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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

In a Galaxy Far, Far Away...

Atop the Science Center, a telescope with a colorful past sits nestled in a cozy observatory where generations of visitors have both studied and socialized

By Julie R. Barzilay, Crimson Staff Writer

In Sept., 1992, enrollment for Science A-17: “The Astronomical Perspective” was not as sky-high as professors Owen Gingerich and David W. Latham would have liked.  Some faculty  might have called it a day and commenced firing excess teaching fellows—but for Latham, the fun was just beginning.

“At a meeting to brainstorm ways of increasing enrollment, I suggested skywriting,” Gingerich recalled. “Dave went right back to his office and started telephoning.”

After downgrading from a skywriter to a banner-bearing plane (the skywriter was all the way in Newark, N.J.) and securing a half-price deal, it was only a matter of time before the simple message—“Sci A-17. M, W, F. Try it!”—rippled above Harvard Yard for all to see.

“The amazing thing was that Harvard students aren’t used to looking up, so very few students actually noticed the plane with the banner,” Gingerich said.

In the 1960s, this same spirit inspired Latham to spearhead the relocation of the Michael Telescope from Bucyrus, Ohio to its current home atop the Science Center in the Loomis-Michael Observatory. The observatory, ten stories high and brimming with vibrant paintings of astrological signs and symbols, is now accessible to anyone in the Harvard community who attends a short training session.

But since its installation, the observatory has been more than a scientific tool. Over the years, the dome perched high above campus has become a cross between an educational resource and a social space—playing host to amateur stargazers and poetry readings, study breaks and pre-Formal photo-ops, as well as an aging log book with messages from all the visitors who have passed through the observatory since 1976.

OHIO TO CAMBRIDGE OR BUST

Charles Michael was an avid astronomer, so for Christmas one year, his father Walter presented fifteen-year-old Charles with a telescope all his own. The enormous telescope was conveniently stored in the backyard observatory of his family’s Bucyrus, Ohio estate.

When Charles went off to college, the telescope fell into disuse and his father—head of the Ohio Locomotive Crane Company­—bequeathed it to Harvard University.

But before the construction of the Science Center in 1973, the University had nowhere to house the nearly four-meter, cast iron instrument.

“Walter Michael asked every year, politely at first, ‘when are you going to come get your telescope?’” recalled Latham, who was a graduate student at Harvard at the time and is now an Associate of the Harvard College Observatory and a lecturer on astronomy.

Once space was set aside in the Science Center, another obstacle arose—the estimated cost for transporting and installing the telescope was astronomical, so to speak.

If not for Latham, the story might have ended there.

“[Latham] decided he could personally get the telescope here for half the estimate of Buildings and Grounds, so he was commissioned to do it,” said Gingerich, referring to the Harvard department that would have been responsible for the relocation. Gingerich is professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science, and a senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Latham zipped over to Ohio, and, with a few local vendors and a hired crane, lifted all the telescope sections out of Michael’s garden. He drove the pieces to Cambridge in a rental truck, all the while contemplating how he would lift them to the tenth story of the Science Center when the elevators only reached floor number eight.

After some poking around, Latham found a hatch in the machine room above the elevator that enabled him to hoist the pieces up the final stretch.

Despite the occasional hiccup—like when strong winds almost swept away the partially-assembled dome—colorful characters made the task quite fun, Latham said. For instance, Latham remembers the head of the rigging crew, whose encouragement involved not only commands about force, mass, and acceleration but some “spicy language” as well.

“After it was all assembled, he approached me very meekly and asked if he could bring his bible class into the telescope room,” recalled Latham, who was fascinated by the contrast and happy to oblige.

Ever since the installation—funded by busines entrepreneur Lee Loomis—was completed, that tradition of openness has continued.

“I always emphasized that we should make the telescope available to anyone with a little training,” Latham said. ”I think there is enormous value in being able to do something yourself, get your hands on the equipment, and make your own mistakes.”

DARK SIDE OF THE MOON

Upon entering the observatory, visitors are encircled by the emerald-green dragons, turquoise sea-monsters, husky gray dogs, and fiery phoenix that blaze across the walls around the roughly 2,000-pound telescope.

Each painting puts its own spin on traditional iconography: the Sagitarrius constellation is depicted with Egyptian flair, another adopts a Chinese motif, and yet another portrays the classic scene of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus.

These paintings were not the work of an ancient mythology professor, but a final project in Science A-17. Beyond these paintings, project options included writing music that followed Kepler’s laws for the music of the spheres and choreographing dances that represented planetary movements.

“You can imagine a professional observatory being a really dry place,” said current Student Astronomers at Harvard-Radcliffe President Tom S. Rice ’12. “But the paintings add a really romantic element.”

Faded photographs depicting the telescope’s installation, old Crimson articles about STAHR, and images of galaxies fill the remaining bits of wall.

An outdated computer sits on a desk next to a bookshelf of old astronomy texts—the “rejects” from Cabot Library, according to STAHR Observatory Manager Kristin I. Barclay ’14.

“The computer doesn’t connect to the internet, so it’s essentially a very expensive CD player,” Barclay said.

Latham and Gingerich were known for playing a different astronomy-related tune at the beginning of every class, and challenging students to connect its lyrics to the day’s lesson.

“I’m convinced that a handful of the students would get that little extra motivation to come to lecture just to see what music I was going to pick,” he said, recalling music ranging from the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” to “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (for its famed lines “Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Figaro,” of course).

Today, music and stargazing still go hand in hand.

“The Planets Suite by Gustav Holst is still up there today,” Rice said. “But we also recently brought a copy of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon.’”

MORE THAN JUST STARGAZING

Because the University has since acquired several state-of-the-art, computerized telescopes, the Michael Telescope serves as a tool for amateur stargazing.

“The delightful thing about the Loomis-Michael telescope is that you have to use it by hand and really understand firsthand what is needed to find your way around the sky,” said Astronomy Professor Jonathan E. Grindlay, who advises STAHR.

Over the past year, STAHR trained over 200 students to use the telescope, Rice said. In addition, STAHR recently hosted celestial poetry readings in conjunction with The Gamut—a Harvard poetry magazine—and a mooncakes festival with the Chinese Students Association.

Students also use the deck for their own undertakings.

Allyson M. Freedy ’14 took advantage of the “stunning” view from the outside deck to take freshman formal photos with her date last weekend. Due to the combination of high heels and an accumulated two feet of snow on the deck, her date had to carry her in most of the shots, she said.

Peer Advising Fellows Todd G. Venook ’13, Sophie L. Angelis ’13, and Alex L. Sopko ’12 led their advisees to the roof for a study break this fall, complete with hot chocolate, cookies, and Angelis’ guitar.

“I think it’s representative of something about Harvard that anybody can be granted access to both the observatory and the roof with only a two hour class,” Venook said, as he recalled sitting on the rooftop in the September air while his advisees sang along to “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show.

Several students alluded to something spiritual about sitting ten stories high and gazing at the silhouettes of Annenberg and Memorial Church in the twilight.

“We went up there and prayed to the housing gods that we’d get into Adams,” Ryan E. Heffrin ’13 said, referring to housing day last year. “It definitely worked.”

Grindlay remembers seeing a space shuttle blazing across the Boston sky and the rare Transit of Venus in 2004 from the rooftop.

“It was visible in Cambridge at 6:30 in the morning, and the Science Center was literally packed with people,” Grindlay said. “Through the telescope filter you could see this black block crawling across the surface of the sun—it was something you only get to see once in a lifetime.”

WRITTEN IN THE STARS

When students take the STAHR training course, they learn many important rules: never open the dome when winds are above 25 miles per hour, do not use the telescope to look at the sun, and do not swing the telescope too forcefully. But the most important rule, STAHR Treasurer Samuel M. Meyer ’13 says, is to always, always sign the logbook before leaving the observatory.

The logbooks, stacked on a shelf that holds a robotronic “Dalek” figurine (from the science-fiction television show Dr. Who), date back to 1976.

While many messages are practical (“Some idiot left the telescope at a 135 degree angle”—1984), others are more romantic (“The line of light at darkness, moving against the moon; celestial, orblike, seasoning, wearing the grooves ... But all is not lost! Those love tossed nights SUSTAIN”—1990). Beatles quotes, sketches of Bart Simpson poking his eye on a telescope, and depictions of lunar surfaces also adorn these pages.

Flipping through the books recently, Rice said he found signatures from a genuine astronomy legend—Neil deGrasse Tyson ’80—who is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

Not all the entries are equally inspiring, however.

“Duuuude! Sweet. Had a lunar eclipse party with college chicks and salsa with chips!” reads a 2008 entry.

The observatory, it seems, is full of life lessons—both about everyday experiences and the bigger picture.

“Learning about the universe gives you a sense of perspective about life and what you want out of it and what everything means,” Rice said. “I think you get that not by reading books or seeing movies, but by actually going outside and watching the stars.”

—Staff writer Julie R. Barzilay can be reached at jbarzilay13@college.harvard.edu.

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