum Collections class members. Jessie Cohen is Wesleyan’s Archaeological Collections Manager and Repatriation Coordinator, and this semester she is teaching a course on museology entitled: “Museum Collections: Ethical Considerations and Practical Applications.” So Jessie and her class gathered up at the Van Vleck Observatory for their Thursday class while Amrys, Roy, Paul, and I hustled to clean up the library a bit and get all objects and labels in place.

With everything more or less in order, we opened the gates to the museum exhibit!


First students get a glance at the Under Connecticut Skies exhibit. Instructor Jessie Cohen at center of photograph. Photo by the author.

About half of the students went to the left, and the other half to the right. The exhibit is designed to have a specific starting point yet should still be comprehensible when explored in any order.

Students take a closer look at the exhibit.

Students take a closer look at the exhibit. Photo by the author.

After spending some time wandering through the exhibit, Amrys, Jessie, and all of the students sat down around the library’s tables for a reflection on the exhibit experience.

Discussing reflections on the exhibit experience.

Exhibit objects with their exhibit labels in preparation for our first exhibit run-through. Photo by the author.

Feedback was mostly positive! There was some confusion about the best way to proceed throughout the exhibit, everyone thought the exhibit holds some pretty cool objects, and there were several mentions of Beverely Serrel’s exhibit bible Exhibit Labels: An Interpretative Approach. All in all, I scribbled down over two pages of notes from our 15 minute discussion.

Thanks so much to Jessie and her class for coming in and helping us out! Amrys said having our first official visitors really helped the team churn out those drafts of the exhibit labels and kick us into cleaning up the library. Even though at this state our labels are hung up throughout the exhibit by masking tape, the exhibit is coming along smoothly! I hope the class members return to the exhibit once its truly completed and can see how their feedback helped tremendously in getting the exhibit take its final form.


Centennial Celebration: Historic Observing Night

The celebration has begun! First up on our Centennial Celebration events roster is the Historic Observing session at the Van Vleck Observatory. As the event coincided with Wesleyan’s accepted student days, AKA WesFest, the library classroom was overfilled with people–probably over 50 in all.

Roy discusses the importance of telescopes to astronomical observations.

Roy discusses the importance of telescopes to astronomical observations. He also talks about Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer who discovered a comet with a telescope. Photo by the author.

Amrys discusses this infamous photograph of Frederick Slocum at the 20-inch telescope, highlighting the importance of good time keeping.

Amrys discusses this infamous photograph of Frederick Slocum at the 20-inch telescope, highlighting the importance of good time keeping. Photo by the author.

Amrys shows off the Van Vleck's chronometer.

Amrys shows off the Van Vleck’s chronometer. Such a device keeps accurate time despite changes in motion or environment. Photo by the author.

About half-way through the talk, Amrys took over for Roy as he went to set up the 20-inch telescope for public observing after the talk. I wrangled Girish (and the other students in his TA session) into setting up the 24-inch telescope. Amrys explained more and more about changes in observing practices over time and Roy and Girish hurried to ready the telescopes for the crowds to come.

While I was running back and forth between Roy in the 20-inch dome and Girish in the 24-inch dome, I heard applause from the classroom. Amrys continued answering several audience members’ questions while others poured out into the hallway. Some found their way up to the 24-inch telescope and others had to wait in a long line for the 20-inch telescope that I guarded stoically. While forcing people to wait in line, I had some really nice conversations with pre-frosh and their parents! Buzzwords like “interdisciplinary education” and “liberal arts exploration” circled around my head as I thought about how perfect an example of inter-departmental collaboration and research our project really is.

That is, of course, if you discount the fact that I (a History major) still cannot adequately explain parallax measurement or how a sextant works. But I think Amrys can, so we should be ok!