Slocum’s Birthday Party


Want to party in the Van Vleck Observatory? Want to see Roy and Amrys dress up as early 20th century astronomers? We are honoring the 143rd birthday of Frederick Slocum, Van Vleck’s first director, this Saturday, February 6th, at 7 p.m..

Along with snacks and refreshments, Research Associate Professor of Astronomy Roy Kilgard will be recreating a 1916-­era public astronomy lecture in period attire using original lantern slides and projector from the observatory’s collections. A Q&A session will follow the lecture, and if the conditions permit, the 20” refracting telescope will be open for observing. Come learn all about cutting edge astronomy as it would have been described a century ago, followed by observing through our restored 100-year-old telescope!

The event will be held at 7pm this Saturday, February 6th at the Van Vleck Observatory, and is free and open to the public. For directions, visit

This event is co-sponsored by our friends at the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, and is a part of a yearlong celebration of the Van Vleck Observatory Centennial that will culminate in the opening of an exhibition in May and a daylong symposium in June.  

“Keep watching the skies!”

These were the words of reporter Ned Scott (played by Douglas Spencer) in the 1951 U.S. science fiction film, The Thing from Another World. People listened. Especially after the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, the ensuing “space race” put Americans’ eyes on the skies as never before. The prospect of space travel, the possibility of encountering alien life forms, and mass interest in “unidentified flying objects” (UFOs) also kept astronomers in the media limelight.

Case in point: Thornton Page, director of the Van Vleck Observatory from 1960 to 1971 — the heart of the space race. Page had a long history of involvement with the US military and intelligence services from World War II onward; he also worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), American’s civilian space agency, during the 1960s. In the process, he became something of an authority on UFOs. In this film clip from 1966, you can see him being interviewed by news great Walter Cronkite (“the most trusted man in America”) together with fellow astronomer Carl Sagan (who you may know as the host of the 1980s TV series, Cosmos). Watch as Page, Sagan, and Cronkite talk about the existence of UFO’s and the possibility of contacting alien civilizations (with thanks to my colleague Matt for pointing me to this clip):

The introduction explains that radio signals can be used as “electronic ears” to determine whether or not we are alone in this universe. You’ll also learn that Carl Sagan acted as a consultant to an Air Force scientific panel, while Page had sat on a CIA committee that investigated UFO reports. In 1952, the committee concluded there is no evidence of UFOs (although perhaps elements within the FBI took longer to get the message.)

Subsequently, in December 1969, Page chaired an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Symposium on UFOs. He and 14 other scientists presented papers which were later published in a book called UFO’s: A Scientific Debate, edited by Sagan and Page. Partly as a result of this Symposium, Page served as a panelist and judge of papers submitted for the APRO Award and wrote the article on UFOs for Encyclopedia Britannica.