Exploring the night sky

ALEXA FONTANILLA / AGGIE
ALEXA FONTANILLA / AGGIE

A closer look at the Hutchison Hall Observatory

Peers, faculty, friends and family crowd the roof of the Physics Building, mingling and huddling to stay warm. A laser pointer flits across the night sky, pointing to various stars and constellations as a member of the Astronomy Club gives the audience some facts about the stars. Other members set up telescopes, assisting the group so that they can get a closer look of the wonders of the sky.

Some people hear the word “space” and think of something inaccessible, full of wonder and mystery. Students at UC Davis, however, get the opportunity to learn more about space than the average person, and those with a will to pursue a physics degree, like many members of the Astronomy Club, can do so with an astrophysics emphasis.

Prior to 2006, the Physics Department at UC Davis did not offer this particular specialization. Patricia Boeshaar, Undergraduate Curriculum chair for physics, and other members of the department had noticed that almost all of the other University of California (UC) schools had specializations in their physics department.

“We said, ‘Why not offer what [students] would like?’” Boeshaar said. “We noticed the other UC’s had programs. [We] want to give [our] students as many options as possible.”

Boeshaar also noticed that more women tended to gravitate toward the astronomy courses.

        “When you think of physics, you don’t think about a lot of women,” Boeshaar said. “About 20 percent of undergraduates in physics are women, but in astronomy, it’s about 40 [or] 45 percent. It’s always been higher.”

In 2007, the Department of Physics’ proposal for the addition of an astrophysics emphasis was approved. Now students have the option of getting a bachelors of science in physics while also taking classes more focused in astrophysics.

“So when you go out, you can get all the jobs you would get in physics but you can also work in astrophysics,” Boeshaar said.

Both students who choose to take this route and students of other majors often take the lower division astronomy labs: Observational Astronomy Laboratory and Introduction to Modern Astronomy and Astrophysics. These labs are held on the roof of the Physics Building and students who do well in the lab can come back to be teaching assistants (TA) for the class, even as undergraduates.

Jacob Lambeck, a fourth-year physics major and president of the Astronomy Club, took one of the labs during Fall Quarter of his freshman year and was invited back to be an undergraduate TA during Spring Quarter of that same year.

“We have one grad student who does a short little lecture of what [students] are going to see at the start and does all the grading, but then it’s actually all undergraduates like myself,” Lambeck said. “[We] are working with the students on the roof [and] helping them through the lab and teaching them what they’re going to be doing.”

Students who take the upper division Advanced Laboratory in Astrophysics class get the opportunity to work in the Hutchison Hall Observatory.

“There’s a lot of interesting objects in the sky,” said Andrew Bradshaw, a TA and graduate student in the Physics Department. “For instance, the one they normally target in their observations […] is the whirlpool galaxy. What they do is they take extended observations of it in different filters and they form a composite image. Then they also, from the amounts of light collected, can predict how many stars are being formed per year in this very distant galaxy.”

Located on the roof, the observatory is not open to the public. The class is offered every other year during Spring Quarter and cut offs at eight students. Only four students are allowed in the observatory at a time and must be accompanied by faculty due to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements.

Students taking the class learn to make observations with the software and equipment available. Prior to 2006, students took their observations with a 12-inch Newtonian telescope but now, students use a newer 14-inch Celestron telescope.

“It’s small but it’s perfect for students learning to do work up there and who want to do research,” Boeshaar said.

Although the Hutchison Hall Observatory is not open to all students, the Astronomy Club offers public viewings every other week during Fall and Spring quarters on top of the Physics building. Club officers and members take out telescopes, point them to different planets and star clusters and teach students, faculty and community members about what is in the sky.

“In my opinion, almost everyone has access to the Internet these days and you can look stuff up but it’s something else to be able to look through the telescope,” Larissa Schumacher said, a fourth-year physics major and an officer of the Astronomy Club. “Not everybody owns a telescope. [We] try to bring it to as many people as possible [and] answer their questions. It’s really great when we get these little kids up on the roof […] and then they look through the telescope at the moon and they just get the biggest smile on their face.”

Besides putting on public viewings, the Astronomy Club also takes trips out to Lick Observatory. Located on the summit of Mount Hamilton, Lick Observatory is owned and operated by the UC. The club members are able to get a private tour of the observatory on these trips.

“Being a member of the club is very open —  we don’t have dues [and] you don’t have to show up to meetings,” Lambeck said. “Being a club member usually just means that either you’ve liked our Facebook page or you’ve subscribed to our email list. We want it to be open to everyone.”

At these meetings, the club invites members of UC Davis faculty to come and speak about their research, work or subjects that interest them.

“We can only do so much by showing you the stars but there’s a whole other part to it that’s a less visual thing,” Lambeck said. “So we’re trying to get people who are interested in it, but don’t want to pursue it, to get exposure.”

In the past, the club has made trips to Lake Tahoe, Mendocino National Forest and even further east into Nevada. Away from major cities, students pitch tents, hike around and are able to see a lot more of the sky — even more than what can be seen from the UC Davis campus.

“Space is one of those things where you don’t have to study it for very long to learn a bit about it,” Lambeck said. “It’s always going to be there […] and there’s so much out there that we still don’t know.”

Written by: Fatima Siddiqui — features@theaggie.org