Adventures at Harvard

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, September 20, 2013

What a fantastic day I had at Harvard on Thursday, and again I would like to thank Public Affairs Director David Aguilar and Specialist Christine Pulliam for their outstanding hospitality. They set me up with an ambitious schedule to meet with 11 astronomers throughout the day. By the time I delivered my talk at the monthly Observatory Night and then observed with the crowd using the historic 9-inch Clark refractor, the day stretched into beyond 12 hours of pure astronomy. What a great day it was, however.

Solar astronomer Alisdair Davey poses with a fantastic image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory in the “master control room,” Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 19, 2013. // all photos by David J. Eicher
I spoke with solar astronomer Alisdair Davey, who delivered an up-to-the-minute report on all manner of activities with the Solar Dynamics Observatory and other Sun-related research and also described a massive public involvement project planned for the 2017 total eclipse that will be visible across the United States. More on that to come soon. Astronomers Bill Forman and Christine Jones described their exciting Chandra research on active galaxies like the supermassive elliptical M87 in the Virgo cluster. I met with Australian astronomer Tyler Bourke, who was a reader of Astronomy and Deep Sky magazines as a youngster and evolved into an astronomer at Harvard studying star formation. I spoke with astronomer Chris Faesi about an exciting project called Astrobites (more on that later) and with Amanda Preston about astrobiology and the philosophy of science. I also ran into an old friend in the hallway, Rick Feinberg, presently press officer of the American Astronomical Society and formerly editor in chief of Sky & Telescope magazine.

Following a fabulous lunch with David Aguilar, I had a great session with astronomers Dan Milisavljevic and Raffaella Margutti, who explained their research on supernovae and gamma-ray bursts. An explosive lot, those two. Next up, enthusiastic Roy Gould described his educational project called Laboratory for the Study of Exoplanets, a website that serves student groups very effectively. More to come on that later.

One of the earliest daguerrotype photos of the Moon, taken by John Adams Whipple and William Cranch Bond, ca. 1850, using the 15-inch Great Refractor at Harvard College Observatory. Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 19, 2013.
Alison Doane, curator of the famous Harvard plate stacks, graciously took the time to show me some of the treasures of the collection, including the earliest extant photograph of the Moon and examples of the early daguerreotypes of the Moon taken by John Adams Whipple and William Cranch Bond around the year 1850. She also took me down to see the celebrated plate scanner itself, where work on digitizing plates carries on.

Astronomer Jonathan McDowell took me on a whirlwind tour of the institution, from the 15-inch Great Refractor and 9-inch Clark Refractor to the offices where great astronomers of the past like Edward C. Picking, Harlow Shapley, and many others did their great work. I saw all phases of the institution and had a wonderful time, coming away with lots of material and connections that you will see in Astronomy magazine over the coming months.

For dinner, David and Christine invited some members of the Boston ATMs, the city’s great astronomy club, to join us, along with another old friend, Stu Goldman, a veteran of the Sky & Telescope staff. We had a wonderful time and then came back to the observatory, where I delivered my talk on 10 great discoveries of the past and on comets. The talk took place to a packed house in the historic Phillips Auditorium, was telecast to a couple more rooms full of people watching on monitors, and also broadcast onto the Web (and will be available later on YouTube). It was a great success.

Following the talk, we all climbed to the roof and had a wonderful night of observing with the 9-inch Clark, with the electric skyline of Boston in the distance and the Moon brightly overhead.

See all my photos from my day in the Trips & Tours gallery on

Tags: Harvard
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