University News

Astronomy exhibit now open at Hay

By
Contributing Writer

With Fall Weekend behind them, Brown students can now turn to the exploration of a decidedly less controversial new world: outer space.

“Beyond the Moon: 400 Years of Astronomical Observation,” a new exhibit at the John Hay Library, offers a panoramic view of four centuries of astronomical inquiry at Brown and in the wider scientific community. The display, which includes a gallery room and an array of glass cases in the library’s lobby, is the result of a joint effort by the University’s libraries, the Ladd Observatory and the Department of Physics.

Running through the month of October, “Beyond the Moon” celebrates the timely intersection of a number of historical milestones. This year is the International Year of Astronomy and the 400-year anniversary of seminal works by astronomer Galileo Galilei and Tycho Brahe. It is also 240 years after the University began telescopically exploring the universe.

The 1769 Transit of Venus — a phenomenon in which Venus passes between the Sun and the Earth — marked the auspicious start of astronomical study at Brown. In preparation for the event, astronomer Benjamin West and Joseph Brown, a natural philosophy professor and one of the founding Brown brothers, collaborated to construct the first University observation center on a street that was later aptly renamed Transit Street.

Holly Snyder, a librarian at the Hay and one of the organizers of “Beyond the Moon,” said the interface between history and contemporary research played a central role in the planning of the exhibit.

“We were trying to figure out what we could do to celebrate this momentous year,” she said. “We decided that the exhibit should be a conjunction between what has been done historically and what is happening now.”

In keeping with this vision, the display juxtaposes objects and media related to giants such as Galileo, Brahe and Johannes Kepler with the scholarship of distinguished Brown professors. One highlight is the Lownes Collection’s first-edition copy of Galileo’s 1609 book, “The Starry Messenger,” which contains the notes of the astronomer himself.

Also on display are digital photographs of outer space taken by Associate Professor of Physics Ian Dell’antonio, a co-organizer of the exhibit, and a film on  solar eclipse studies conducted by Charles Smiley, the former head of the Department of Astronomy, which merged with the Department of Physics after his retirement in 1970.

The exhibit features other texts from the Lownes Science Collection, historical records from the Ladd Observatory and a variety of astronomical instruments from the 18th century to today.

West’s telescope and journal of observations, which launched the University’s endeavors in astronomy, are also on display.

Barbara Findley, a recent visitor to the exhibit, found out about it through her membership in the Brown Community for Learning in Retirement.

“It’s a fascinating subject that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen,” she said. “It’s amazing how much our view of the universe has changed as scientists continuously add to previous research.”

But student interest in the exhibit has been underwhelming, said Andy Moul, a member of the Hay’s reader services staff.

“I would call this under-utilized,” he said. “Unless someone really makes an effort, they won’t come into the Hay.”