Out and About: Birds-eye Penn

There are many ways to get a good look at Penn. You can hoof it around campus, walking down narrow walkways and making your way through the hidden recesses of the 269-acre campus. You can bike, too, for a similar view at a faster speed.

But pretend for a moment that you could soar above the campus. What exactly would you see from a bird’s point-of-view?

For starters, you’d see clusters of buildings, with green space carved out between the grid-like streets. Look closer, though, and you’d start to see things on the roofs of those buildings not visible to pedestrians. The helipad atop the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania is perhaps Penn’s most well-known rooftop accoutrement—maybe because the throb of helicopter blades is difficult to miss—but other Penn buildings have rooftop treasures, too. Here’s a sampling.


It’s true, an urban rooftop seems an unlikely place for an observatory. Indeed, Penn’s observatory on the roof of the David Rittenhouse Laboratory (corner of 33rd and Walnut sts.) is hardly well placed for the pristine night sky views stargazers crave.

One of the first things Simon Dicker, research scientist in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences, will say about the Observatory is that it’s not in a great location.

You couldn’t think of a worse place to put it,” he says, with a smile. The bright lights of the city—and the game lights that are turned on at night at Franklin Field next door—make looking at stars quite a challenge. In fact, the walls of the observatory are painted blue and stand quite high, just to cut down on some of the light pollution.

Despite the myriad challenges of looking at stars atop a city building, Dicker says that students can still use the observatory for classroom activities and to locate bright objects in the night sky. The observatory has a pair of very high-powered binoculars with a wide field of vision (good for locating objects) and also has two telescopes—one an old 8-inch refractor that Dicker has to adjust by hand, the other a new digitized 10-inch reflector.

While the observatory is not open to the public at the moment, Dicker says he does open it up if a school group makes a request. Of course, the observatory is used regularly in Penn’s astronomy classes, too. “Its main purpose is teaching,” says Dicker.

Channeling weather

Instead of turning to a news channel for your local forecast, you can find an accurate, timely weather report just around the corner: Penn’s own weather station, used primarily in Earth and Environmental Science classes and also located on the rooftop of the DRL Labs.

You don’t have to stand on the roof to get a handle on the weather, though; you can check the (very) local temperature, wind speed and humidity from the comfort of your office computer. Just go to http://www.aws.com/single_site.asp?id=UPAEN for up-to-the-minute forecasts.

Those who like to keep even closer track of the weather, can opt for the “more detailed view,” with a heat index, monthly rainfall average and how much the temperature and barometer have changed in the last hour.

High hoops

Here’s a good way to work off your lunchtime calories or unwind at the end of the day: Catch a game of basketball in the fresh air. The 1920 Commons (3800 Locust Walk)—one of the main dining halls on campus—boasts a basketball court on top of the Commons garage, which is located adjacent to the eateries.

You can access the court through the parking garage; once inside, just keep climbing the stairs all the way to the top. The court is nicely fenced in to prevent a pass gone awry from landing on a car parked on the deck below. But be sure to bring your sunscreen when you play or shoot around—the gray concrete court gets very toasty in the midday sun.

To reach Simon Dicker about the on-campus observatory, email him at: sdicker@hep.upenn.edu.

Originally published on April 28, 2005