November 13, 2006

Stargazers Glimpse Galaxies From Deck of Fuertes Observatory

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From the deck of the Fuertes Observatory one can see an impressive array of stars scattered overhead. Once inside the observatory’s dome, with an eye to the telescope and a helpful member of Cornell’s Astronomical Society nearby, it is possible to find even more exciting objects, such as nebulas, galaxies and planets.

Fuertes Observatory is the elegant domed building atop the hill near Appel Commons and Helen Newman Gym. It has stood there for over 80 years and much of the technology within has remained unchanged for that time.

“[The telescope within the Fuertes Observatory] really hasn’t been modified. Except for a couple of coats of paint, you’re seeing it as it would have been installed,” said Prof. Phillip Nicholson, astronomy.

Though not the most technically advanced instrument, the telescope remains a valuable piece.

“It’s from an age where the makers were essentially craftsmen. They took a lot of pride in their instruments. It’s not mass produced,” said Mike Roman ’06, former president of the Cornell Astronomical Society.

The mechanism that allows the telescope to turn and thus track the stars is independent of electricity. Like a grandfather clock, it relies on a system of weights that must be wound up on an hourly basis. According to Nicholson, this system is a “classical 19th century type of design.” Today, telescopes tend to rely on computers to complete this same function.

Though the telescope is certainly an impressive relic, it cannot be used for more serious study because it lacks the technology of modern designs.

“The optics I’d consider to be superior. At the same time, it’s not a scientific instrument the way that a world-class telescope [is],” Roman said.

Unfortunately, the telescope’s placement on North has become increasingly disadvantageous over the years.

Fuertes was originally built on North to avoid the fate of its predecessors, both of which were situated on Central Campus. According to Nicholson, the first was a wooden building near present-day Goldwin Smith that was built in the 19th century and eventually razed.

Another observatory was built in the early twentieth century, but within 20 years it met the same fate of the wooden observatory.

“By 1916 they had demolished it to build Barton,” Nicholson said.

Thus, the Fuertes Observatory was constructed far from the main hub of campus “where it would be undisturbed,” Nicholson said. Not only would there be no need to worry that new buildings would necessitate the eventual destruction of the Fuertes, the observatory would be far from the lights of central campus. At this time, none of the North Campus dormitories, including Balch and Clara Dickson, had been built.

“Gradually they built more dormitories,” Nicholson said. “They put light up into the air that scatters from dust and water vapor into the sky which makes it harder to see faint things. That’s been a main problem in recent decades.”

Because of the excess of light, it has become increasingly difficult to use the observatory for scientific purposes.

“It doesn’t have a lot of research use left in it just because North Campus is so light polluted,” said Shianne Beer ’08, current president of the Cornell Astronomical Society.

Now, only the introductory astronomy classes use the Fuertes Observatory. Higher level astronomy courses travel to a more remote observatory at Mt. Pleasant.

Indeed, the observatory was never even intended for an astronomy department. According to Nicholson, the observatory was originally used by the civil engineering department for topographical mapping. It was not until the 1960s that an astronomy department was even established at Cornell.

Today, the observatory remains a public attraction. The Cornell Astronomical Society hosts public viewing nights and lectures on Fridays and opens the observatory for special events, such as last Wednesday’s transit of Mercury.

The observatory attracts a diverse array of visitors from the Ithaca and Cornell communities.

“[The observatory]’s charming and mysterious. You can go there if you like astronomy or architecture or engineering,” said Beer.

On Friday nights, members of the Astronomical Society share their knowledge of everything from the workings of the telescope to definitions of a galaxy with curious visitors. The Astronomical Society conducts most of these events.

“All the direct interaction with the public is done by the Astronomical Society people. That’s at least as important as the actual classes we teach up there,” Nicholson said.

Roman concluded, “To be there on a clear night, to be under the stars with friends sharing with the public something you love – it’s quite a privilege.”