The University received a grant from Connecticut (CT) Humanities to plan an exhibit showcasing the history of the Van Vleck Observatory, which will celebrate its centennial in 2016. The exhibit is titled “Under Connecticut Skies.”
The grant, totaling $15,000, was matched by the University to fund the upcoming exhibit and was further accompanied by a $20,000 grant from the Space Telescope Science Institute. However, the second grant is not directly linked to “Under Connecticut Skies,” but will be used to produce a separate exhibit about the Observatory’s guest book, which holds signatures from many famous figures in the astronomy field.
Alongside the preparation of the two exhibits, the University is also currently restoring the nearly one hundred-year-old 20” telescope in the main dome of the Observatory and hopes to have it ready for observation on the 100th anniversary of the facility’s dedication on June 16, 2016.
John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy William Herbst wrote about the basics of the plan as it stands and the motivation behind it in an email to The Argus.
“We are excited to have an historical study of the Astronomy Department and the Van Vleck Observatory undertaken 100 years after its founding in 1916,” Herbst wrote. “This will lead to a virtual and actual exhibit which will tell the story of [the University’s] role in astronomy research and education during the last century. It will also include contributions from Connecticut citizens…whose activities and contributions were fostered by their connection with the Observatory. There will be a permanent exhibit in our library that should serve our department, our students, the University and the Greater Hartford Community for decades to come.”
Assistant Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield commented on the motive behind establishing the exhibit, arguing that it is a good way to expand public outreach beyond the various public viewing nights already offered and the University’s relationship with the Greater Hartford Astronomical Society.
“We have a long history of public outreach that mostly involves looking into the sky through the telescopes at public viewing nights throughout the semester every Wednesday night,” Redfield said. “But if it’s cloudy, or if you’re just looking for something else to do while you’re here at the observatory, there’s all these interesting artifacts [which] are not presented in an accessible way…. We’d like to celebrate our centennial and, in the process, develop an exhibit we can use for years to come to make the Observatory accessible, rain or shine.”
Herbst commented on the place of the Van Vleck Observatory in astronomical history, stating that it has long been a center of important research and a magnet for astronomy notables.
“One can see from all the famous people who signed our visitor’s book, that Van Vleck has been a key center for astronomy in the [Northeast] since its founding,” Herbst wrote. “Almost every famous astronomer, from Edwin Hubble [to] Nobel Laureate Adam Riess, has visited us at some point. Our Van Vleck refractor is famous for its contributions to distance measurements of nearby stars…. Our faculty have made contributions in many fields of astronomy including star and planet formation, galaxies and black holes, exoplanets, and radio astronomy.”
Assistant Professor of History Paul Erickson is currently arranging a team of interns who will look through the observatory archives and conduct interviews with former astronomers and members of the Greater Hartford Astronomical Society this summer.
“I’m very interested in the stories of the individuals who did the invisible work…behind the production of astronomical knowledge,” Erickson said. “These tended to not be professional astronomers, but actually technical personnel, and, in at least one case, a departmental secretary, and they played a very key role in making astronomy work. [Astronomy is] much older than any of the older sciences that exist as we know them today…. It’s interesting to see how it reinvents itself…. It’s a very, very different world from the early 20th century, where calculation and computation was a sweat-soaked activity.”
Redfield spoke to the importance of illustrating the history of the science, as it provides context and inspiration to other astronomers.
“Science, as it’s presented to students and as we read about it, is very cleaned and trimmed down,” Redfield said. “It…seems like science occurs in a very simple, straightforward way, and that’s not how science is done at all. It’s a very confusing and messy process…and it’s only over time, with work from many scientists doing many different kinds of experiments on the same topic, [that] a cohesive idea comes out. We celebrate those people…but…it’s really an effort that involves a lot of people…and I think we can get at some of that by looking at the guest book and the other artifacts that we have here at the observatory.”
Erickson stated that the exhibits would inspire and enable future research into the history of astronomy.
“Another benefit of this, I hope, for the University, is that by having students involved in this project and by producing an organized collection of material relating to the history of the observatory, it will help students get involved in writing about this kind of history,” Erickson said. “Hopefully it will result in things like senior theses and also the raw material for future work on the history of astronomy by students.”
Redfield summarized the promise of the exhibits, saying that they would bring much deserved attention to the past and present of a storied site.
“Both the ‘Under the Skies’ project and the guest book project are focused on the history of the observatory and learning how the Van Vleck Observatory fits into the network of science throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century,” Redfield said.