The future is bright and the sky is no limit for college astronomers

A group of Williams students went to Australia for 10 days right before exams last semester. In 2001, they went to Zambia. Were these lucky students history majors, marine biologists or burgeoning anthropologists? They were not. Jay Pasachoff, professor of astronomy, brings astronomy and astrophysics majors on his expeditions to study eclipses around the world.

Jesse Dill ’04 was swayed by this perk in deciding whether to major in physics or astrophysics. “It was a flip of the coin,” he said, “but astrophysics gets to go on trips.” Kristen Shapiro ’03 said she enjoyed the eclipse studies because students actually “do the experiments and get results, and you can look at the data and say, ‘wow, I did this.’”

She and Dill both mentioned the myriad opportunities the department offers. Shapiro also likes “the closeness,” likening it to a family. That intimacy stems from the small size of the department: three faculty and roughly eight majors per year. Those intending to pursue careers in the field are generally directed into the astrophysics sequence, while those desiring a pronounced, yet less technical grasp of the science (writers, for example) tend to stick with astronomy.

The department offers more than just trips. All introductory level courses include observation time using Williams’ 24-inch diameter reflecting telescope. The College bought the telescope in 1991 and the department recently upgraded its computer system to allow students to point the telescope merely by clicking on the area of the sky they wish to view.

“Modern astronomy, like so many things, is computer intensive,” said Steven Souza, observatory supervisor and instructor. “At this point, we’d be lost without them.” The observatory is also equipped with several smaller telescopes, a solar spectrograph and several CCD cameras, which measure light received and can detect objects 10 times fainter than those a consumer digital camera can.

As students progress in the major, many choose to take an observing course, and the faculty encourage students to be adventurous in their observing. “Our telescope is very high quality,” said Karen Kwitter, professor of astronomy and chair of the department. “It’s research-quality, but unfortunately, we do not have research-grade skies.” Williamstown’s often overcast weather and the light generated by the bustling metropolis make observation difficult at times. Even on clear nights, the surrounding mountains often cause a turbulent atmosphere that makes for blurred images of the cosmos. For research purposes, students accompany faculty to professional national and international sites.

The department has the added strength of the Old Hopkins Observatory, the oldest extant observatory in the nation. Built between 1836-38 by professor Albert Hopkins and his students, it was moved in 1908 and again in 1961 to its current location in the Berkshire Quad. The observatory now houses a planetarium and museum. Planetarium shows cover a variety of topics and are scheduled for Friday nights at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free and reservations should be made by calling x2188.

The recent disaster of the Columbia space shuttle has caused many to wonder if continuing NASA’s program of manned space flight is worth the costs, both human and monetary. All three faculty members agreed that we should continue sending humans into space. “There are many spin-offs you can use to justify it, but it’s important because we’re human and we want to explore,” Kwitter said. She noted that people often present what she termed false choices: “Either we feed the hungry or we go into space.” Such choices do not accurately reflect the situation, she said, and additionally noted that “we need to continue that particular adventure for all of our sakes.”

Souza agreed that human space flight does not need economic justifications and mentioned that he felt a personal link to Kalpana Chawla, the mission specialist from India who died on the Columbia. She was fascinated by the stars and sky from a very early age, he said, and “her interest in flying really resonated with my own feelings.” Souza and Pasachoff both mentioned a sense of disappointment that astronauts are mostly going into orbit now instead of going to the moon or continuing on to Mars.

“There are risks,” Souza said. “But everyone who goes understands those risks and everyone still wants to go.” Pasachoff agreed, saying, “They’re taking risks for national goals, not personal pleasure. If NASA offered me a chance to go into space next week, I would go.”