As I walk up the last two flights of stairs of the Science Center, the hubbub and constant chatter of the rest of campus falls away. The incessant droning of machinery, of food trucks and fans, of heaters andpiping, fades. There is just one more all too familiar beep of an HUID as I scan in, and then I enter the Loomis-Michael Observatory.
The Loomis-Michael Observatory, only accessible via a stairway and a registered HUID, sits on the 10th floor of the Science Center. Named after Walter Michael, who donated the telescope itself, and Lee Loomis, who funded its installation, the observatory is now operated and maintained by Student Astronomers at Harvard-Radcliffe, a student-run organization which hopes to allow Harvard students to learn about astronomy and appreciate the night sky. The observatory is open 24/7, but only to students who have taken the required courses and passed the required test on telescope and observatory procedure and maintenance.
Throughout the space sit dozens of logbooks, dating back nearly to the observatory’s conception in 1974. Everyone who comes to the observatory is required to write their name, the date, and the time of their visit, but they are also given the choice to include whatever information they want, whether or not it’s connected to their visit.
Some entries are standard, including a description of the celestial entities seen, a warning about a machine fault of the telescope, or nothing more than a name, but many skywatchers took some creative liberty in their entries. Numerous students took the time to draw various planets and their rings, while one entry is an intricate drawing of Puff the Magic Dragon breathing fire onto the page. Three other consecutive entries consist of various Radiohead quotes —- “s***. this is baller F***”, “do what we want,” and “Little by little, by hook or by crook.”
Another entry outlines a not so family-friendly pun about Uranus, and yet another observatory-goer wrote a love letter to all future STAHR members. One particularly excited nightwatcher wrote over a full page of other entries with a giant scribble of "CHA BOI T-BIZZY IN THE HOUSE." As Kidus A. Negesse ’22, the president of STAHR, puts it, “The logbooks capture the history of the time, the feeling of the time.”
The logbooks are a record of everyone who has been a part of STAHR and touched the observatory in their own way, no matter how small or large, and nothing exemplifies this more than the third week of March 2020. As students were informed they would have to vacate campus, their access to the observatory was coming to an end. The number of visits to the observatory and the number of entries into the logbook shot up exponentially in this last week on campus.
Basil M. Baccouche ’20, former president of STAHR,, wrote entry after entry within those last few weeks. “I will always be carrying what this place (Harvard, and the Observatory) gave to me. I wish I had appreciated it more while it happened,” one of his last entries writes. Speaking to his experience within those last few weeks, Baccouche notes the observatory as an escape from everything. “That was one of the most emotional times of my life. It felt like we were in the end of times,” he remembers. “Particularly the observatory, I think I might have gone there every night. That was the place I went to when things were overwhelming, and obviously, during that week, a lot of things were overwhelming.” Another entry, from Chelsea E. Guo ’23-’24, writes: “How many times can I come here before I have to leave on Friday?”
Students filled dozens of pages with countless odes and love letters to Harvard, STAHR, and the night sky, and then: nothing, for a year and a half. With campus closed, only a few were even able to access the observatory, and they did so rarely. Where two weeks had spanned dozens of pages in the logbook, so the next year and a half spanned one. There were no dragons drawn, no poems written, no heartfelt messages to the future, only a few names here and there, separated by months at a time.
Now, with campus open again, students are able to return to the observatory. “The logbook is recovering,” Negesse notes. “I went back up there as soon as possible,” Guo says, of her return to Harvard. “I actually felt like I was back on campus for the first time.”