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College explores moving observatory ahead of Pickard Field renovations

March 3, 2023

Courtesy of Felicia McBride
SIT BACK AND OBSERVE: The original observatory, which may soon be open for the first time since 1991, sits vacant behind Farley field.

Since 1991, the College’s observatory has sat empty behind Pickard Field, but the Bowdoin community may soon be able to explore the skies once again. The College is considering plans to either move and renovate the observatory in a more central location or to construct an entirely new observatory.

The considerations come after last summer, when the Department of Physics and Astronomy hired an astronomer, Assistant Professor of Physics Felicia McBride. She is the first astronomer to work at Bowdoin in three decades.

For McBride, a new or renovated observatory—equipped with the latest technology and freed of its predecessor’s issues—will be crucial.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy placed the observatory out of use in 1991 for several reasons. The installation of faulty wiring in the 1980s put students using the wire-connected telescope at risk of electric shock. Further, when the College moved the observatory to its current location around 1927, the trees now surrounding the observatory either did not exist or were not fully grown, but by 1991, the trees began obscuring the skies.

Upon the observatory’s reopening, McBride hopes to further her research on neutrinos, otherwise referred to as “ghost particles,” which emanate partly from the sun and trillions of which move through the human body at a time. Astronomers are still trying to pinpoint origins of neutrinos besides the sun, and having access to a new observatory will lead McBride much closer to these discoveries.

“We can now start to see what mysterious things might be happening in a place that we’ve already studied visually, but now we know also has some really interesting … other activity happening,” Professor of Physics and Chair of the Physics Department Madeline Msall said of McBride’s research.

The recommissioned observatory will come with a new telescope that is bigger and more technologically sophisticated than the ones currently owned by the physics department. McBride said the department is hoping to buy PlaneWave telescope, the standard for colleges and universities with advanced astronomy programs. This technology would open up new research possibilities for McBride and upper-level astronomy students.

Whether the College chooses to move the existing observatory or build a new one depends mostly on budgetary restraints. Professor of Physics Dale Syphers said the department has enough of its own money to bring back an observatory of some sort, but it is unclear how much money the College and alumni donors will contribute to the project.

Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Matt Orlando noted the goal is to put the current observatory back into use. This is due, in part, to the historic value of the current structure, which dates back to 1891. Orlando also noted that moving the existing observatory is more cost-effective than building a new one of the same size.

“Given the favorable economics and the fact that the original building was safely kept all these years rather than demolished, it would be a shame not to preserve it,” Orlando said.

The third and cheapest option is to construct a roll-off roof observatory, a style which has the same technical capacities of dome-shaped observatories but lacks their aesthetic hallmarks. Orlando noted that this option is unlikely due to issues surrounding accessibility, limited load capacity and the risk of structural instability.

“It’s functioning as a campus building, not just an observatory,” Syphers said. “The physical structure [of a dome] is one of those things that people know what it is when you see it. You see that you’re on a college campus with an astronomy department.”

Orlando noted that the observatory, if moved, will be placed somewhere in the center of Pickard, as far away as possible from buildings and trees on all sides of the building, though he declined to name the exact spots being considered for relocation.

For Msall, the prospect of an active observatory represents opportunities for Bowdoin students to contribute to the field of astronomy more readily than they presently can.

“Our astronomy offerings are really small compared to the outsize importance that astronomy has in shaping physics,” Msall said. “And so we’re really hoping to increase the number of students to look more closely at the physical data of astronomy.”


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