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!

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.

An astronomer leaves for war

On April 6, 1917, less than three years after he had begun teaching at Wesleyan University, Frederick Slocum, the first Director of the Van Vleck Observatory, was looking to see how he could help his country. That day, the United States Congress had issued a declaration of war against Germany and its allies, brining the nation into World War I. Four days later, Slocum wrote to the Secretary of the Navy “to see if I can be of service to the Navy Department.”

Frederick Slocum, First Director of the Van Vleck Observatory, to the Secratary of the Navy, seeking a job teaching naval navigation, April 10, 1917. Frederick Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory.

Frederick Slocum, First Director of the Van Vleck Observatory, to the Secratary of the Navy, seeking a job teaching naval navigation, April 10, 1917. Frederick Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory.

The conflict in Europe had been looming over the Astronomy Department and the Observatory since the two were created. Slocum had begun teaching at Wesleyan in 1914, less than two months after the beginning of the war. And plans to build an 18.5-inch refracting telescope were derailed in 1916, because the lens manufacturer was French and could not make, much less ship, the lens until the war was over.

But with American entry into the war, the entire University—not just the Astronomy Department—was altered. In 1917, President William Shanklin, according to the Wesleyan University Bulletin, appointed Lieutenant Arthur James Hanlon as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. In this position, Hanlon taught student volunteers in a military training course.

Soon, almost every student was participating in Hanlon’s class. The students received credit for taking the course, despite the fact that it consisted mostly of physical exercises; there was virtually no academic content in what Hanlon taught. Furthermore, over the course of the war, later issues of the Bulletin reveal, the number of credits students received from the course increased. The message was clear: student life, academic and extra-curricular, was to be centered on the war effort.

Like many Americans, Slocum saw it as his patriotic duty to take an active role in mobilization for war. He aimed to use his astronomical training to teach courses in navigation. Growing up in Massachussetts, the son of a ship captain, and a sailing enthusiast, Slocum had longstanding experience with celestial navigation, using the stars to determine his position at sea. Wesleyan University did not offer such a course, so he reached out to the Navy Department and the U.S. Shipping Board to see if he could use his skills to train cadets.

Slocum’s inquiries soon bore fruit. In 1917, he took up a position with the U.S. Shipping Board, and, in 1918, he began teaching nautical science at Brown University.

Slocum teaches a course in celestial navigation at Brown University in 1914. Images of Brown, Brown Digital Repository, Brown University Library.

Slocum teaches a course in celestial navigation at Brown University in 1914. Images of Brown, Brown Digital Repository, Brown University Library.

Although he supported the war effort, President Shanklin was concerned with Slocum’s absence from campus, fearing that Wesleyan’s new star professor might not return. Slocum was central to the university’s goal in building the Van Vleck Observatory: creating a small but significant research program to advance astronomical science by determining the distances to the stars. From the time Slocum left the Wesleyan to the time he returned, this stellar parallax project was on hold.

In a 1918 letter to Slocum, Shanklin stated that Wesleyan University had hoped to see a similar course offered; however, the Navy was unwilling to fund it. Instead, he wrote, the Navy had decided that the larger university at Yale could handle all the new recruits, leaving Wesleyan without a nautical science program. Still, Shanklin told Slocum that he was trying to change the minds of Navy officers—and encouraged Slocum to return to Middletown should he succeed.

Shanklin’s concern that Slocum might not return to Wesleyan after the war, it turns out, was well-founded. In a letter sent to Frank Schlesinger, of Yale University, in December 1919, Slocum revealed that he had in fact resigned from Wesleyan after the University had refused to lend him to Brown during the war. He wrote that, even though the war had ended, “I feel that I am still enlisted in the service of the country.” On April 8, 1920, Schlesinger informed Slocum that he had written to Shanklin, without Slocum’s prior knowledge, encouraging Shanklin to bring the first Director of the Van Vleck Observatory back to the University. It was only then that Slocum returned to teach at Wesleyan.

Slocum’s temporary absence reveals how “total” a “total war” can be. Throughout academia, professors left during World War I and World War II to contribute to the war effort in any way they could. Unless a university had a program especially designed to allow professors to use their teaching skills in training military cadets, a large number of faculty members were prone to leave. They would often never return.

Decades later, during World War II, the United States government gave Wesleyan University funding for a course similar to the one Shanklin had requested during World War I. Military training courses returned to the university, but they were academic courses and included instruction in navigation. This time, Slocum stayed at Wesleyan and taught a class, through the Civil Aviation Authority, called Navigation for Sea or Air.

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.

Reflecting the past

Earlier this year, we came across some old scientific instruments kicking around Wesleyan’s Exley Science Center: microscopes and preparation plates, spirit levels, laboratory equipment, and, most interesting to us, a couple of small telescopes. What was interesting about this discovery was that several of the instruments dated back to the eighteenth century—a hundred years before Wesleyan was established in 1831.  What were they doing here?

We’ve since been trying to learn more about this collection of (mainly optical) instruments.  Inside their carefully crafted wooden cases, we found a few clues to their identities, if not their provenance.  Typewritten labels, which look to be from the 1970s or 1980s, suggest that these items may have been part of a small exhibit before. Newspaper protecting the more fragile elements dates from the 1960s.  Clearly these devices hadn’t been orphaned for too long—just long enough to be forgotten.

This Gregorian refracting telescope seems to date from the mid-1700s. An old handwritten label indicates that it was probably manufactured by Mann and Ayscough, who worked together from 1743 to 1747.

This Gregorian refracting telescope seems to date from the mid-1700s. An old handwritten label indicates that it was probably manufactured by Mann and Ayscough, who worked together from 1743 to 1747. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

The two telescopes in the collection are particularly interesting, given their age.  Both are reflecting telescopes, meaning that they use mirrors rather than lenses to focus light.  Reflecting telescopes were rare in the eighteenth century because it was very difficult to manufacture a smooth mirror whose reflective surface was on top of, rather than underneath, the glass.  Having the reflective surface below a refracting layer of glass distorted the image; overcoming this was a technical challenge for those seeking to manufacture telescope mirrors.  These two telescopes are thus very early examples of reflecting telescopes, from an age when refracting telescopes using lenses were the norm.

Gregorian reflecting telescope, G. Adams, 1795.

Gregorian reflecting telescope, G. Adams, 1795. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

These telescopes are also interesting in that they are tabletop instruments.  Each is equipped with its own stand, as well as a set of knobs for adjusting the angle and position of the tube.  This suggests that these were designed as gentlemen’s telescopes, and perhaps that they came to the university as a part of a faculty member’s personal collection.  So far, we have not been able to locate any records of their purchase or use, although it seems possible that they were used as teaching tools.

Today, most of the large telescopes crowning remote mountaintops are reflectors, and many of them contain not just one primary mirror but several mirrors arranged in an array.  (Most of these very large mirrors are made at the Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson—you can visit and take a tour to see the process yourself.) In that basic sense, these two little eighteenth-century telescopes are akin to the massive research instruments of today, even though they appear similar to the observatory’s 20-inch refractor.

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.

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.”