Physics and astronomy department urges College to preserve observatory

by Alex Fredman | 11/3/17 2:15am

by Adrian Russian / The Dartmouth

The physics and astronomy department is raising concerns that building new student housing in College Park could seriously impede its ability to teach undergraduate astronomy courses and conduct experimental physics research. The College announced on Sept. 20 that it would explore the feasibility of housing 750 undergraduates and that the Board of Trustees will make a decision on the conceptual design in November.

In an Oct. 17 letter obtained by The Dartmouth, 88 faculty, staff, students and alumni associated with the department expressed opposition to constructing student housing in College Park and urged College President Phil Hanlon and other administrators to explore alternate sites. All 25 of the department’s primary faculty members and all 15 members of the physics and astronomy department’s Alumni Advisory Board signed the letter.

“The sheer enormity of [the proposal] – we were horrified,” said Miles Blencowe, a physics professor who helped organize and draft the letter. “And so we felt that we had to inform the relevant senior administrators about the possible unanticipated or unforeseen consequences of this on our department.”

On Nov. 1, the alumni board sent an additional letter to Hanlon. Signed by advisory board chair James Slinkman A&S’86 and 12 of the other 15 board members, the letter echoed the concerns of the first letter and urged the administration to include a faculty representative from the department in the planning process.

“[The alumni board letter] was an attempt by the board to help the department and the College to see things from the perspective of dedicated alumni,” Slinkman said.

A key matter discussed in both letters is the future of Shattuck Observatory, located on the edge of College Park, which opened in 1854. The first letter’s authors write that they are “deeply concerned” about the potential construction project and that the development could lead to the loss of the observatory, which the second letter said would be “a huge blow for Dartmouth.”

“Shattuck has a lot of historical significance,” said physics and astronomy professor Brian Chaboyer, who also helped organize and draft the first letter. “I’d really hate to see Shattuck destroyed, because it’s really the oldest extant college observatory in the country — one that has not been altered, is still in its original footprint.”

According to the College’s Campus Services website, the conceptual design would preserve the Bema, Bartlett Tower and “the special character of the park,” but no mention is made of Shattuck Observatory. In an email statement, College spokesperson Diana Lawrence said that there is “no definitive plan related to Shattuck Observatory,” adding that the College is still in the early stages of the College Park design process.

Chaboyer noted that the observatory is used for frequent public viewing sessions labs and in introductory astronomy courses, which is made convenient by its proximity to Wilder Hall, host to the physics and astronomy department. He added, however, the potential light pollution from new dorms would seriously impair the telescopes’ view of the night sky even if the observatory was left standing.

“If they destroy Shattuck, I don’t know how we’d run our introductory labs, unless they built us another observatory somewhere on campus,” Chaboyer said.

Blencowe sent Hanlon a revised version of the first letter on Oct. 27. Two days later, Hanlon replied to the letter, in which he recognized the department’s accomplishments and the historical significance of College Park but did not specifically address Shattuck Observatory.

“It is helpful to hear the Department’s concerns around any construction that might take place in the College Park area,” Hanlon wrote. “It is important for us to understand, and we will consider the potential impacts of any possible construction project on neighboring entities before final decisions are made.”

Ethan Isaacson ’18, a physics major and signee of the first letter, said that Shattuck Observatory is an important site for the department’s public outreach efforts.

“I think one of the characteristics of the physics [and astronomy] department that makes it particularly special is its eagerness to share the work that it does with the public, and the observatory is a big part of that,” Isaacson said.

Isaacson added that he trusts the department faculty’s judgment regarding the observatory’s significance, and he hopes the administration takes note as well.

“It would have encouraged me as an undergraduate physics major to see an indication that people in the administration are concerned by the potential impacts on the research and history of that space,” he said.

Isaacson referred in part to Hanlon’s initial response to the Oct. 17 letter, which Isaacson said acknowledged the letter but did not specify whether its concerns would be addressed.

Chaboyer said that he and his colleagues were surprised when they saw the news release about the College Park planning study because no one from the administration had consulted the department beforehand. He said that they decided to write the letter after the director of campus planning could not confirm that Shattuck would be preserved or that the department would be consulted during the planning process.

Both letters also addressed the fact that construction in College Park could negatively affect ongoing experimental condensed matter research in nearby Wilder Hall. According to the first letter, this research involves taking extremely sensitive measurements often on the atomic level, which could be hindered by vibrations from rock blasting or from a more active electromagnetic environment due to added cell phone communication and Wi-Fi in the new dorms.

“Disruption to these research programs during and after construction will likely lead to delays in progress, which could irreparably harm their competitiveness and Dartmouth’s reputation,” the letter states.

Blencowe noted that the construction’s impact on research could affect students as well.

“We have many students working in those labs, both undergrad and grad students, and if they can’t do their experiments, you know, it would be a disaster,” Blencowe said.

Blencowe added that while he recognized the College’s need for adequate student housing, he believes this should not interfere with its academic pursuits.

“We really do understand the importance of having good quality residence halls, student accommodations,” Blencowe said. “But it shouldn’t be at the expense of our ability to teach [and] do our research.”