Considered by some as a dominant feature of the Oberlin landscape, the Oberlin Observatory atop Peters Hall may soon be home to a new planetarium as well as a much needed equipment upgrade.
In 1978, J. Wallace Taylor and Cora Graf Taylor bequeathed $75,000 to the college for the construction of a new planetarium. For the past 21 years, these funds have been lying around collecting dust - and interest. Currently, the bequest is worth approximately $700,000. This amount can not only build an adequate planetarium, but also upgrade the existing astronomy-related equipment.
The present observatory consists of the observatory proper in the dome, the Kornblith stargazing deck, and the "warm room" - a meeting and storage room - underneath the dome, as well as several winding staircases and passages to reach above the top floor of Peters. The plan, developed by Associate Professor of Physics Dan Stinebring in consultation with other department members, proposes to install a small planetarium dome and projector in the observatory's "warm room," repair the dome and replace the present Celestron 11-inch aperture telescope with a bigger and better main telescope, purchase several small telescopes and binoculars for use on the deck, and improve the solar telescope facilities in the Wright Laboratory. In addition, the remaining funds from the bequest will finance ongoing student staffing of the observatory and maintenance and upgrades of the equipment.
"The Physics Department has preliminary approval to build a small teaching planetarium and upgrade the telescope and instruments to professional grade," Stinebring said. If the Physics Department can begin design work on the proposal by the end of the semester, "it should be possible to have all equipment purchased and installed by September 1, 2001," he said.
"Our goals in this project," said Stinebring, "are to improve the quality of instruction in the introductory astronomy classes and to provide research training opportunities for upper level students in physics and astronomy. I think it's going to be a great facility."
Built in 1885, Peters Hall is the oldest building on campus, but the observatory dome dates only from 1930. Before the construction of Peters, President Fairchild called for "an observatory sufficient for mounting and use for purposes of instruction, of telescopes and various astronomical instruments," in the words of F. Easton Carr '06, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy.
Until sufficient funds were raised to purchase a dome, then Professor Churchill was asked to design and build a temporary substitute. Using knowledge acquired from his childhood, Churchill constructed a framework of wooden poles which he covered with canvas. To allow the temporary dome to rotate freely, he placed croquet balls underneath it.
Appropriation for the dome was made by the trustees in early spring 1929. Work began in April of the same year, and was completed "after many interruptions" in January 1930, said Carr.
Students who wish to view the heavens may attend one of the Astronomy Club's open observatory nights. However, there is a limit to the availability of the observatory. "The weather, light pollution, security issues, and people's schedules affect the times we can open it," said sophomore Thomas Doggett, president of the Oberlin Astronomy Club.
The club has held two open observatory nights this semester. They were moderately attended, and the club plans to continue them. "We want to share the sky," said Doggett.
Declination 4th Floor: The Observatory sits atop Peters and is visited occasionally by students. A planetarium is being planned to accompany the structure in its warming room. (photo by Jake Schlesinger)
Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 22, April 30, 1999
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