Out-of-This-World Fun

A large crowd gathered for liquid-nitrogen ice cream, rocket building, and a student talk on dark matter as part of Strawbridge’s Public Observing event.

On Dec. 1, large groups of local community members and their children gathered at Haverford College’s Strawbridge Observatory to see the Seven Sisters—not the historic group of women’s college’s that includes Bryn Mawr, but the star cluster known as the Pleiades.

“I loved how excited people were to look through the telescope,” said Emily Harrington BMC ’20, a Haverford astrophysics major. “The Pleiades is an open star cluster 444 light years away. The cluster is made up of hot, bright blue stars formed from a cloud of hot gas about 100 million years ago.”

At the final observing event of the fall semester, Harrington gave a talk on dark matter to the crowd before the stargazing began.

“People had a lot of questions,” she said. “It made me so happy, and I enjoyed hearing what piqued their interest. The kids that come are very curious and intuitive and so, so sweet. I would love to make astronomy, and science in general, more accessible to the public, especially kids, so that experience was great.”

The College, which has housed an observatory since 1852, built Strawbridge in 1933, and it now12-inch and 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes that are actively used by students in Haverford astronomy classes. Since at least 1970, the Public Observing Program has invited community members in to stargaze. Though supported in the past by a faculty sponsor, last semester the public observing events were run entirely by student volunteers, who were trained on how to use the telescopes in astronomy and astrophysics classes. The Department of Physics and Astronomy helps fund the events, paying for snacks and hands-on craft supplies.

“Tonight, I’m just working downstairs in the activities room and helping out.” said Sam Ditkovsky ’20, an astrophysics major and one of the volunteers. In one room a craft table had been set up with paper, markers, and other materials to help aspiring astronauts build their very own rocketships. One room over, Winn Koster ’18 was demonstrating how make liquid-nitrogen ice cream.

The turnout for the final observing event of the semester was larger than expected so the students quickly adjusted to the sizeable crowd and set up an additional telescope to guarantee that everyone got a chance to see the stars.

“I enjoy astronomy outreach almost as much as learning astronomy, if not more,” said Koster, one of the co-heads of the Public Observing Program and a double major in astronomy and physics. “I love doing events like this, I love teaching people about stars and about science. You see all the kids here—these events are primarily catered towards kids. … We want to emphasize that the purpose of these talks is outreach. We want to break these concepts down into pieces that can be digested by kids. That’s how you inspire people to go on and continue pursuing this topic.”

In addition to their usual three public observing nights, this semester included an event as part of the annual Screw Date tradition and next semester will include an event collaboration with FAB.

Photos by Claire Blood-Cheney ’20 and Sonia Soghir ’21.