Hopkins Observatory planetarium showcases night sky wonders

Every Friday, the Hopkins Observatory offers free planetarium showings highlighting various astronomical points of interest. Photo courtesy of Williams College.

It is the peculiar-looking building in Currier Quad that students gloss over as they chatter with friends on their way to Driscoll Dining Hall. It is a piece of history introduced to the average student at the College as a trivia question at Previews and never mentioned again, a structure that appears to be always locked but is actually alive and accessible every week.

The Hopkins Observatory is reputed to be the oldest observatory of its kind in the United States. Built in 1836 by Astronomy Professor Albert Hopkins, the Observatory originally functioned as a site for collecting both qualitative observations and quantitative data about the night sky. While it has now been replaced by a more modern observation deck on the roof of Thompson Physical Labs, the Observatory is not obsolete. Now, it stands as both a historical edifice and a planetarium that regularly has free shows for students and Williamstown residents.

These shows, which take place every Friday at 8 p.m., provide audience members with a guided tour of the night sky – from the stars and planets to the cosmos above them. Informative and entertaining student hosts first highlight astronomical points of interests and then take questions from the audience.

Diego Gonzalez ’18 has been hosting planetarium shows since his sophomore year. “[When] we design our shows, we get to focus on whatever aspects are most interesting for us,” Gonzalez said. “While learning high-level astronomy is all well and good, what’s really going to capture a little kid’s attention [is] to show them things they can see on their own so they can be inspired to do their own stargazing.”

Professor of Astronomy and Director of Hopkins Observatory Jay Pasachoff added that the shows are of higher quality than ever before due to recent technological installations.

“A dozen years ago, I was finally able to persuade the College administration that a 40-year-old piece of apparatus was no longer current, and so we were able to get an excellent new planetarium under the German optical company Zeiss,” Pasachoff said. “We chose the kind of planetarium that gives the prettiest and sharpest star images.”

During last Friday’s show, Gonzalez operated the Observatory’s Zeiss planetarium projector, affectionately named “Carl,” to navigate through projections of stars and galaxies with the audience. He explained astronomical terms and pointed out examples of constellations, such as the famous “Big Dipper.” From there, the audience learned about the Pleiades, a set of seven stars that was once used as an “eye-test” in hunter-gatherer cultures; Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star slated to explode into a supernova at any moment; and the Magellanic Clouds, smudges to the naked eye that are the birthplaces of stars.

The planetarium’s projections provided powerful visuals that accompanied the presentation. The night sky rotated above the audience, transitioning from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere and bringing with it new arrangements of stars.

Gonzalez then moved onto the planets, showcasing each planet’s orbital path through the solar system. The audience saw Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the other planets whizzing through the sky overhead. “And if you’re looking for where Earth is, we’re standing on it,” Gonzalez said, laughing.

“To run the planetarium is a little bit of theatre, too,” Pasachoff said of hosts like Gonzalez. He emphasized the importance of having image projections in conjunction with charismatic student presenters. “It’s more than just scientific detail,” he said.

While the format of the show has stayed consistent over the years, featured topics can change by season or showing, from special discussions about particular comets to astronomical dissections of astrological zodiac signs.

The level of scientific depth varies, but all shows aim to foster genuine interest in astronomy. For Gonzalez, his audiences’ enthusiasm has been the most meaningful part. “The kids are the best,” Gonzalez, who loves presenting to elementary school audiences, said. “They’re the most excited. The initial Space Race inspired a lot of kids to get into science, to get into engineering, which is why we got the big tech boom that we had in the 2000s. If you inspire a kid to be passionate about learning and science, they can do whatever they want.”

And for Pasachoff, generating passion for astronomy is more vital than ever. There is no better time to get involved with the field, he said; recent monumental findings in astronomy, such as gravitational waves, have changed the way scientists now view the universe.

“They’re probably the biggest development since Galileo’s telescope,” Pasachoff said of gravitational waves. “It turns out that there was a merger of two black holes a billion and a half years ago that sent out waves that reached us in 2015, squeezing the earth in opposite directions… Now there’s a whole different way of looking at the universe.”

Be it through revolutionary discoveries or the eyes of a star-struck third grader at an Observatory show, keeping this innate spirit of curiosity alive makes astronomy an exciting discipline.

“The things we can learn from space exploration and getting the world to unify as a whole to do this great thing – I think the benefits from that are incredible,” Gonzalez said. “Why should we stay in this small, little place we were born in if there’s an entire universe out there?”