An Evening With a Telescope
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, September 2013
Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the August issue.
Since 2009, the National Air and Space Museum has offered visitors the opportunity to view the sun and the planets through the eyepiece of a 16-inch Boller and Chivens telescope in our Public Observatory. Now a major endowment will make it possible for us to expand the observatory’s astronomy education and outreach programs. In recognition of this gift, from the Thomas W. Haas Foundation, we are renaming the observatory for Thomas Haas’ grandmother, Phoebe Waterman Haas.
In 1913, Phoebe Waterman, studying at the University of California at Berkeley, became one of the first women in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy. She was also one of the first women to be allowed to use one of the greatest telescopes in the world, the 36-inch refractor of the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, near San Jose. She used it for her thesis on the spectral appearances of hot stars in order to help decide if there was a universal way to classify stars by their spectra, then a central issue in astronomy.
Waterman wanted to be a professional astronomer, so she accepted a post at an observatory in Argentina. But she soon chose to return to the United States, marry, and raise a family. This decision removed her from professional work, given the standards of that time, but she never lost her love for astronomy. In the late 1920s, she purchased a small telescope and showed her young sons the wonders of the heavens. With that telescope, she began to monitor stars that varied in brightness, and reported her observations to a central clearinghouse, the American Association of Variable Star Observers in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She remained active in that group over the next several decades, helping it substantially not only with her astronomical expertise but also as a patron. In a 1941 letter to the association, she shared her joy in observing stars: “There is nothing I enjoy more than an evening out with my telescope, the thrill of finding a faint prick of light where last time I looked, I could see nothing, then seeing that point brighten. I’ll be at it again yet!”
We believe that our new Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory will carry on her passion for making astronomy public. Since its opening, with seed funds from the National Science Foundation, the observatory has provided tens of thousands of people access to the heavens, day and night, and has helped them enjoy and learn about many of astronomy’s fascinating subjects: the sun, moon, planets, stars, and galaxies. Now, with continuing support from the Thomas W. Haas Foundation, we fully expect, like Phoebe Waterman Haas, to “be at it again yet” and add to the observatory’s functions a significant educational program for public schools very much in keeping with the Smithsonian’s commitment to science literacy.
At a Museum Family Day on September 14, you can learn more about women who have been pioneers in aerospace. And look at the sky at the Public Observatory any Tuesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.