Hobart and William Smith Colleges have received a grant from The Perkin Fund to develop an observatory at HWS. Christopher Perkin ’95 is a trustee of the Perkin Fund and was instrumental in securing the grant as part of his ongoing support for the Colleges. The teaching and outreach observatory will be named the Richard S. Perkin Observatory after Christopher’s grandfather and is expected to be completed by the fall semester, 2015.
With an early interest in astronomy, Richard Perkin left a career in banking to co-found the Perkin-Elmer Corporation and manufacture precision optics. Under his leadership throughout World War I and following, the company remained at the cutting edge of instrument technology. According to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the company’s “Optical Instruments Division made the wafer-thin, transparent, gold coating on Neil Armstrong’s helmet visor used in the Apollo 11 moon landing, and in 1976 a Perkin-Elmer mass spectrometer arrived on Mars with NASA’s Viking lander.”
With the addition of Assistant Professor of Physics Leslie Hebb to the faculty in 2013, the Colleges began looking to expand their offerings in astronomy. The construction of the Richard S. Perkin Observatory will significantly support those efforts.
Hebb, an observational astronomer, anticipates the telescope and observatory will be used for a new 100-level stargazing course, in which students will learn the basics of astronomical imaging, as well as in a 200 level science class, where students will learn data and image processing.
“The image processing done in astronomy is not unlike that done in medical imaging and other fields,” she says. “By learning how to measure and catalog properties, create and maintain databases, and search and manipulate them, students will have acquired skills applicable to many jobs, from medical imaging to commercial data mining.”
Hebb points out the new stargazing course is as important an offering for students who do not plan to pursue scientific careers as it is a starting point for potential majors. “This could be the last science class they’ll ever take, and one of the most important things to introduce in a science course is how the process of science is done. The stargazing course can do this very well,” she says.
During the summer, she and a team that includes members of the provost’s staff and Building and Grounds are working to determine the construction of the observatory and what equipment to buy. They are designing the facility that includes not only the observatory with telescope, but the grounds around it for the maximum experience. It is anticipated the building will include a “warm” room, which means there will be a temperature-controlled section with the telescope’s control computers for year-round classes and observations, as well as the area with the telescope where the dome roof will open and therefore temperatures will mirror those outside.
Hebb says in considering which telescope to purchase they want to make sure, “It’s big enough you won’t be getting the same experience you can get in the backyard. You need a certain class of telescope to see the bands of clouds on Jupiter or the rings of Saturn and their different colors… the moons of Jupiter will change position over a few nights. These are the types of things that will spark and hold students’ interest.”
She adds, telescopes and observatories are currently competing against the spectacular images of space available on a computer screen. The Colleges are working to create an original experience that will rival what is seen online to inspire a lifelong love of astronomy, whether as a career or a hobby.
In addition to the teaching value the Richard S. Perkin Observatory will provide, the Colleges envision a number of community outreach opportunities once the space is finished. For example, members of the community could have an evening picnic on the grounds and then stargaze from the telescope as it gets darker; it could be used by some of the high school and middle school programs that are on campus during the summer; and be formative in growing an amateur astronomy community that fosters a love of science.
Hebb also hopes to see the development of an astronomy club, comprised of college students who are trained to use the telescope and equipment, that could host monthly observing nights for the public.
“Having this observatory on campus will enable us to use people’s innate interest in astronomy to teach students skills applicable to other careers, spark a lifelong interest in astronomy, and create citizens with an aptitude for how science works,” says Hebb.
In the photo above, Assistant Professor of Physics Leslie Hebb observes the Milky Way during a clear summer evening on campus.