From the Issue: Night Out Of Sight

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The May issue of the Blue and White is imminent! For the last issue of the year, Lydia DePillis investigates the skies with Columbia’s Rutherford Conservatory. Or tries to.

In Venice in 1609, Galileo created the first known telescope. It was a great leap outward in man’s expanding sphere of knowledge. Four hundred years later, on a rooftop at Columbia, his invention is embattled by—of all threats—a science building.

Not that the Rutherford Observatory, in place since the early 1930s, is exactly cutting edge; recently, its telescope was sold to a museum in South Carolina, to be replaced with more up-to-date equipment. Nor is Manhattan a particularly great place for observing. The light pollution and air disturbances alone make the night sky less accessible than it is in, say, Arizona.

Lately, though, Pupin stargazers have had a particularly rough time of it due to the snazzy new Interdisciplinary Science Building rising directly to the west, which will top out at six stories higher than Pupin’s roof. The height, plus glaring lights from the all-glass façade and chemical fumes venting off the roof, blocks roughly ten percent of the observatory’s view—“Which is, you know, significant,” said Cameron Hummels, the lanky redheaded Ph.D. student in charge of the Observatory’s outreach efforts.

In the Astronomy department’s lofty 13th floor offices, Hummels pulls out a piece of paper to explain. Since celestial bodies traverse the sky from west to east, he diagrams, all of them will sink behind the ISB a few hours before they would normally disappear below the horizon. Oh, and Venus? Say goodbye. “From the roof of Pupin, we’ll never be able to see it again,” Hummels eulogized.

A search for alternative locations for the observatory began even before the building broke ground, when bearded department chair David Helfand noticed the looming threat from architectural plans and began eying other rooftops for his telescope. Planners considered the roof of Carman, but couldn’t stomach the idea of having people traipse through a freshman dorm for public viewing sessions. The lobbying push lost steam when Helfand left to help start a new college in Canada, and now the economy has stymied it completely. 

“With all the economic uncertainty, I’m afraid there’s a number of capital projects that have been put on indefinite hold,” said Scott Norum, the chief administrative officer for arts and sciences. He talks of things like debt service and credit markets—such earthly cares to obstruct the heavens!



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