Arts at the Van Vleck: An Exploration of Eiko Otake’s “A Body In An Observatory”

World-renowned dancer and performance artist Eiko Otake bestowed her gifts on the Wesleyan community–and the astronomy community–just this past fall. On November 6 and 7, 2015, Otake performed a piece entitled “A Body in an Observatory.” The titular observatory, of course, was our very own Van Vleck. “A Body in an Observatory” is part of the artist’s larger series, “A Body in Places.”

Otake at beginning of dance performance

Eiko Otake at the start of her performance, “A Body in an Observatory.” In this moment, Otake is just outside the observatory overlooking Foss Hill and College Row. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.

Eiko Otake and the 20'' telescope

Eiko Otake and the eye-piece of the 20” telescope. Roy Kilgard in background. Photos courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.

On her professional website, Otake details her thinking on the performance: “I imagine how, 100 years ago, people must have been so excited in seeing this great telescope arrive to the Middletown community in 1916. How moved people must have been when they saw the stars in a way they had not seen before. Having spent some time in the observatory with the kind and patient Astronomer Roy Kilgard and local star enthusiasts, I wondered how I could have not been more tempted to see so deeply into the night sky. Beautiful, is the seemingly endless cosmos that continues expanding. Time and distance entwine in seeing stars and far into space. Beautiful, also, is the human curiosity striving for far places. It makes me feel a bit fearful, however, how far humans strive. Our body meanwhile remains our commonality (yet unknown), a vehicle to other places, a home to rest, and a reminder of our very limits of both the length and space that one person’s life occupies. My body is my measuring stick.”

Although all eyes are focused on Otake herself during the performance, the work is a product of collaboration. In fact, Roy Kilgard, professor of Astronomy at Wesleyan, worked closely with Otake in preparing, rehearsing, and ultimately performing this work of art. Among his many typical responsibilities, Professor Kilgard is the facilities manager of the observatory’s telescopes and computers, so

Eiko Otake and the 20'' telescope

Eiko Otake and the 20” telescope in a rehearsal of the work. Photo courtesy of William Herbst.

when Otake expressed desire to perform in the dome of the observatory, she and Professor Kilgard began working together because he was the only one who knew how to operate the telescope at the time. The two spent time rehearsing together and talking about astronomy and the history of the Van Vleck Observatory. During their first visits together, Otake observed Professor Kilgard conduct a training session with the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford in the observatory’s dome. After looking through the telescope and watching Professor Kilgard operate it, she decided the telescope should move with her in the performance. In effect, she would create a duet of movement between herself and the 20-inch refractor telescope. Kilgard would help operate the telescope.

While this was Kilgard’s first time participating in an event like this at the observatory, it was not his first time being involved in creative projects.

“My father was a musician and I grew up playing in a lot of bad bands. The idea of being involved in performances doesn’t scare me. However, I had no theater or dance experience so the thought of working with one of the best, most famous contemporary dancers in the world terrified me a little bit. I really didn’t want to mess it up.”

During the performance, Otake would make signals to Professor Kilgard, alerting him to when she wanted him to move the telescope. They tried their best to create signals that were subtle in order to ensure that the audience would not be able to predict what would happen next.

Otake and spectators

Otake consuming flowers while spectators look on. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Images by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography

Kilgard expressed his excitement for the event: “I was so excited to see people’s reactions, especially the people who had never been in that space before. In general I was so excited to see people’s reactions to something so weird happening in a space that was so purposely built for science 100 years ago and now there is something as far from that that you can get taking place in the same space.”

The performance itself is about forty minutes long, and Otake begins the piece by moving at a snail’s pace. “Once she really begins to move,” Kilgard explained, “people lose track of time and they become completely absorbed in what she was doing. All eyes were on her.”

Otake and spectators

Near the end of the performance, Otake tugs on the manual pulley that opens the dome. Spectators look on. Photos courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.

 

To view an edited video of Otake’s performance, click here. To view more photos from the event, click here. To read Professor Kilgard’s take on the performance, click here.

Telescope Green and other custom paint colors for a custom telescope

What color is a telescope? And what does it matter anyway?

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Although old photographs in black and white might not be the most convincing evidence, at least this photo shows that the telescope paint was dark. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University Special Collections & Archives.

Back in the day (AKA 100 years ago), the 20-inch Van Vleck telescope was painted black. I believe the rationale was that astronomers wished to keep the space in the dome as dark as possible; naturally a dark paint was in order. More scientifically, the color black absorbs light. Stray light in the dome is something to consider and painting a telescope so that it can absorb stray light to the maximum seems rather logical.

Today the telescope is painted white–or more specifically, a slight off-white. The rationale here is that white reflects light. Because white does not absorb light like the color black does, a white telescope will be cooler than a black one. This is important to regulate the temperature of the instrument. The mount however is still kept at a dark hue. As for why the dome itself is painted white outside, well the story is not too different.

Now for all you extreme telescope enthusiasts out there who want to know the specific paint colors, I’m talking color codes and more here, you are in for a fun story.

Paint can lid for Dark Dakota Shadow

Paint can lid for Dark Dakota Shadow with Benjamin Moore color codes. Photo by the author.

A while back, Bill Herbst, his wife, and a consultant from the Wesleyan Art Department decided on the colors to paint the telescope: Dakota Shadow for the mount and North Star for the tubes. The Dakota Shadow was a bit too light, so a request was put in for Dark Dakota Shadow with no white added.

Paint can lid for Telescope Green with Benjamin Moore color codes.

Paint can lid for Telescope Green with Benjamin Moore color codes. Photo by the author.

Over the summer however, while working on the telescope restoration, Fred received a mis-mixed batch of paint. To remediate the error, the Cromwell Paint Spot shop named a new paint color–with the proper mix of green, yellow, black, and white–for Fred and put it in their system as “Telescope Green.”

Matt and I called the Paint Spot to investigate further. We spoke to a very nice sales representative who looked up the paint color for us. He didn’t recognize “Telescope Green” off the top of his head, but when we gave him the custom code he found it immediately! The rep said that the shop still has Telescope Green paint in stock, but because it is a custom color, we would need to bring in the can with the lid and the code to actually get the paint.

Fred points out the coats of paint on the mount. Photo(s) by the author.

Fred points out the multiple coats of paint on the mount. (Photo by the author)

This was the look on Fred’s face when Avi suggested the paint color could be called “T-Tauri Taupe.” Fred said, “I know what taupe is and this isn’t anything close!”

This was the look on Fred’s face when Avi joked the paint color could be called “T-Tauri Taupe.” Fred said, “I know what taupe is and this isn’t anything close!” In any case, Avi was working on the telescope restoration with Fred over the summer and he’s the one who tipped me off about Telescope Green in the first place. Thanks Avi! (Photo by the author)

Avi laughing

And to round out this post, here is a picture of Avi laughing, maniacally probably (not). Could he be wearing a t-shirt in the tone of Telescope Green?? And will this become the trendiest new paint color?? Only time will tell…

The annals of frustration and repair

As the shelves and file cabinets at the Van Vleck Observatory attest, keeping accurate records has been crucial to the work astronomers, measurers, and computers have performed here over the past century. Faculty, staff, and students used logbooks to keep track of the stellar objects they observed, the photographic images they took of the sky, the measurements they made using those images, and the instruments they relied on to perform those measurements and calculations. These logbooks are a record of the process of making astronomical data, as well as the many different kinds of work that went into it.

On the left, we can see the exact measurements, times, and information put into a single observation. Here, the observer does not make to many individual notes, but does state, however, that the machine, the Mann, is being temperamental. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.

On the left, we can see the exact measurements, times, and information put into a single observation. Here, the observer does not make to many individual notes, but does state, however, that the machine, the Mann, is being temperamental. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.

In the margins, the logbooks also tell a story of ongoing maintenance and repair that underscores that labor. Many observers and measurers commented on issues with the instruments they were using: a stiff wind that shook the tube of the telescope, resulting in a blurry image; chronometers that were not keeping accurate time; malfunctioning electronics and equipment that stymied their attempts to record accurate data. These problems functioned as maintenance requests as well as repair logs, as observers informed one another about the problems they were having and the steps they took to address them.

The observer blames himself for the inaccurate measurements obtained, but then states later on that the digitizer is not working. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck OBservatory. Photo by the author.

The observer blames himself for the inaccurate measurements obtained, but then states later on that the digitizer is not working. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck OBservatory. Photo by the author.

Observatory staff also used the logbooks to joke around about the travails of their often tedious work.  They documented the frustrating and the funny, the technical and the personal.  In the logbooks for the Mann comparator, which allowed staff to make highly accurate determinations of distance, some plate measurers complain about the key-punch device “mis-punching” the computer cards that recorded the data, asking their colleagues to “pray for them and their failing measurements.”  Between April 1972 and December 1980, the device was repaired almost daily. We can see how irritating this was for those tasked with doing the grunt work of astronomy in the comments they left for one another as they went about their tasks.

Observers informed one another about the problems they were having, and even asked for "HELP"; based of off the different scripts, we can deduce the problems that each observer encounters with the machinery. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.

Observers informed one another about the problems they were having, and even asked for “HELP”; based of off the different scripts, we can deduce the problems that each observer encounters with the machinery. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.

How the Van Vleck Observatory reflects environmental conditions

Before Van Vleck was completed in 1916, Wesleyan’s “observatory” was a tower mounted on a dormitory, containing few instruments with little research capability. Prior to that, the university’s effort at a building devoted to astronomy was little more than a shed.

Professor John Monroe Van Vleck, who taught astronomy at Wesleyan for 50 years, believed the university could do better. He envisioned an observatory with the facilities necessary to make an impact on the world’s understanding of the universe. In 1903, Van Vleck’s family donated more than $25,000 to the university for a new observatory and planning began, but Professor Van Vleck passed away before he could see his vision come to life.

In his stead, Wesleyan’s president Stephen H. Olin entrusted Frederick Slocum, the new astronomy professor, with supervising the observatory’s design. Slocum began a detailed correspondence with Henry Bacon, the architect charged with designing the observatory, to recommend the location, design, and technology of the building. Slocum was as determined as Van Vleck had been to see the Wesleyan observatory contribute valuable research to the scientific community. He was aware that it would not be easy, as New England’s cold, wet, and changeable climate was not ideal for astronomical observation. Slocum used a number of means—geographical, architectural, and technological—to overcome the challenges of doing astronomy in the relatively poor observational environment of New England.

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The other Frederick

Who would’ve guessed that “film shoot” would be on the task list for a student summer historical researcher like myself? Rather inexperienced historian that I am, I did not.

These weeks, our research group is teaming up with Melissa Sullivan at Wesleyan’s New Media Lab to produce a series of three videos of cool things and people we have at the Van Vleck Observatory. Today we shot our second video featuring Fred Orthlieb giving a behind the scenes peek at the telescope restoration. Melissa provided and operated all the audiovisual equipment, and she and Matt–who earlier wrote about the first Frederick to operate the telescope–directed the shoot.

Melissa puts a mic on Fred.

Melissa puts a mic on Fred’s collar. Matt is probably laughing at something funny Fred said.

What was my role in the shoot (no one but my parents would ask)? I was on audio duty, which essentially meant I sat on a step ladder in the corner off of the telescope platform making sure that the audio sounded ok for the entire time and took a lot of pictures. Many of these pictures, I must confess, were selfies.

Abby looks at audio recorder

Author looks at the nifty H4 Zoom recorder. Author is a little bored.

Fred told me that from where he was standing, I looked like “a little panda” in my “little panda cage” with my “little earmuffs.” The reason that must have been quite accurate is that this was my view for a lot of the shoot:

Fred film shooting on raised platform

Amazing things are happening above me, probably!

But enough of me kvetching, I was SO EXCITED to even be in the same room as these wonderful people during this shoot. And this room that I was in was none other than AN OBSERVATORY DOME!!! WITH A HISTORIC TELESCOPE, no less!!! I clearly have the best job. I learned so much even though I spent the majority of my time taking selfies and writing down funny things that Fred said.

Melissa films Fred explaining how the telescope works.

“Naivety is natural. No one comes out of the womb knowing anything about telescopes.”

Fred in the pier.

Matt: “Do you have anything left to say about the pier?”
Fred: “I do, and most of it has to do with squirrels.”

On a final note, I will say that our film shoot almost didn’t even happen today. At around 9:15am, Fred came into the basement where our research team works, and told me that the elevator was not working and that we might need to reschedule the shoot. Luckily, he was able to troubleshoot the issue and get the 100 year old elevator back to operational status. During our filming, Fred even got a visit from an Otis Elevator Co. representative (who he had called earlier this morning).

Fred and the Otis representative

Fred explains the problem with the elevator to the Otis representative. I had a bird’s eye view because the elevator was at the lowest point during this part of the shoot.

Thankfully, everything went well, and as Paul said, Fred was “the man of the hour–for two hours.”

Seeing the heavens

By far and away, the oldest astronomical instrument is the human eye. And while astronomy remains a highly visual science, the way in which astronomical imaging occurs has changed a great deal over the centuries.

Near the end of his life, Galileo Galilei famously became blind. According to mythology, this was a result of observations he had made on the Sun (although this appears to be largely unsubstantiated). Regardless of the cause, his observations certainly affected his ability to do work, considering he observed by drawing what he saw through his telescope.

Carl Stearns (right); Robert T. Matthews, astronomy instructor; and a student. Image from Wesleyan University Vertical Files, Shared Shelf.

Carl Stearns (right); Robert T. Matthews, astronomy instructor; and a student working with the 20-inch in 1951. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

The advent of photography transformed astronomy in the late 19th century, allowing observers of the heavens to capture what the telescope saw automatically. Vision was clearly still important, but the kind of acuity that would have been necessary in Galileo’s day was less crucial. For instance, C. L. Stearns, one of Wesleyan’s professors of Astronomy in the early 20th century, was both nearsighted and colorblind. Indeed, his vision was poor enough that he was exempted from the draft during the First World War because of his eyesight. Yet his vision problems did not significantly hamper his ability to do astronomy, as is evident by his important work on stellar parallax.

Stearns observed in an era during which observations were recorded on photographic plates, taken from cameras that were attached to telescopes. It was the observer’s job to find the right stars and to focus the telescope, but he was not required to describe the objects in the field of view. As a result, good eyesight and the ability to distinguish between different colors was not as necessary in the 1920s as it was in Galileo’s time.

The 20-inch telescope with cameras and lenses attached. Set up for the January 24, 1925 total solar eclipse. Image from Wesleyan University, Vertical Files, Shared Shelf.

The 20-inch telescope with cameras and lenses attached. Set up for the January 24 total solar eclipse, 1925. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

Teacher by day, observer by night

In his speech at the dedication of the building in 1916, Van Vleck Observatory director Frederick Slocum emphasized the equal importance of both instruction and research in the observatory. Slocum himself embodied this dualism. He helped develop Wesleyan’s star parallax program while also teaching introductory astronomy courses. His achievements as a researcher (including organizing observations of of three solar eclipses) are well documented in the scientific literature. But Van Vleck itself, and the materials we’re discovering here this summer, reveal that teaching was also central to his work, and to his vision for astronomy at Wesleyan and beyond.

Wesleyan built its Astronomy Department around Slocum in the same manner a professional sports franchise might build their team around a superstar. In March of 1914, at the tender age of forty, Slocum was appointed a full professor on account of his experience teaching at Brown University and researching at the Yerkes Observatory, where he had worked on the newly invented spectrohelioscope. Working remotely from Yerkes, Slocum prepared for his arrival in Middletown. He was given charge of the $70,000 Van Vleck fund (around $1.5 million today), which he used to design and construct an observatory that would be a center for both teaching and research, and to purchase the 18-in refracting telescope from Alvan Clark & Sons it was planned to house. Today, the observatory remains true to his intentions, with active research, teaching, and public programs.

SLOCUMPIC

(Left) Slocum the Researcher, (Right) Slocum the Professor, from the Frederick Slocum vertical file. Images courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

Understanding the man behind these achievements proves more difficult. Fortunately one piece of evidence sheds some light on Slocum’s personality: a student’s teacher evaluation of Slocum circa 1940.

How this document survives is a story in and of itself. The teacher evaluation was part of a study conducted by two Wesleyan professors between 1946 and 1952 about why students chose science as a vocation and how individual teachers influenced that decision. The students likely filled out these evaluations a few years removed from their time at Wesleyan. Reflecting the important position of science education in the post-World War II era, the questionnaire asked students to rate their professors on the following characteristics: humor, patience, temper, energy, dominance, enthusiasm, warmth, competitiveness, and initiative. (One wonders in what light traits such as dominance or competitiveness were seen in this Cold War age!)

One student awarded Slocum double-checks in humor, patience, and energy, but only single-checks for enthusiasm, warmth and initiative. However, the student later clarified his single-check in the warmth category. “To a stranger or even to a large class,” he wrote, Slocum “might seem a bit cool at first. This should probably be called ‘Yankee reserve.’ But on closer acquaintance he became the essence of warmth and friendliness.” Clearly the man had made an impression on this student through his personal qualities as well as his abilities as a researcher and instructor.

Achievements in research—publications, awards, titles—can be easy for historians of science to discern. Certainly, Slocum’s contributions to the field are apparent in the astronomical literature. But, as the design of Van Vleck suggests, Slocum placed a high value on instruction as an important companion to research. This student’s brief reflection on Slocum the person helps us answer more difficult historical questions—such as how those sitting in his classroom, or assisting him at the telescope, might have seen him, and how their own paths may have been influenced by their interactions with this man of “warmth and friendliness.”

Astronomy essentials: fur?

What was it like to watch the skies in the first few decades of the twentieth century?  I had my first revelation about this when I saw a photograph of Frederick Slocum seated at the 20-inch refracting telescope in Van Vleck’s main dome.

The late Prof. Frederick Slocum at eye-piece of 18-ft. telescope (with 20" lens) in Van Vleck Observatory ca. 1946

“The late Prof. Frederick Slocum at eye-piece of 18-ft. telescope (with 20″ lens) in Van Vleck Observatory ca. 1946.”  Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

Take a closer look at Slocum’s outfit. The big coat, the fur hat and gloves, the boots: all these point to the the physical realities of doing astronomy in the days before charge-coupled devices and digital photography allowed observers to sit in a warm room nearby, controlling the telescope with a computer and snapping digital images with the stroke of a key.  As anyone who has visited an observatory for a viewing night knows, the dome is not really an interior space. Temperature gradients and fluctuations can cause lenses to expand and contract, or lead to condensation of water vapor, both of which make for distortions and inaccuracies. As a result, when you’re in the dome looking through the eyepiece, everything needs to be the temperature of the outside air.  And since the best observing conditions in New England usually occur in the winter, when the air is drier, that temperature might be pretty cold indeed.

While this photograph was almost certainly posed, given the lighting conditions that would have prevailed during actual nighttime observing, it reveals some of the daily practices that shaped astronomy in the early 20th century.  Slocum’s choice to wear his observing gear indicates that, in addition to telescopes and clocks, warm clothing was a crucial part of the astronomer’s toolkit.