Like many other curious spectators last Saturday night (6 February 2016, exactly a week ago today), I walked up the icy path to the Van Vleck Observatory at a couple minutes past 7pm, and I almost couldn’t get my foot in the door there were so many people. Squeaking open the door cautiously so as not to push anybody into the mounted Fisk Telescope that stands just a couple feet from the doorway (I mean I didn’t want to push anybody anyway…), and with a few “excuse-me’s” and “I’m-sorry-thank-you’s” later, I was in. And then, I saw two long sheets of brightly-decorated birthday-cake.
But that’s just the beginning of the story. We were all there to celebrate the birthday of the first director of the Van Vleck Observatory (Frederick Slocum), eat birthday cake, and attend a circa-1916 astronomy lecture delivered by Roy with assistance of Amrys at the projector. In period costume. With authentic lantern slides. Luckily the cake didn’t also come from the year 1916.
The event was so popular, that Roy and Amrys had to give the presentation twice! While the first take was going on in the Van Vleck classroom, the remaining crowd was left to observe the Pleiades star cluster with the newly-restored 20’’ telescope thanks to the help of the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, schmooze in the lobby, and eyeball the cake eagerly and a bit impatiently. Most of our team was in attendance, fielding questions about why we were all there anyway that night. One student asked, “How many planets were there in 1916?” “Well…all of the planets were already there (haha)…but I think Pluto had just been discovered!” Roy later stated that it hadn’t been yet.
In any case, when the first talk was over, Roy, Amrys, and a wave of people poured out of the classroom, elated and a bit red-faced. I bumped into my Italian professor and asked her thoughts; her response: “fantastico.” Amrys started the crowds singing “Happy Birthday” and a friend nearby commented afterward, “That was the most in-tune ‘happy birthday’ I’ve ever heard and especially from such a large group of people!” The cake was cut and handed-out (finally).
At last, it was the second group’s turn. I found myself, and the other team members originally-tasked with crowd-control, in this section. Amrys began with a few words about the Under Connecticut Skies project and then invited us to close our eyes. The lights went off as she explained the major events, the new cars, and new technology of the time, and how the Great War had delayed the arrival of the 20’’ lens. She gave the floor to Roy.
Roy explained a bit about the observatory’s “recent” building, dedication, and ultimate purpose: “instruction and research” as Slocum had outlined in his inaugural address. “May I please have the next slide.” (Amrys changed the lantern slides right on cue every time) Roy moved on to explain how parallax measurement works, asking everyone to hold up their thumb an arm’s length away. You can calculate how far away your thumb is from your face by measuring the distance between your eyes and using simple trigonometry to find the angle at the end.This is the same concept as observing a star from two different points on the earth’s surface, and finding its distance. I’ve heard parallax described many-a-times, and I still don’t completely understand it.
“May I please have the next slide.” Roy continued on talking about the “latest” advancements in astronomical research. Scientists were still puzzled by the element “Nebulium,” discovered earlier in the late 19th century. Analyzing spectroscopic lines, astronomers had named the element after the nebulae from which they believed it originated. One astronomy student whispered to another, “What’s Nebulium? I’ve never heard of it before.” A shrug of the shoulders, and: “Me neither.”
After several more “May-I-have-the-next-slide-please’s,” the talk was over, the lights came on, and Roy and Amrys broke out of character. A Q&A session began. Roy explained that Nebulium turned out to be doubly-ionized oxygen, which is why we don’t see the element on any periodic table.
And finally after the Q&A session, while chatting with the students who were smart enough to know that Nebulium was never a real thing, Roy admitted that he tried to lay off telling so many astronomy jokes so as not to alienate the diverse crowd but left a few in anyway for the astronomers.
And so, by the end of the night, I felt it was safe to say that Frederick Slocum had one of the greatest birthday parties ever.