Under Connecticut Skies
Amrys O. Williams, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Wesleyan University
Roy Kilgard, Research Associate Professor of Astronomy, Wesleyan University
The Van Vleck Observatory at Wesleyan University is celebrating its centennial in June of 2016, and a group of students, faculty, and staff from across campus have been engaged in several projects to commemorate 100 years of astronomical research, teaching, and public outreach.
The 20-inch Clark refractor, used for three quarters of a century for determining stellar distances through parallax, was beginning to show its age. Refracting telescopes of such size are rare and precious, and few remain in working condition. Under the supervision of Professors Roy Kilgard and Bill Herbst, Wesleyan contracted Fred Orthlieb, Professor Emeritus of Engineering from Swarthmore College and an expert on telescope restoration, to rehabilitate the telescope. The result is a careful compromise of historical restoration and thoughtful modernization, with the goal of at least another century of operation with only routine maintenance. With its prominent location on Wesleyan’s campus, the Clark refractor enters its second century as an instrument of outreach and education, where it will welcome visitors for weekly public programs.
Beginning on May 6, 2016, the observatory’s library will reopen to the public with an exhibition on the history of astronomy at Van Vleck. Developed by a team of faculty, students, and staff, and spearheaded by Professors Roy Kilgard and Seth Redfield in Astronomy and Professors Amrys Williams and Paul Erickson in History, the exhibition will use the observatory’s extensive collection of scientific instruments, teaching materials, photographs, drawings, and correspondence to illustrate both the changes in astronomical research and teaching over the past century, and the observatory’s consistent mission of conducting instruction and research under the same roof. The exhibition will incorporate the history of science into Van Vleck’s existing public outreach programs through period lectures, demonstrations of historic artifacts, and gallery talks.
More events are planned in the runup to the opening. The Wesleyan Orchestra will hold a concert on May 1st featuring astronomically themed music, including John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis, which was composed using star charts from the Van Vleck Observatory library. On May 4th, the History Department is hosting David DeVorkin, Senior Curator at the National Air and Space Museum, who will give a talk situating Van Vleck in the history of American observatories.
In addition to interpreting the observatory’s past, the team has been working to document its more recent history through an ongoing oral history project. So far, they have conducted over 20 interviews with current and former faculty, students, staff, and amateur astronomers. The oral histories will become part of a more extensive digital collection of materials related to the history of astronomy at Wesleyan and held by the University Archives. The team is actively soliciting stories from the wider community; to learn more, visit http://underctskies.wesleyan.edu/.
As the capstone event of the centennial celebration, Wesleyan will host a one-day symposium on the 100th anniversary of the dedication of Van Vleck Observatory on June 16, 2016. The symposium is co-sponsored by the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, the local organization of amateur astronomers with whom Wesleyan’s Astronomy Department has maintained close ties for many decades. The symposium will feature panel discussions covering Van Vleck’s tripartite mission of research, instruction, and outreach, a reception with period music, and observation through the restored Clark refractor.