Blame it on Carl Sagan.
His landmark PBS documentary series “Cosmos” got fourth-grader Debra Goldader hooked on the heavens, and she’s kept her gaze focused skyward ever since.
“I think the people in my grade school thought it was sort of cute—there was a little girl running around saying, ‘I wanna be an astrophythithithist!’” said the woman who now runs Penn’s two observatories, the Flower and Cook Observatory in Malvern and the campus observatory on the roof of David Rittenhouse Laboratory.
As observatory coordinator, Goldader gets to work regularly with kids who may grow up to be astrophysicists themselves someday, as well as with Penn astronomy students and faculty and amateur astronomers from all around the region. On a recent sunny afternoon, she spoke with us about her work, the observatories’ history and the people who come to stargaze.
Q. Why is our main observatory in Malvern?
A. It’s the culmination of a bunch of interesting factors. The observatory at Penn was founded in 1897 in Upper Darby, at an observatory called the Flower Observatory, which was given to Penn by Reese Wall Flower, who passed away in 1870 or so. It was a wonderful site, but development and light pollution happened and it became an unviable site [by the 1930s]. At about the same time, an amateur astronomer, Gustavus William Cook, was building his own observatory in Wynnewood, and had a bunch of fantastic instruments. When he passed away, he gave his equipment to Penn as well, and the University made the decision to combine resources from both observatories and purchase land farther away from the city to get away from the light pollution.
Q. If light pollution is such a problem, why bother with the DRL rooftop observatory?
A. Oh, because—wouldn’t you like to see that? [Points to photo of Saturn on her office wall.] And you can see that from your backyard with the light shining over your head. People have come here and just been astonished at what Saturn looks like.
Q. What people use the observatories?
A. The people that are using our telescopes most commonly are the introductory astronomy students, especially in Astro 150, [which] is a hands-on observing course for non-science majors. [The Malvern observatory is also] used quite a lot by amateur astronomy groups. The Chester County Astronomical Society, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, local schools, a lot of groups like that are coming for educational opportunities, and it’s just to enhance their knowledge of what’s going on.
Q. Given that the frontiers of astronomy seem to be beyond the capacity of our telescopes, why bother with these observatories at all?
A. For the wonder factor. There’s a quote I have from Fritz Witt, who’s an astronomer, from 1957. “Wonder is the origin of all great achievements. Without it, life is drab and thought is sterile.” And I really believe that, especially for kids in this day and age, where technology brings everything right to their faces so fast and they don’t get the chance to step back and wonder.
[…And] because we have the advantage of not having a real heavily-packed schedule, we can do what are called targets of opportunity. A lot of national observatories have such crammed schedules that if you need to be observing on this certain night at this certain time because the planet’s passing in front of this star, well, too bad, somebody else wanted to look, and they had the time already scheduled to go look for a supernova in XYZ galaxy, so we have an advantage there.
Q. So there’s this spare observatory lying around…
A. Yeah, exactly. Just run over there and take an image. This is going to sound strange, but there was a star that brightened by factors of a couple of thousand just a few weeks ago, just all of a sudden. And you could just go right [to Flower and Cook] and look at it and do some things with it, and other observatories, you can’t necessarily do that. Even the Hubble Space Telescope had to wait, because it takes a week or two for them to get themselves together to get that telescope situated so it can look at something interesting that’s going on.
Q. Besides viewing Saturn, are there any other subjects that attract a lot of people?
A. Viewing the Orion Nebula in the winter is always a big one. The other thing that people are always astonished about is if we look at a galaxy like the Andromeda Galaxy. A photon left that galaxy, traveled all the way through the cosmos, into the telescope, down to your eyeball, and that’s where it stops. And then people stop to think about the awesomness of that and then I invariably get asked, Does that mean that what I’m seeing happened 2 million years ago? And yes, it [does].
So they get a real sense of seeing the past…it makes people think about time and where they fit into time.
Public viewings take place the first Friday of each month on the DRL roof; Flower and Cook public talks and viewings take place the last Friday of each month. Talks are held rain or shine; viewings are subject to weather conditions. The March 29 talk in Malvern features presentations by members of Women Interested in Studying Physics. See “What’s On” for details.
Information about the observatories, links to live Webcasts and information about public viewings is available at www.physics.upenn.edu/~observer on the Web or by calling Goldader at 215-898-5995.
Originally published on March 28, 2002