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!

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.

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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.

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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.

A president, a professor, and the president’s wife go to Paris…Punchline: they come back with a telescope

Middletown CT, circa 1831…Astronomy is listed as a prospective course for Wesleyan students under the direction of Professor Augustus W. Smith, who will later become the President of Wesleyan University in 1852. Before students can actively engage in a college-level astronomy course, however, equipment is needed. How scientific equipment indeed reached Middletown, Connecticut from Paris, France is a curious story…

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Sample correspondence. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives. Photo by the author.

In 1835 President Wilbur Fisk (who was known for his keen interest in astronomy), his wife, Mrs. Fisk, and Professor Harvey B. Lane journeyed to Paris specifically to purchase scientific equipment for the new university, including its first telescope. In Paris Fisk met Mr. Lerebours, a telescope maker, and expressed interest in purchasing a telescope for student and faculty use. After this initial visit, correspondence between Smith, Fisk, and Lerebours continued until Fisk purchased a refractor telescope with a 6” lens a year later for 6,000 franks and an additional 970 franks for shipping costs. And so, Wesleyan became the first university to own a 6” telescope! No other major university had any sort of 6” telescope; Yale University had a 5” telescope purchased in 1828.

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This Bill of Sale indicates that Mr. Lerebours, the telescope maker in Paris, officially sold the 6″ telescope to Mr. Fisk. Thus, the 6″ telescope, currently mounted inside the Observatory, is titled “the Fisk Telescope.”

In the Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives there is not only an entire file on the 6” telescope but also copies of bill of sales receipts and purchases made by Fisk on behalf of the Wesleyan Astronomy Department.

 

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Additional scientific equipment was sold to Mr. Fisk by Mr. Lerebour as indicated by the reverse side of the Bill of Sale. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives. Photo by the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fisk Telescope Chronology

The “Fisk Telescope Chronology” allows us to track its path from 1835 to 1922. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives. Photo by the author.

 

When the Fisk telescope arrived at Wesleyan, it was placed in the back of Smith’s house at the intersection of College and Cross Streets, where it remained in use by students and faculty. The “Fisk Telescope Chronology” document accounts for its later 1866 placement to the site of Rich Hall (the ’92 Theater) in and then its movement to Observatory Hall in 1869.

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Photograph of 1925 eclipse taken with use of the Fisk Telescope. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives.

 

 

Advance research using the Fisk telescope, however, was not performed until 1914 when Frederick Slocum became Professor of Astronomy. Slocum directed and initiated the fledgling parallax program; such a program dealt with the measurement of stellar objects and movements or position of stars. These measurements depended on the accuracy of the machinery used to record observations and the conditions of the atmosphere at specific times. The measurements were especially tedious, as they had to be recorded by hand pending further advancements in technology. The 6” telescope was not advanced enough to obtain accurate measurements, so in 1922 Wesleyan acquired the 20” in telescope specifically to determine stellar positions and build a more advanced parallax program. Even so, the 6” telescope was still used for documentation of the 1925 solar eclipse. I even found a printed photo of the eclipse made with the telescope while I was lurking around in Special Collections.

The 6” telescope moved again as the landscape of Wesleyan began to change in 1959. It was remounted and placed in a new dome that was west of the 20-inch refractor. From documents and letters in the Wesleyan SC&A, it seems that the 6” telescope went into dormancy from 1869 and 1925. Today, it stands on display, currently in the observatory, in all its glory. So, please feel free to stop by and sneak a peak!

Fisk Telescope mounted in the Van Vleck Observatory.

The Fisk Telescope in its current home at the Van Vleck Observatory.

Teaching stellar parallax through the years

How far away are the the stars?  Answering this question constituted the major research effort of the Van Vleck Observatory for the bulk of the twentieth century. Using a technique called stellar parallax, the astronomers, plate measurers, and computers who worked at Van Vleck observed the heavens, made careful measurements, and performed calculations to determine the distances to stars.  While students were not actively involved in this process until the mid-twentieth century, the stellar parallax program was integral to astronomical instruction at Wesleyan, as we can see from the many pedagogical aids in our collection that relate to this technique.

What is stellar parallax?

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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.

Why Science 1–2 mattered

The late 1950s and early 1960s were a pivotal time for Wesleyan’s liberal arts curriculum. It was during these years that the school began to experiment with the college system, the interdisciplinary three-year majors like the College of Social Studies and the College of Letters. In keeping with this interdisciplinary approach, the university began to loosen its distribution requirements and provide more classes geared towards non-majors. One of the resulting courses, Science 1–2, illuminates the Astronomy Department’s role in furthering Wesleyan’s liberal arts mission.

In the decades following World War II, there was a general feeling among the science faculty that Wesleyan’s traditional science requirement for undergraduates—one year of an introductory level course with a lab—was unsatisfactory. As Astronomy Professor Thornton Page put it in the 1960 Wesleyan University Alumnus, the science requirement at Wesleyan had been the “bane of many a non-scientist’s undergraduate years,” and that the necessary courses were “as inappropriate for the non-science major as a cookbook for a would-be gourmet, or a lecture on grammar for a theatre audience.” Page explained that non-science majors would benefit from a more general understanding of the fundamentals of science, how the sciences relate to each other, and the contemporary research being done in those fields, rather than taking separate introductory courses in individual subjects. By spreading the course across the entire academic year (hence the 1–2 designation), students would receive a more comprehensive introduction to the fundamentals of science across disciplines.  A similar course, Humanities 1–2, offered a complementary approach geared towards science students.

First taught in the fall of 1959, Science 1–2’s primary goal was to teach humanities and social science majors the fundamentals of a broad range of scientific disciplines through lectures, labs, and independent projects. The course was divided into three broad topics: Space and Motion, Matter and Energy, and Life and Time. Multiple professors from biology, physics, astronomy, mathematics and chemistry lectured during each section. After each topic there was a two-week reading period during which students developed their own personal project in conjunction with a faculty advisor. The projects culminated in a final paper, the best of which were then chosen at the end of the year by a committee of peers to be published and distributed around campus in a scientific version of a college literary magazine. This structure gave students a broader overview of the field of science than a typical first year introductory course would, while still emphasizing laboratory research and asking students to hone their quantitative and analytical skills.

Science 1–2 essay collections from the 1960s. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

Science 1–2 essay collections from the 1960s. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

The astronomy department played an important role in Science 1–2. Thornton Page himself was one of its main designers and promoters. His research interests in extraterrestrial life were taken up eagerly by his students. Every pamphlet listed an essay on flying saucers as an honorable mention, and one even printed such an essay. His enigmatic personality, too, must have resonated with students. One essay explored the logic behind Zeno’s paradoxes through a Socratic dialogue in which the figure of Socrates was named Thornton.

An excerpt from the essay about Zeno’s Paradox. This student has named his Socrates figure Thornton. Three Sides of the Coin, May, 1961. Astronomy Department Collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

An excerpt from the essay about Zeno’s Paradox. This student has named his Socrates figure Thornton. Three Sides of the Coin, May, 1961. Astronomy Department Collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

The essays about aliens and Zeno’s paradox also illustrate the freedom that the students had in deciding their final essay topic. The essays in the pamphlets are an eclectic mix, ranging in style from formal laboratory write-ups to a summary of current knowledge about a subject. Several themes, such as continental drift and Zeno’s paradox, do crop up multiple times, but every student’s take on the matter is different. In addition, the fact that multiple essays over different years discuss similar subject matter highlight that at least the core components of the curriculum stayed the same from year to year. The broad range of topics, however, illustrate that emphasis was continually placed on introducing students to multiple disciplines and cultivating the interdisciplinary approach to subjects that a liberal arts education can provide.

While not a specific academic area of the class, the influence of the Cold War and the Space Race can be seen in many of the essays, reflecting the how those politics permeated even small liberal arts universities at the time. One student discussed the necessity of Civil Defense in relation to the “dreadful possibility of nuclear war erupting…at any time.” The student used the science behind nuclear fallout and his understanding of motion and mechanics to determine whether the United States could survive a nuclear attack. Another essay discussed the possible existence of life on other planets. The author summarized the contemporary understanding of Mars and Venus’ atmosphere and surface features, highlighting the surprising amount that astronomers knew at the time. However, he also discussed some of the more comical theories of the day, such as assuming that vegetation on Mars will be found once NASA sends its first robotic laboratory to the planet. All of this research was fueled by the United States’ competition with the Soviet Union.

Not every essay was as eccentric as the ones discussed above. Here is an excerpt from a laboratory report about the movement of oil and water through rock. The report is thorough and the drawings are incredibly detailed. Motion, Method, Motivation January, 1961. Astronomy Department Collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

Not every essay was as eccentric as the ones discussed above. Here is an excerpt from a laboratory report about the movement of oil and water through rock. The report is thorough and the drawings are incredibly detailed. Motion, Method, Motivation January, 1961. Astronomy Department Collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

The course, it seems,lasted just under a decade, disappearing from the Wesleyan course catalogues by 1967. Instead, to fulfill their science requirement, students only had the option to take a “year’s course involving laboratory work.” This change may reflect a reaction to the protests and unrest that permeated college campuses at that time. However, the interdisciplinary goal of Wesleyan and the Astronomy department was not eradicated. Today, the department offers many classes for non-majors at all levels, including a freshman seminar that explores the relationship between science fiction and science fact, and the origins of that initiative can be traced back to interdisciplinary classes such as Science 1–2. These essays highlight that a broad understanding of multiple disciplines constructively influences writing and research.