One week to go! An Exhibition in the Making

Today is Friday, April 29, 1016. The Under Connecticut Skies exhibit formally opens Friday, May 6, 2016, exactly one week from now. That can only mean one thing: it’s crunch-time. Saying that there was a lot going on in the Observatory from the hours of 9am-7pm today would be an understatement.

To even properly explain what went on in the Observatory today, I need to tell you a bit of what went on yesterday. Essentially, Matt and I cut a lot of muslin. The cabinet shelves (which will hold all of the exhibit objects) will be covered in muslin to protect the wood and lighten up the exhibit aesthetics. So each cabinet needs a piece of muslin cut-to-size. Matt trimmed the fabric, which came in giant sprawling unwieldy sheets, for a couple of hours and then I took over and finished cutting 29 pieces of muslin for 29 similarly-sized shelves.

 

Fast-forward 24 hours: I arrive at the Van Vleck Observatory around 10:30am and get to work ironing. Before all the muslin can be placed in the shelves, all the creases need to be tamed, and so I spent hours–literally hours–ironing.  Believe it or not, muslin is a very crinkly fabric, so we were mostly concerned with ironing out the giant creases from having folded it all up the day before. When I left to get some lunch, Roy asked me to label everything with great detail so that if someone else came in–also to iron for hours–they would know where to start. I completed this task with great pleasure.

 

When I came back to the observatory a couple hours later, I found Roy, Paul, and Linda huddled around a table in the hallway with a giant piece of paper. When they saw me come in, I was immediately greeted with exchanges of “Abby! You’re back!” and “Do you know how to use an Exact-o knife?”

“Yes, yes, yes! I have used an Exact-o knife many-a-times,” I replied.

“Awesome, now can you help Linda with this?”

“Yeah, sure! But what is ‘this’?”

I feel like that could be the motto of museums everywhere: “yeah, sure, but what is ‘this’?”

Anyway, I helped Linda with cutting the paper because I’m quite comfortable with Exact-o knives. One time in high school, I accidentally cut myself really badly with an Exact-o knife, and ever since, I practice the utmost in Exact-o knife safety. I’m weirdly proud of this. While I was cutting the paper, sometimes I was pressing the blade so close to the ruler, that I actually started peeling wood off of it! In any event, we cut some paper to a certain size and then filed into the library.

 

Turns out that the paper we were cutting was going behind the glass plates with astronomical images in order to minimize shadowing. While trying to stick the paper to the back of the cabinets with double-sided tape, I heard Linda use all kinds of expletives like “this horse’s patootie.” She also repeatedly asked me, “Aren’t you glad I got you out of ironing?” to which I repeatedly emphatically replied, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Astronomical images backlit from inside the cabinets

Astronomical images backlit from inside the cabinets. Photo by the author.

Meanwhile, Paul was working diligently on quite a few other essential tasks.

 

Sometime in the afternoon, astronomy students that had been working in the observatory knocked on the library door and offered to give a hand. I delegated the task of ironing to the one person who said he had “ironed at one point in [his] life”: Julian. Later Girish relieved Julian of ironing-duties, mercilessly teasing the retired player. Apparently not many Wesleyan students know how to iron, so we were lucky to find two people who kinda did.

 

Julian was then faced with task of hauling many many boxes of very very old books out of the Van Vleck office and into the library. Roy has been saying for months now that we have a ton of books ready to be sorted and go on the shelves. The books come from the Exley Science Library, and although they will be resting on the Van Vleck library’s shelves from now on, the books can still be found in the Wesleyan catalog. A bit of a conveyor belt-system while moving books around formed.

Moving books across the room in a most-efficient style

Moving books across the room in a most-efficient style. Photo by the author.

While the team of astronomers–AKA the greatest volunteer help we could’ve ever asked for–was working on moving books around and sorting the “new” ones, I helped Roy finish up the interior light fixtures. That mostly involved tightening a few screws, laying down velcro on the undersides of the shelves, and applying velcro to the light fixtures themselves so that they could be attached to the undersides of the cabinet shelves. In a couple of hours, all of the exhibit lighting fixtures were complete and installed!

The inside of the exhibit cabinets fully-fitted with DIY light-fixtures

Ta-dah! The inside of the exhibit cabinets fully-fitted with DIY light-fixtures. Photo by the author.

By the time all the light fixtures were done, some of our helpers had to say goodbye for the day. So I took over repopulating the historic library shelves with historic books. I stood at the top of the library ladder as Kevin sorted books below. When he had a couple in the right order, he would hand them off to me.

 

When Kevin finished the last books in the box he was working on, we decided to call it a day. By that point, it was already 6:30 in the evening! Everyone was ready to leave. When I finally made my way home and had collapsed on my bed, I logged onto Twitter and saw all the pictures of the hard-work us student laborers had been up to (Roy had been tweeting throughout the day). It was a very sweet feeling, and I was so happy to have a chance to work with such lovely people for such an excellent project.

We’ve got one week to go! Come see the fruits of all our labors soon!

Photo of the author stacking books on the formerly-empty Van Vleck library shelves

Photo of the author stacking books on the formerly-empty Van Vleck library shelves. I appear to be floating because I was standing on a step-stool (not pictured) at the time the photo was taken. Photo by Roy Kilgard.

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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: An Exploration of Eiko Otake’s “A Body In An Observatory”

World-renowned dancer and performance artist Eiko Otake bestowed her gifts on the Wesleyan community–and the astronomy community–just this past fall. On November 6 and 7, 2015, Otake performed a piece entitled “A Body in an Observatory.” The titular observatory, of course, was our very own Van Vleck. “A Body in an Observatory” is part of the artist’s larger series, “A Body in Places.”

Otake at beginning of dance performance

Eiko Otake at the start of her performance, “A Body in an Observatory.” In this moment, Otake is just outside the observatory overlooking Foss Hill and College Row. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.

Eiko Otake and the 20'' telescope

Eiko Otake and the eye-piece of the 20” telescope. Roy Kilgard in background. Photos courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.

On her professional website, Otake details her thinking on the performance: “I imagine how, 100 years ago, people must have been so excited in seeing this great telescope arrive to the Middletown community in 1916. How moved people must have been when they saw the stars in a way they had not seen before. Having spent some time in the observatory with the kind and patient Astronomer Roy Kilgard and local star enthusiasts, I wondered how I could have not been more tempted to see so deeply into the night sky. Beautiful, is the seemingly endless cosmos that continues expanding. Time and distance entwine in seeing stars and far into space. Beautiful, also, is the human curiosity striving for far places. It makes me feel a bit fearful, however, how far humans strive. Our body meanwhile remains our commonality (yet unknown), a vehicle to other places, a home to rest, and a reminder of our very limits of both the length and space that one person’s life occupies. My body is my measuring stick.”

Although all eyes are focused on Otake herself during the performance, the work is a product of collaboration. In fact, Roy Kilgard, professor of Astronomy at Wesleyan, worked closely with Otake in preparing, rehearsing, and ultimately performing this work of art. Among his many typical responsibilities, Professor Kilgard is the facilities manager of the observatory’s telescopes and computers, so

Eiko Otake and the 20'' telescope

Eiko Otake and the 20” telescope in a rehearsal of the work. Photo courtesy of William Herbst.

when Otake expressed desire to perform in the dome of the observatory, she and Professor Kilgard began working together because he was the only one who knew how to operate the telescope at the time. The two spent time rehearsing together and talking about astronomy and the history of the Van Vleck Observatory. During their first visits together, Otake observed Professor Kilgard conduct a training session with the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford in the observatory’s dome. After looking through the telescope and watching Professor Kilgard operate it, she decided the telescope should move with her in the performance. In effect, she would create a duet of movement between herself and the 20-inch refractor telescope. Kilgard would help operate the telescope.

While this was Kilgard’s first time participating in an event like this at the observatory, it was not his first time being involved in creative projects.

“My father was a musician and I grew up playing in a lot of bad bands. The idea of being involved in performances doesn’t scare me. However, I had no theater or dance experience so the thought of working with one of the best, most famous contemporary dancers in the world terrified me a little bit. I really didn’t want to mess it up.”

During the performance, Otake would make signals to Professor Kilgard, alerting him to when she wanted him to move the telescope. They tried their best to create signals that were subtle in order to ensure that the audience would not be able to predict what would happen next.

Otake and spectators

Otake consuming flowers while spectators look on. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Images by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography

Kilgard expressed his excitement for the event: “I was so excited to see people’s reactions, especially the people who had never been in that space before. In general I was so excited to see people’s reactions to something so weird happening in a space that was so purposely built for science 100 years ago and now there is something as far from that that you can get taking place in the same space.”

The performance itself is about forty minutes long, and Otake begins the piece by moving at a snail’s pace. “Once she really begins to move,” Kilgard explained, “people lose track of time and they become completely absorbed in what she was doing. All eyes were on her.”

Otake and spectators

Near the end of the performance, Otake tugs on the manual pulley that opens the dome. Spectators look on. Photos courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.

 

To view an edited video of Otake’s performance, click here. To view more photos from the event, click here. To read Professor Kilgard’s take on the performance, click here.

One for the money, two for the show…

Although the two phases of our exhibit planning overlap a great deal, at some point in the past several months, the Under CT Skies project transitioned from its research phase to its implementation phase. This means we’re starting to make the decisions that will definitively determine the form of our exhibit. It also means there are more power tools involved.

And so, last Friday, Tom Castelli of the Wesleyan Science Machine Shop (located in the basement of the Exley Science Building) paid a visit at the Van Vleck Observatory. Tom has been mocking up potential panels for the exhibit using lexan sheets and leftover wood from recent construction at the Usdan Student Center. The wood is quite lovely and matches that of the VVO library very well.

Tom showed us what he’s been up to, and now I’m going to show you!

Mock-up panel in library

Ta-da! This is a mock up panel that Tom made for the exhibit. Note: the protective sheet is still on the glass! (Photo by the author).

It might not look like much yet, but this is quite an important step in this phase of our exhibit-making. Just one panel raises a whole set of questions about the shape the exhibit will soon take.

For example, how are we to best protect what goes on the other side of the glass? Do we need to use material that filters out UV light so we can preserve our historical artifacts and, perhaps a bit less-importantly, our exhibit labels?

Library window facing college row and the 20-inch dome

As far as windows go, this is a pretty great one. And just look at the view! (Photo by the author)

We ruled out using UV-filtering window shades because the Van Vleck library has rather lovely windows that we wouldn’t want to hide completely.

Other questions that I had included, “What is in Tom’s mysterious bag that he keeps going back to??”

Tom searches his bag

Tom searches his seemingly magical bag. (Photo by the author)

 

What was in Tom's bag

Nosey author discovers what magic was indeed inside Tom’s bag.

And with that mystery, and a few others solved, Tom went on his way to search for UV-filtered panel options.

 

I’ll leave you with this artsy picture I took of Tom, Amrys, and Roy investigating the  wooden overlay to the glass plates on the opposite wall of the library.

 

Roy, Amrys, and Paul in the library

Tom, Amrys, and Roy in the library. (Photo by the sometimes artsy author)

Bonus points if you noticed that the glass plates are missing. The reason why? Stay tuned for more exhibit updates!

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.

Telescope Green and other custom paint colors for a custom telescope

What color is a telescope? And what does it matter anyway?

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Although old photographs in black and white might not be the most convincing evidence, at least this photo shows that the telescope paint was dark. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University Special Collections & Archives.

Back in the day (AKA 100 years ago), the 20-inch Van Vleck telescope was painted black. I believe the rationale was that astronomers wished to keep the space in the dome as dark as possible; naturally a dark paint was in order. More scientifically, the color black absorbs light. Stray light in the dome is something to consider and painting a telescope so that it can absorb stray light to the maximum seems rather logical.

Today the telescope is painted white–or more specifically, a slight off-white. The rationale here is that white reflects light. Because white does not absorb light like the color black does, a white telescope will be cooler than a black one. This is important to regulate the temperature of the instrument. The mount however is still kept at a dark hue. As for why the dome itself is painted white outside, well the story is not too different.

Now for all you extreme telescope enthusiasts out there who want to know the specific paint colors, I’m talking color codes and more here, you are in for a fun story.

Paint can lid for Dark Dakota Shadow

Paint can lid for Dark Dakota Shadow with Benjamin Moore color codes. Photo by the author.

A while back, Bill Herbst, his wife, and a consultant from the Wesleyan Art Department decided on the colors to paint the telescope: Dakota Shadow for the mount and North Star for the tubes. The Dakota Shadow was a bit too light, so a request was put in for Dark Dakota Shadow with no white added.

Paint can lid for Telescope Green with Benjamin Moore color codes.

Paint can lid for Telescope Green with Benjamin Moore color codes. Photo by the author.

Over the summer however, while working on the telescope restoration, Fred received a mis-mixed batch of paint. To remediate the error, the Cromwell Paint Spot shop named a new paint color–with the proper mix of green, yellow, black, and white–for Fred and put it in their system as “Telescope Green.”

Matt and I called the Paint Spot to investigate further. We spoke to a very nice sales representative who looked up the paint color for us. He didn’t recognize “Telescope Green” off the top of his head, but when we gave him the custom code he found it immediately! The rep said that the shop still has Telescope Green paint in stock, but because it is a custom color, we would need to bring in the can with the lid and the code to actually get the paint.

Fred points out the coats of paint on the mount. Photo(s) by the author.

Fred points out the multiple coats of paint on the mount. (Photo by the author)

This was the look on Fred’s face when Avi suggested the paint color could be called “T-Tauri Taupe.” Fred said, “I know what taupe is and this isn’t anything close!”

This was the look on Fred’s face when Avi joked the paint color could be called “T-Tauri Taupe.” Fred said, “I know what taupe is and this isn’t anything close!” In any case, Avi was working on the telescope restoration with Fred over the summer and he’s the one who tipped me off about Telescope Green in the first place. Thanks Avi! (Photo by the author)

Avi laughing

And to round out this post, here is a picture of Avi laughing, maniacally probably (not). Could he be wearing a t-shirt in the tone of Telescope Green?? And will this become the trendiest new paint color?? Only time will tell…

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Freddy!

Roy and Amrys in 20th century garb

The two stars of the evening. (Photo by Avi Stein)

Like many other curious spectators last Saturday night (6 February 2016, exactly a week ago today), I walked up the icy path to the Van Vleck Observatory at a couple minutes past 7pm, and I almost couldn’t get my foot in the door there were so many people. Squeaking open the door cautiously so as not to push anybody into the mounted Fisk Telescope that stands just a couple feet from the doorway (I mean I didn’t want to push anybody anyway…), and with a few “excuse-me’s” and “I’m-sorry-thank-you’s” later, I was in. And then, I saw two long sheets of brightly-decorated birthday-cake.

Frederick Slocum's birthday cake

One of the two birthday cakes, soon-to-be-consumed in Frederick Slocum’s honor. (Photo by the author).

But that’s just the beginning of the story. We were all there to celebrate the birthday of the first director of the Van Vleck Observatory (Frederick Slocum), eat birthday cake, and attend a circa-1916 astronomy lecture delivered by Roy with assistance of Amrys at the projector. In period costume. With authentic lantern slides. Luckily the cake didn’t also come from the year 1916.

Authentic lantern slides

Lantern slides used in the presentation. Note the date in the bottom-most slide: 1915! (Photo by Josephine Ho)

The event was so popular, that Roy and Amrys had to give the presentation twice! While the first take was going on in the Van Vleck classroom, the remaining crowd was left to observe the Pleiades star cluster with the newly-restored 20’’ telescope thanks to the help of the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, schmooze in the lobby, and eyeball the cake eagerly and a bit impatiently. Most of our team was in attendance, fielding questions about why we were all there anyway that night. One student asked, “How many planets were there in 1916?” “Well…all of the planets were already there (haha)…but I think Pluto had just been discovered!” Roy later stated that it hadn’t been yet.

Roy and Amrys after the first lecture

Roy and Amrys make it out of the first lecture alive! (Photo by Josephine Ho)

In any case, when the first talk was over, Roy, Amrys, and a wave of people poured out of the classroom, elated and a bit red-faced. I bumped into my Italian professor and asked her thoughts; her response: “fantastico.” Amrys started the crowds singing “Happy Birthday” and a friend nearby commented afterward, “That was the most in-tune ‘happy birthday’ I’ve ever heard and especially from such a large group of people!” The cake was cut and handed-out (finally). 

Amrys introducing the lecture

Amrys introduces the Under CT Skies project, the lecture, and Roy. (Photo by Josephine Ho)

At last, it was the second group’s turn. I found myself, and the other team members originally-tasked with crowd-control, in this section. Amrys began with a few words about the Under Connecticut Skies project and then invited us to close our eyes. The lights went off as she explained the major events, the new cars, and new technology of the time, and how the Great War had delayed the arrival of the 20’’ lens. She gave the floor to Roy. 

Parallax explanation

We found this delightful drawing on the back of a visitor survey filled out by an attendee of the evening. (Photo by the author)

Roy explained a bit about the observatory’s “recent” building, dedication, and ultimate purpose: “instruction and research” as Slocum had outlined in his inaugural address. “May I please have the next slide.” (Amrys changed the lantern slides right on cue every time) Roy moved on to explain how parallax measurement works, asking everyone to hold up their thumb an arm’s length away. You can calculate how far away your thumb is from your face by measuring the distance between your eyes and using simple trigonometry to find the angle at the end.This is the same concept as observing a star from two different points on the earth’s surface, and finding its distance. I’ve heard parallax described many-a-times, and I still don’t completely understand it. 

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Roy discusses the proposed element “Nebulium” during the lecture. (Photo by the author)

“May I please have the next slide.” Roy continued on talking about the “latest” advancements in astronomical research. Scientists were still puzzled by the element “Nebulium,” discovered earlier in the late 19th century. Analyzing spectroscopic lines, astronomers had named the element after the nebulae from which they believed it originated. One astronomy student whispered to another, “What’s Nebulium? I’ve never heard of it before.” A shrug of the shoulders, and: “Me neither.”

After several more “May-I-have-the-next-slide-please’s,” the talk was over, the lights came on, and Roy and Amrys broke out of character. A Q&A session began. Roy explained that Nebulium turned out to be doubly-ionized oxygen, which is why we don’t see the element on any periodic table. 

Amrys and students look at old projector together

Amrys shows off the authentic lantern slide projector to a couple of students who attended the lecture. (Photo by the author)

And finally after the Q&A session, while chatting with the students who were smart enough to know that Nebulium was never a real thing, Roy admitted that he tried to lay off telling so many astronomy jokes so as not to alienate the diverse crowd but left a few in anyway for the astronomers.

And so, by the end of the night, I felt it was safe to say that Frederick Slocum had one of the greatest birthday parties ever.

For more press coverage on this event, check out this article in the Wesleyan Argus or Roy’s very own post on the Van Vleck Observatory blog.