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!

Scripting the History of Astronomy at the Van Vleck Observatory

For months it seemed as if the museum exhibit at the observatory was just a mirage on the horizon, something we knew we were all working towards but didn’t really know exactly what would be when we actually got there. At last, we’re so close to the opening of our exhibit! We have a finalized list of objects that Matt’s been laboring over and a script that Roy, Amrys, and Paul have been slaving a way at for weeks!

Writing a script for a museum exhibit comes with its own quirks and challenges. We’re not writing a history report or a critical essay; we’re trying to communicate to a public audience the significance of the Van Vleck Observatory to Wesleyan, Middletown, astronomy, and even the arts by showing some of the coolest objects we have around.

So, with some objects on the shelves and a draft of the script in all of our hands, we started to “run-through” the exhibit at our weekly Monday meeting.

Reading the script out loud for the first time in the Van Vleck Library

Reading the script out loud for the first time in the Van Vleck Library–future site of the permanent exhibit. Photo by the author.

Some shelves look just about museum ready!

One possible layout of one cabinet of the exhibition.

One possible layout of one cabinet of the exhibition. Photo by the author.

cabinet with an array of interesting objects and books

One cabinet with an array of interesting objects and books, layout to be finalized. Photo by the author.

And some shelves are still being used as office supplies storage space.

Museum shelf currently used as office supply collection space.

Museum shelf currently used as office supply collection space. Photo by the author.

Amrys and Roy project to camp out in the library up until the opening of the exhibit.

Amrys and Roy discussing the exhibit script in the Van Vleck Library.

Amrys and Roy discussing the exhibit script in the Van Vleck Library. Photo by the author.

Now what would a run-through of the exhibit be without a consultation of our exhibit-creating Bible, Beverely Serrel’s second edition of Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach?

Michaela reads from Serrel's "Exhibit Labels"

Michaela reads from Serrel’s “Exhibit Labels” reminding us that word count for each Introductory Label, Group Label, and Caption Label is extremely important! Photo by the author.

We’re really getting down to the nitty-gritty of the exhibit now! More to come soon!

Arts at the Van Vleck: spotting (moon) in the dome

From John Cage to Eiko Otake, we’ve seen that the Van Vleck Observatory can be a welcoming space for art. While these artistic giants have made great use of the space, students, on the other hand, have not truly capitalized on the observatory as an art studio or performance space. That is, until now. Cut to: ( moon ), a performance art piece by Helen Handelman, Wesleyan University class of 2016.


Poster for ( moon ), a performance in the Van Vleck Observatory by Helen Handelman ’16

The performance took place in the observatory dome on November 13, 14, and 15 of last year (2015), just a week after Otake’s performance. ( moon ) is an ensemble performance based on the Cold War Space Race. Handelman, a Religion and Theater Studies double major, became interested in the topic last summer when she visited the Bullock Texas State History Museum and saw an exhibit about the year 1968, the year of the Apollo 8 mission. Since her visit in Texas, Handelman has begun writing a thesis about that celestial body that orbits the earth, and she is using ( moon ) as a creative way for her to explore her thesis further.

When I talked to Handelman about her piece and why she chose the Van Vleck Observatory as the performance location, her answer was surprising: she admitted that she had never actually been in the observatory before scouting it out as a performance space. Once she saw it though, she knew this was the place for ( moon ). She found the dome space to be “majestic and beautiful” noting that it “kind of evokes something like a church or the vastness of space in its openness and bigness.” To be sure, Handelman used every part of the dome for her performance: the walls were a place for shadows to lurk; the telescope was something for the actors to climb towards; and the landing was a space for everyone to move and dance.


Performance of ( moon ) at the Van Vleck Observatory.

Going forward, Helen hopes that more students will use the Van Vleck Observatory for performance. She feels that the VVO is specifically special for artistic explorations, explaining, “it has a lot of warm intimate spaces as well as the open and cold space of the dome….The fact that there are only a few rooms [in the building] means that the space of the observatory is contained in a way that I think makes art-experiencing conducive and exciting.”

The Van Vleck Observatory has always been a great place to see stars in the sky, and now visitors can see different kinds of stars up close down here on Earth.

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.

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Freddy!

Roy and Amrys in 20th century garb

The two stars of the evening. (Photo by Avi Stein)

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.

Frederick Slocum's birthday cake

One of the two birthday cakes, soon-to-be-consumed in Frederick Slocum’s honor. (Photo by the author).

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.

Authentic lantern slides

Lantern slides used in the presentation. Note the date in the bottom-most slide: 1915! (Photo by Josephine Ho)

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.

Roy and Amrys after the first lecture

Roy and Amrys make it out of the first lecture alive! (Photo by Josephine Ho)

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). 

Amrys introducing the lecture

Amrys introduces the Under CT Skies project, the lecture, and Roy. (Photo by Josephine Ho)

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. 

Parallax explanation

We found this delightful drawing on the back of a visitor survey filled out by an attendee of the evening. (Photo by the author)

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. 


Roy discusses the proposed element “Nebulium” during the lecture. (Photo by the author)

“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. 

Amrys and students look at old projector together

Amrys shows off the authentic lantern slide projector to a couple of students who attended the lecture. (Photo by the author)

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.

For more press coverage on this event, check out this article in the Wesleyan Argus or Roy’s very own post on the Van Vleck Observatory blog. 


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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Letters from an old friend

My favorite part of putting together a history exhibit is getting to look through other people’s things. Certainly Frederick Slocum will not walk in on me as I’m hunched over his letters, and yet, I still feel like I’m intruding. But I’m not going to stop poking around, so let’s intrude together.

Slocum’s correspondence shows that he frequently allowed elementary school classes and intrigued guests into his observatory. He would let them look through the telescope, teach them about the moon and visible planets, and maybe leave them with some pictures of the stars. Classroom teachers in particular reached out to him from far and wide, from Flint, Michigan to Middletown itself. Though Slocum mostly published his work in academic journals, he clearly had an interest in making astronomy accessible to those outside of academia as well.

Amidst all of the letters to Slocum in our collection, one from a fifth grade class in Franklin, North Carolina stood out to me. The letter, dated October 31, 1934, is written in perfect grade-school cursive.

My Dear Prof. Slocum, We have been studying about the moon and wish to learn more about it. We don’t want to take your valuable time or inconvenience you, but if you have one new interesting thing that you can tell us about this heavenly body we will appreciate it very much. Just disregard this letter entirely if it seems impertinent. Yours sincerely, The Fifth Grade. Fifth grade students of Franklin, NC to Frederick W. Slocum, 31 October 1932. Frederick W. Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

My Dear Prof. Slocum, We have been studying about the moon and wish to learn more about it. We don’t want to take your valuable time or inconvenience you, but if you have one new interesting thing that you can tell us about this heavenly body we will appreciate it very much. Just disregard this letter entirely if it seems impertinent. Yours sincerely, The Fifth Grade. Fifth grade students of Franklin, NC to Frederick W. Slocum, 31 October 1932. Frederick W. Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

If the adorableness of their letter doesn’t hook you in enough, maybe this will: this fifth grade class’s teacher was Mrs. S. Edward Eaton, née Olive Eddy, who was Slocum’s own student in 1905 at Pembroke Hall. Enclosed with the students’ letter was her own, asking if the professor remembered her, and then immediately answering her own question with: “Of course you don’t.”

Mrs. Eaton was wrong. A mere two weeks later, Slocum responded, “I certainly do remember Olive Eddy and I am delighted to hear from her.” Enclosed with this letter to Mrs. Eaton was an extensive reply to her fifth graders’ queries. He included more than one interesting thing: he wrote about when the next eclipses were (down to the exact hour); what exactly to look at in the sky in order to see them; and also gave them a few photographs of the moon, Venus, the Van Vleck Observatory, and the observatory’s telescope.

He concluded,

I cannot easily tell you much about the moon at this distance, but if you can induce Mrs. Eaton to sew some wings on your shoulders so you can all fly up here, I will show you the moon through the telescope, and tell you all I know about it while are you looking.

Slocum’s writing and research proved that he knew how to address crowds steeped in academia, but this letter shows that he also knew how to appeal to children’s whimsy and blossoming interest in science.

Discovering the planets

After the New Horizons spacecraft completed its flyby of Pluto last week, and the press was hailing the end of an era of planetary exploration, we on the Under Connecticut Skies team discovered some planets of our own.

For a long time, we’ve known about the existence on campus of a historic orrery: a mechanical representation of the planets and their motions. But it appeared that only fragments of this magnificent instrument survived the nearly two centuries since its construction.

The remains of the orrery: a handful of planets and their satellites (moons), delicately rendered in glass, are displayed in the hallway of the observatory alongside sextants and other astronomical instruments.

The remains of the orrery: a handful of planets and their satellites (moons), delicately rendered in glass, are displayed in the hallway of the observatory alongside sextants and other astronomical instruments. Photo by the author.

Wesleyan’s President Willbur Fisk appears to have purchased the orrery in the late 1830s, and it immediately became a local sensation. During the 19th century, the general public flocked to lecture-demonstrations given by learned men and skilled instrument-makers, where they would learn and witness scientific principles and phenomena in action. A broadside from 1837 advertising the orrery’s exhibition in Middletown declared it “one of the greatest curiosities of the day,” and assured visitors that “more can be learnt of the peculiar movements of the heavenly bodies, during one exhibition, than could be acquired in many weeks of reading.” As you can see from the poster itself, this was both an educational and entertaining spectacle, one that families and schoolchildren were encouraged to attend—not unlike the public observing nights the Astronomy Department runs today.

A poster inviting the public to view

A poster inviting the public to view “Russell’s Stupendous and Magnificent Planetarium, or Columbian Orrery” at Wesleyan during the summer of 1837. Orrery Vertical File, Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

According to research carried out by Katie Boyce-Jacino, the orrery continued to be used for teaching purposes for several decades, housed on the second floor of Wesleyan’s South College building, but was dismantled in 1876 and moved to the carpenter’s shop. An article in the Wesleyan Alumnus in October of 1932 lamented that it was later “jettisoned ruthlessly from the attic of the heating plant by unsympathetic hands of laborers engaged in extensive remodeling of the building” and its remains were now held, “collapsed and disintegrated,” in the basement of Van Vleck Observatory. Out with the old, in with the new: the expansion of the college (and its heating needs) appeared to have relegated the orrery to obscurity, and the last remaining pieces seemed to be the ones on display.

But last week, when we were conducting an extensive inventory of the drawers and cabinets of the observatory library, Paul stumbled upon a mysterious wooden box labeled “planets.”

An exciting discovery: a wooden box labeled

An exciting discovery: a wooden box labeled “planets” is unearthed in the observatory library. Photo by the author.

Sure enough, tucked inside were more delicate glass spheres, brass gears, and mounting hardware, carefully wrapped in ancient tissue paper.

The remains of the orrery, carefully wrapped in paper, and stored in a custom box.

The remains of the orrery, carefully wrapped in paper, and stored in a custom box. Photo by the author.

Moons nestled close to their planets, clear globes of glass sat in their personal cubbies, and a few unfortunate heavenly bodies lay broken in the bottom. Here it was: the remains of Russell’s Stupendous and Magnificent Orrery, delivered through the centuries with a remarkable number of intact parts.

Mars and a cluster of moons huddle together in the box of planets.

Mars and a cluster of moons huddle together in the box of planets. Photo by author.

What is perhaps most amazing is that these fragile pieces have remained untouched for so long. Sometime after the 1930s, the remains stored in the basement of Van Vleck were lost, perhaps because when people were looking for the remnants of the orrery, they were imagining something much bigger. Certainly this box of planets was only one box of many that would have housed the orrery’s components, which included 500 cogs, weighed nearly a ton, and measured 45 feet in circumference when fully assembled. Boyce-Jacino’s research suggests that this engraving, from Smith’s Astronomy (1848), might be a depiction of the very orrery:

A possible illustration of Russell's Orrery as it might have appeared when assembled. Asa Smith, Smith's Astronomy, 1848.

A possible illustration of Russell’s Orrery as it might have appeared when assembled. Asa Smith, Smith’s Astronomy, 1848.

Regardless of whether the engraving shows our exact orrery or not, it illustrates what is for me one of the most striking features of this collection of delicate and beautiful objects: their importance as a tool of education and enlightenment, both for students of astronomy, and for all those curious about the heavens. The orrery suggests that, far from being unique to the 20th century, Van Vleck’s twin goals of research and instruction, articulated so famously by Frederick Slocum in his dedicatory address, were goals of astronomy at Wesleyan long before workers broke ground in 1914.

Songs from the night sky: How one experimental composer turned stars into music

Artists from all ages, from Van Gogh and his Starry Night to Disney animators and The Lion King, have drawn inspiration from the night sky. Add to the mix: John Cage, experimental composer. You might remember John Cage for his composition 4’33, one of the quietest revolutions of the music world. Cage was a fellow at Wesleyan University’s Center for Advanced Studies in the 1960-1961 academic year, and it was only a matter of time before he would shatter the world of music again, only this time a little louder and from the state of Connecticut.

Atlas Eclipticalis (in color)

Star chart in color from Anton Becvar’s Atlas Eclipticalis. Image from Astronomical Institute at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

Cage spent time at Wesleyan teaching and composing commissioned pieces; one such orchestral commission was owed to the Montreal Festival Society. Known for incorporating the element of chance in his compositions, Cage took a walk up to the Van Vleck Observatory one day with an idea for his latest commission: he would overlay musical staves (i.e. musical staffs) over charts of stars and, wherever the stars appeared on the staffs, he would record them as musical notes. When Cage arrived, the student worker in the Astronomy Library, Bill Jefferys, pulled the recently published Atlas Eclipticalis off the shelf. As Jefferys later recalled, “I showed [the charts] to Cage, whose eyes lit up as I think it was a lot more than he expected.” Cage checked the book out and worked on the composition in the Honors College.

Atlas Eclipticalis musical notation

Image capture of pages from Atlas Eclipticalis (above) and Variations 1 (right) in the New York Times article “The Avant-Garde Makes a Noise” (11 Sep 1966: 51).

A year or so later, Jefferys was invited to attend the US premiere of Atlas Eclipticalis at Connecticut College. On the concert, the Astronomy Library student worker said, “[Atlas Eclipticalis] was the music for a dance performance [titled Aeon] by Merce Cunningham…and his troupe. Cunningham was dressed as a chicken, I believe. The whole affair was quite amusing.” Seem a bit strange? Welcome to the world of experimental music! Atlas Eclipticalis was then performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and in tributes to the composer. A performance at Wesleyan University took place in 1988 and can be listened to below.

Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis joins the long-running artistic tradition of a fascination with the night sky. As the catalyst for artistic creation, the Van Vleck Observatory is now part of the history of that tradition. This site of education and research in astronomy has also been a place of artistic inspiration and intellectual development that extends beyond the strictly astronomical. What’s more, this tradition will continue in the centennial celebration in the fall of 2015: dancer/choreographer Eiko Otake will occupy the Van Vleck dome as part of her performance “A Body in an Observatory.” And of course, in the spring of 2016, there will be an encore rendition of Atlas Eclipticalis, too.