The Most Interesting Man of the Van Vleck Observatory

He doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does, he drinks his own.

Thornton Page sits in his office. Photo from the Van Vleck Observatory.

Thornton Page sits in his office. Photo from the Van Vleck Observatory.

One of the difficulties of dealing with the types of archival material that rest in a historic observatory is that, while we have a lot of material, little of it captures the personality of the people we’re dealing with. We have plenty of scientific books and teaching slides; we have fewer photos of professors and their dogs.

Thornton Page and his dog pose next to Erwin Rommel's Mercedes. Newspaper clipping in Van Vleck Observatory. Publication and date unknown.

Thornton Page and his dog pose next to Erwin Rommel’s Mercedes. Newspaper clipping in Van Vleck Observatory. Probably from the Middletown Press (based on where it is filed), date unknown.

But we do have one such photograph, and it’s of Thornton Page, the most interesting professor of the Van Vleck, a man whose idiosyncrasies capture the weirdness of the 1960s UFO-obsessed, Space Age astronomy.

We have written before on Page’s interest in UFOs and modern space science. As a Wesleyan professor, Page created the Science 1-2 program, a course for non-science majors that explained the science behind then-modern phenomena such as UFOs. In an 1966 interview with Walter Cronkite, Thornton Page–and  Carl Sagan!–explain the findings from actual scientific research on the subject. One article from the New Haven Register summed up his personal experience of the phenomena: “UFO expert has never seen one.”

Article on Page's UFO expertise. In Van Vleck Observatory. From New Haven Register, October 9, 1967.

Article on Page’s UFO expertise. In Van Vleck Observatory. From New Haven Register, October 9, 1967.

As a researcher, Page involved himself with government projects. Before coming to Wesleyan, he observed the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. He also did classified work during the 1950s for the Operations Research Office at the Department of the Army. During his tenure, he was often on leave, working instead for NASA and assisting with the Apollo programs.

But while his scientific life was focused on the new technology and space-obsessiveness of the Cold War, his home life was focused more on capturing—and re-enacting, one might say—past events.

Page drove the Mercedes supposedly owned by Erwin Rommel (pictured above). (Yes, that Erwin Rommel) The vehicle, he explained, had no prior records of ownership but was likely owned by Rommel because it had bullet holes in it. The Deimler Corporation, Page said, also identified the car as Rommel’s.

He also owned an 18th-century New England farm. Inside his house, he brewed his own beer. The beer’s labels displayed his old property.

And the beer’s moniker? “Pagerbrau,” which loosely translates to “Page Beer.” A fitting title for the most interesting beer of the most interesting man of the Van Vleck Observatory.

Stellar parallax or Cold War espionage?

At the dedication of Van Vleck Observatory on June 16, 1916, the observatory’s first director, Frederick Slocum, outlined an agenda for the new institution: determining the distances of stars. This stellar parallax program constituted the observatory’s main research effort for the majority of the twentieth century.

The parallax program involved researchers as well as many human “computers” who were aided by tools, such as the Millionare mechanical calculator, to perform the necessary calculations. Advances in technology allowed for more accurate measurements and faster computations, changing the kinds of work people did. The Mann comparator, which the Astronomy Department purchased in the late 1950s, was one of the observatory’s most important acquisitions in this regard.

A photo of the Mann Machine

The Mann Measuring Machine. Photo by the Author. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

The Mann was an important aid to the people tasked with measuring the distances between the different stars recorded on glass plate images of the sky. The stellar parallax program’s results were contingent on both how the plates were recorded and how they were interpreted, so accurate measurements were crucial for exact results. Previously, plate measurers had worked solely relying on their eyes to gauge the minute distances that would be used in their calculations. With the Mann, the measurers could insert each plate and look into a viewfinder, using a mechanical crank to move the plate very slowly by degrees in order to pinpoint the exact locations of the stars and make measurements between them.  It was still tedious work that required a practiced eye, but the comparator made accuracy easier to achieve.

When you take a closer look at our Mann comparator, you can see that there are two small name plates attached to it. One, close to the crank, indicates the manufacturer and serial number of the device. The other, larger plate is affixed to the base and reads, “PROPERTY OF U.S.A.F – 866477 – DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG.” What do these two tags tell us?

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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.

“Keep watching the skies!”

These were the words of reporter Ned Scott (played by Douglas Spencer) in the 1951 U.S. science fiction film, The Thing from Another World. People listened. Especially after the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, the ensuing “space race” put Americans’ eyes on the skies as never before. The prospect of space travel, the possibility of encountering alien life forms, and mass interest in “unidentified flying objects” (UFOs) also kept astronomers in the media limelight.

Case in point: Thornton Page, director of the Van Vleck Observatory from 1960 to 1971 — the heart of the space race. Page had a long history of involvement with the US military and intelligence services from World War II onward; he also worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), American’s civilian space agency, during the 1960s. In the process, he became something of an authority on UFOs. In this film clip from 1966, you can see him being interviewed by news great Walter Cronkite (“the most trusted man in America”) together with fellow astronomer Carl Sagan (who you may know as the host of the 1980s TV series, Cosmos). Watch as Page, Sagan, and Cronkite talk about the existence of UFO’s and the possibility of contacting alien civilizations (with thanks to my colleague Matt for pointing me to this clip):

The introduction explains that radio signals can be used as “electronic ears” to determine whether or not we are alone in this universe. You’ll also learn that Carl Sagan acted as a consultant to an Air Force scientific panel, while Page had sat on a CIA committee that investigated UFO reports. In 1952, the committee concluded there is no evidence of UFOs (although perhaps elements within the FBI took longer to get the message.)

Subsequently, in December 1969, Page chaired an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Symposium on UFOs. He and 14 other scientists presented papers which were later published in a book called UFO’s: A Scientific Debate, edited by Sagan and Page. Partly as a result of this Symposium, Page served as a panelist and judge of papers submitted for the APRO Award and wrote the article on UFOs for Encyclopedia Britannica.