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From the Field: Finding Links Between Lowell Observatory and the Museum

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Blogging from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, Emily Rice, a research scientist in the Museum’s Department of Astrophysics, is working with a collaborator to model the atmospheres of low-mass stars, brown dwarfs, and giant gas planets, including descriptions of their chemistry and clouds. A major new exhibition about the future of space exploration opens at the Museum this fall.

My first full day at Lowell Observatory was calm but productive. I situated myself in my temporary office, caught up with friends and collaborators, and reacquainted myself with the observatory grounds.

Lowell Observatory is located on Mars Hill overlooking historic Route 66 and the city of Flagstaff. There are dozens of buildings on Mars Hill housing telescopes, offices, public exhibits, machine shops, and storage. There are also two telescope sites with large scientific telescopes further outside of town, Anderson Mesa and Happy Jack.

The building where I’m staying is the oldest on Mars Hill. It’s called the Slipher Building after the astronomer Vesto Melvin Slipher, who in 1912 first measured the immense speed at which galaxies are moving away from Earth. Edwin Hubble combined Slipher’s measurements with the distances to those galaxies in order to show that the universe is expanding, a result now known as Hubble’s Law. Slipher served as director of Lowell Observatory from 1916 until his death in 1952, and he was responsible for hiring Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto.

The dome at the front of the Slipher Building is not actually a telescope dome, but the Rotunda Museum, which houses historic documents and instruments, including the equipment Tombaugh used to identify Pluto. In front of the Rotunda, a wood sculpture of Percival Lowell, who founded the observatory in 1894, points the way toward Pluto Walk, a scale model of the solar system leading to the dome housing the telescope with which Tombaugh first observed Pluto.

Pluto and I are just two of the connections between Lowell Observatory and the Museum. Lowell was awarded lifetime membership to the Museum in 1913. Kevin Schindler, the outreach manager at Lowell Observatory, has hung the certificate in his office in the Slipher Building. Kevin also has an impressive library, and he loaned me some books to read while I am at Lowell. The first one I’m reading is I Married a Dinosaur by Lillian Brown, wife of none other than Barnum Brown, the Museum’s famous fossil-hunter.

Photo descriptions:

  1. The wooden sculpture in front of the Lowell Observatory’s Rotunda Museum is of Percival Lowell pointing the way to Pluto Walk.
  2. Lowell Observatory features a scale model of the solar system with markers for each planet’s distance in the sidewalk and signs with fun facts. At the end of the walk is a stone and wooden dome housing the Abbot L. Lowell Astrograph, the telescope Clyde Tombaugh used to discover Pluto.
  3. The Abbot L. Lowell Astrograph, which Tombaugh used to discover Pluto, does not have an eyepiece. The smaller, finer telescopes below do. The astrograph holds a large rectangular piece of glass that is photosensitive, like film, and can take images of large areas of the sky.
  4. Percival Lowell’s lifetime membership to the Museum was signed by Museum President Henry Fairfield Osborn in 1913.

Photos courtesy of E. Rice.

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