Steward Observatory lecture series celebrates 100 years

A white observatory dome in the foreground and brick buildings in the background

The original Steward Observatory Building was the single white dome pictured here. Since then, Steward Observatory has expanded to include multiple brick buildings. The original observatory dome will now be a visitor center.

University of Arizona

The University of Arizona's popular Steward Observatory Public Evening Lecture Series is celebrating 100 years of sharing astronomy and telescope viewing opportunities with the public. The first lecture was given on Sept. 28, 1922.

Steward Observatory will mark the series' centennial with a special lecture at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Room N210 of Steward and on Zoom. The lecture will focus on the James Webb Space Telescope, and the evening will also include a celebration of a newly endowed chair in the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory, the opening of a new visitor center in the original observatory dome and opportunities for the public to peer through the observatory's two on-campus telescopes.

Marcia Rieke

Marcia Rieke

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

The first Steward Observatory Public Evening Lecture speaker, in 1922, was Andrew E. Douglass, the first director of Steward Observatory. On Wednesday, Marcia Rieke – Regents Professor of Astronomy and principal investigator of the NIRCam instrument, the primary imager onboard the James Webb Space Telescope – will present data and images from Webb, including early scientific findings on the exoplanets that the telescope has captured with its infrared eyes.

"The fine detail that Webb is providing is remarkable," Rieke said. "With Webb, we're discovering the distant galaxy population includes some shapes that we didn't expect to see forming so early in the universe. Our observations will force some theory revisions. I'm also very excited to share the beginning of what we're learning about exoplanet atmospheres."

Rieke will be recognized during the anniversary celebration as the first endowed chair in the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory. She has been named the Dr. Elizabeth Roemer Endowed Chair in recognition of the scholarship and contributions of the late UArizona professor emerita of astronomy Elizabeth Roemer.

At the conclusion of the talk, weather permitting, the observatory telescope be open for public use, as will the Clark telescope, a five-inch refractor manufactured in 1888 and located on the roof of the 1960 addition to Steward Observatory.

Saturn is high in the sky, and telescopes will be pointed at the ringed gas giant for viewing.

A legacy begins

Lavinia Steward – a wealthy benefactor who lived in Oracle, Arizona, and had an interest in supporting astronomy – made a historic contribution of $60,000 to UArizona "to buy a telescope of huge size" on Oct.18, 1916, according to an article from the Arizona Daily Star on Oct. 19, 1916. 

"The United States' entry into World War I delayed the construction of the telescope and what would become its 36-inch mirror. The telescope was finally used for the first time on July 17, 1922. Nine months later, Steward Observatory and its telescope were formally dedicated on April 23, 1923," said Thomas Fleming, an astronomy professor who has been organizing the evening lectures since 1999.

The telescope, however, was ready to be used before the official dedication, and Douglass did not leave the telescope idle. Instead, he invited members of the university and Tucson communities to view the night sky through the new telescope for the first time on Sept. 28, 1922, at the first of many Steward Observatory Public Evening Lectures. Typically, seven lectures are held every other Monday night during the school year.

"During his dedication of the 36-inch telescope, Douglass committed Steward Observatory to the production of scientific results, but also to sharing the telescope and what we learn with students and the public," said Buell T. Jannuzi, Steward Observatory director and astronomy department head. "The last 100 years of the Steward Observatory Public Evening Lectures reflect this commitment."

"Our mission today is still the same as that envisaged by Douglass," Jannuzi said. "Our students and faculty – with support of the talented staff of Steward Observatory and the Department of Astronomy – explore the universe and share what we learn with the rest of the world through our courses and our public outreach activities. That's a wonderful mission to have, and Douglass got us started. We look forward to the next 100 years."

Celebrating astronomers of outstanding research and service

The Dr. Elizabeth Roemer Endowed Chair, to be held by Rieke, was created to celebrate the outstanding service and research of Steward Observatory faculty.

"Personally, what the endowment means is that I've been recognized by my peers here as someone who has accomplished a lot, and that is gratifying," Rieke said. "It also gives me the freedom to concentrate on Webb science. Right now, I'm working with my team on reports from commissioning and easing the team into science mode – and also giving lots of talks, of course."

Roemer was valedictorian of her 1946 high school class and a winner of that year's national Westinghouse Science Talent Search. She earned her bachelor's and doctoral degrees at the University of California, Berkeley, and joined UArizona in 1966 after working at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff. She was well known for her research on comets and minor planets. Jannuzi fondly remembers working as her teaching assistant for a year while he was in graduate school.

"When we were trying to think of individuals we'd like to use as exemplars of wonderful professors, great in research, education and in service to university, both Elizabeth Roemer, for whom we are naming the chair, and Marcia Rieke, the first holder of the chair, were converged upon very quickly," Jannuzi said.

The endowment for the chair was made possible by gifts from the Heising-Simons Foundation, Larry and Susan Allen, Murray "Trip" and Ann Wolbach, and the late Richard F. Caris.

"We are extremely grateful to our donors for making this endowment possible," Jannuzi said. "We're also incredibly proud of Marcia and her entire team."

A new visitor center and exhibit in an old space

A new Steward Observatory visitor center will also open to the public on Wednesday.

"In 1960, they boarded up Steward Observatory's original front door and made people enter through the stairwell," Fleming said. "The space was also filled with cubicles and used for graduate student offices for decades. Now, we're turning it into a visitor center."

Over the last few years, renovations have allowed for the restoration of the ground floor of the old observatory dome, which was the original lobby of Steward Observatory.

Now, the space includes a mockup of Douglass' office, with original display cases showcasing antique equipment. The old observatory grandfather clock, made during the 1880s, ticks off time, while a touchscreen kiosk provides information for visitors and a documentary about the observatory loops on a screen. Future plans include reopening the original front door.

"Wednesday's visitors can also sign the original guestbook bought for dedication in April 1923," Fleming said. "President Coolidge's signature is in it from 1924, as well as famous astronomers, such as Vera Rubin and Frank Drake, and some local politicians."

Future tours of the university's Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab will begin in the newly restored lobby of Steward Observatory, allowing visitors to journey from the university's earliest forays into the stars to its latest and grandest attempts to understand the universe.

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