The expanses of space may seem unfathomably distant or somewhat abstract, but Western students are taking a closer look at the universe around us.
For several years students and faculty from Western’s department of physics and astronomy have met under the night sky nearly every Wednesday to observe stars, planets, galaxies and more.
Physics professor Kristen Larson said the star observations started around the same time she began teaching at Western in 1998.
“We already had some telescopes and they weren’t really getting used,” Larson said. “It was student initiative to use the telescopes more.”
One aspect that made it difficult to use the school’s large telescope, nicknamed Stella, was that it was too cumbersome to transport easily, Larson said. To solve this problem, Jim Mullen, an engineer technician, built a custom cart for the telescope at Western’s machine shop.
This simplified way for students and faculty to transport the large telescope allowed it to be utilized much more, Larson said.
Kevin Covey, a Western astronomy professor, said there are three subsets of students who typically attend the star observations.
This includes students in the department who are passionate about the subject and take every astronomy class offered, students who hear about the observations through the 100-level courses and students who happen to walk by during the observations and get involved purely out of curiosity, Covey said.
“I think most of the people who look through the telescopes on Wednesday nights are people who are just walking by,” Larson said. “Sometimes that’s my favorite. People who’ve said they’ve never seen Jupiter through a telescope before, or something like that.”
Covey said students’ initial reactions to looking through the telescope are fun to watch.
“Those initial kind of ah-ha moments are what I’ve found most satisfying,” Covey said.
Larson said her favorite reactions are typically from awestruck children. She said on one occasion a kid was looking at Saturn through the telescope and quickly checked to see if Larson had put a picture in front of the lens.
“Sometimes it really is as amazing as you think it’s going to be,” Larson said.
Covey said these visceral and emotional reactions are why they have these observations for students, and they work to dispel the view of science as dry and dispassionate.
“We hope it helps make that connection to the universe as an actual place and not an abstract object,” Covey said.
Making that connection is a big motivator for Covey as well. Covey said it often feels like there is a lot of separation between him and what he is studying.
“It’s very cool to be able to make that connection and remind myself that these stars that I’m pouring over in a very abstract way are these beautiful objects I can detect with my naked eye,” Covey said.
Another factor that draws him to astronomy is that he finds it very soothing, he said.
“It helps me put the day-to-day pressures or frustrations in a little perspective,” Covey said.
“That process of thinking about how far away these things are and how the light [of the stars] that my eyes are seeing – dinosaurs were around when that was emitted – and that helps me think, how important really are the things I’m worried about.”
Larson’s motivation comes from the feeling of responsibility she has as a scientist to share her knowledge with people. She wants to get people interested and asking questions, and to experience some of the wonder of the universe.
Sean Eustis, a business and design major, heard about the observations through one of Covey’s astronomy classes. Beside the opportunity to use the telescope, he said being able to talk to professors outside the classroom was valuable.
“It’s not in class so it doesn’t have to be about what we’re learning in class,” Eustis said. “There were a lot of questions about black holes that day, different theories, and that made it interesting.”
Senior Layla Masri, a physics major, has been coming to the star observations since her freshman year. Masri said it’s a great opportunity to be able to use this equipment that would otherwise be virtually unavailable to students.
“You can do some training, and students can take out the telescopes,” Masri said. “I’ve also been trained for that. I’ve got a card that says I can take the telescopes and go observing.”
Covey said he would like there to be more autonomy for the students to choose how they want to structure the observations. He said there is an opportunity here to help students develop leadership skills.
Larson also said she is always looking for more people to get involved with the observations to help keep it going.
“They always say there’s nothing sadder than a telescope sitting in a dark closet,” Larson said.
The group doesn’t formally meet during the summer but will reconvene in the fall. For more information and specific times, check the group’s Facebook page “WWU Night Sky Observing”.