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!

Don’t judge a book by its cover: the hidden treasures of Mildred Booth Stearns’s library

The books of Mildred Booth Stearns are a prime example of the joy and insight that can be found by poking through a few objects. Mildred Booth Stearns was a computer at the Yale Astronomy Department after graduating in 1920 from Vassar having specialized in Mathematics. Today, the word computer is only used to describe the object you’re probably reading this blog post on, but in the pre-IBM world, a computer meant a person, often a woman, who made calculations, especially for scientific work. She would have been doing complicated and time-consuming measurements and calculations at Yale, and it is within the Yale Astronomy Department that she met her future husband  Professor Carl L. Stearns, then a grad student. She moved to Middletown, 8 Brainerd Avenue, when Carl became a professor at Van Vleck Observatory, and during World War II she taught physics to Navy cadets at Wesleyan.

Van Vleck Observatory has eleven books that Mildred wrote her name in the front cover of, with such scintillating titles as The Elements of Electricity and Magnetism, New Analytic Geometry, and Simplified Theory of Flight. Many of the books were college textbooks, indicated by her dorm room number inscribed and her annotations like “Learn,” “Do some,” and “Try a few.” Those college textbooks must have stayed relevant to her life, considering that they did not stay behind at Vassar but followed her to Yale and then Wesleyan. Mildred Booth Stearns’s life shows the opportunities for women in the sciences during early and mid twentieth centuries, opportunities that are now often forgotten. Pieces of paper tucked unobtrusively inside her books suggest the priorities and diversions of a woman actively engaged in scientific research and teaching during the first half of the twentieth century.

I opened up one book, The Elements of Electricity and Magnetism, expecting annotation but nothing else. And while I found an inscription “Mildred Booth – 1920/201 Lathrop” in the front cover as expected, I also found something completely unexpected. When I opened the book, I found three yellowing, folded newspaper cut-outs, and when I unfolded them, I discovered three crosswords. They were all from the New Haven Evening Register, and dated Monday, November 17th, 1924, Tuesday, November 18th 1924, and Wednesday, November 19th, 1924. Monday and Tuesday are blank: Wednesday is completed except for 26 across and down, each three letters, with the clues being, respectively, “A unit of electricity” and “Part of a wheat plant.” Wednesday’s crossword is Valentine’s Day themed, a heart with February 14th written in it: she had married her husband in 1923, and one wonders whether that influenced her decision on which crossword puzzle to complete and which to leave blank.

An almost-finished Cross Word Puzzle by Mildred Booth in the shape of a heart

A crossword puzzle with a Valentine’s Day theme, nearly completed by Mildred Booth. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University. Photo by the author.

By leaving crosswords from 1924 in a textbook inscribed in 1920, Mildred Booth gives further context to her life and usage of these books. According to the Vassar Alumnae Register, Mildred Booth Stearns was a computer at Yale between 1920 and 1923, meaning that she left the same year she was married, probably after marriage—but she was still using her textbook on Electricity and Magnetism in 1924, consulting it frequently enough to tuck unfinished crosswords in it. It is impossible to know whether she was helping Carl Stearns with his research or just looking at the books because she genuinely enjoyed physics, but either way, this technical physics textbook was still important to her after marriage, when she no longer had an official scientific position. Women’s interest and participation in science cannot be measured by job records alone, as this serendipitous clipping tells us.

Mildred Booth Stearns’s books did not only contain crosswords; they contained a wealth of primary sources on the domestic war effort during World War Two. During the war, Mildred brushed up on her college courses in order to teach physics to Navy cadets at Wesleyan, but she also learned new things about the practical reasons such cadets would be learning physics: flight. The only paperback in the collection is a slim book entitled The Effects of Flight, published in 1943 “by the Authority of and under the Supervision of Training Division, Bureau of Aeronautics U.S. Navy.”

Paperclipped to the title page of this book were two yellowing clippings of text with parts of color pictures on the back. They are excerpts from newspapers, and begin: “Tension is the enemy of endurance. We civilians haven’t got a right to indulge in it, for it’s dangerous to the war,” and on the next clipping, “effort.” The clippings are from an essay called “Give Yourself A Chance!” by Louise Redfield Peattie, which was printed in the Spokane Review in Spokane, Washington, on June 19th, 1943 with the same layout, but possibly in other newspapers as well. The article discussed the dangers that would be encountered if civilians worked too relentlessly on the war effort, to their own detriment and the detriment of the country.  To remedy this problem, the piece encouraged “recreations that really make us into better Americans.”  It’s a poignant clipping for a teacher and mother of three who was making an essential contribution to the war effort. It made me wonder whether Mildred Booth Stearns clipped it for herself or whether a friend or relative, possible in Spokane, clipped it out of the newspaper and sent it to Mildred to encourage her to enjoy herself more and work less.

Effects of Flight, Mildred Stearns’s personal copy. A slim book with a drawing of a men piloting a plan into a large bomb cloud.

Effects of Flight, Mildred Stearns’s personal copy. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

 Simplified Theory of Flight is another book Mildred used during the war, one with two pieces tucked into it that illustrate the economic effects of the war effort. Between the back cover and the last page is a pamphlet on the 4th War Loan, encouraging people to “Display Your Colors” by buying bonds. The pamphlet admonishes readers that “We can’t afford to let up now” and informs them that the starting date is January 18th, 1944.

Even more charmingly, the book also contains the July 1943 record catalogue from Columbia Masterworks, a record label owned by Columbia Records specializing in classical music, with 231 Mary and 107 Jon written in Mildred’s handwriting. The pamphlet is stamped with the label Payne’s Music House, Middletown – Conn. Payne’s Music House occupied a historic building, build in the mid-nineteenth century, at 107 College Street, right off Main Street, between 1929 and 1974. The pamphlet is intensely aware of the war: the back advertises Henry Lowell’s “Tales of Our Countryside,” music “essentially simple, direct, melodious, affecting, and richly and racily American in spirit.” It also announces that “OUR FIGHTING MEN NEED RECORDS, TOO” and promotes an organization called “Records for Our Fighting Men, Inc.” which collected unwanted records to be sold as scrap in order to fund the purchase of new records for soldiers. The pamphlet is from July 1943, the month after “Give Yourself a Chance” was printed, suggesting that Mildred Booth Stearns took the advice to heart and invested in her own recreation through classical music. Did she fear becoming burned out from the work of teaching physics to Navy cadets, a role that would not be open to women at Wesleyan except during war time?

Columbia Masterworks – a patriotic design of red, white, and blue shows the infusion of the war effort into all facets of life.

Columbia Masterworks – a patriotic design shows the infusion of the war effort into all facets of life. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

A section in the back tells reader “You can help supply this need” and admonishes them – “Act today!”

A section in the back tells reader “You can help supply this need” and admonishes them – “Act today!” Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

Mildred Booth Stearns’s books indicate that historians must leave no stone unturned: more importantly, they must leave no page unturned. The intimate artifacts of historical lives linger with us, and can be found through just a little bit of flipping through some books or shuffling some objects around. Mildred Booth left pieces of herself in every dry textbook she had, and her sources of small joys and concerns, such as crosswords, music, or articles telling the reader they are working too hard and it is dangerous, are immediately familiar to anyone. Mildred Booth Stearns was a woman involved in the sciences for her whole life: from mathematics at Vassar to her continued use of physics textbooks even after she was no longer a professional computer to her return to the world of professional science as a physics instructor who had to teach students about flight in the Second World War. Her life shows the limitations of the ways women were professional scientists in her era, but more so, it drives home the point that women in the past were doing so much more than fulfilling the stereotypes of the era.

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.