Telescope brings life into focus

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Sara Black

It’s hard to imagine how far away 23 light years is when most students can’t see past the mountains of homework on their desks or go weeks without walking farther than Twilight Hall, but Roger Perreault ’09 ponders the universe on a nightly basis as he gazes at stars and planets farther than the imagination can stretch – all with the help of the Physics Department’s telescope.

“Saturn is always an amazing sight because our telescopes can easily see the gap between the ring structure and the body of the planet, a view Galileo would have surely loved,” says Perreault. “My other favorites include the Pinwheel Galaxy, the Eagle Nebula, the Epsilon Lyrae stars and our own Moon, close to home.”

The 24-inch (0.6-meter) aperture, f/8 Ritchie-ChrÈtien reflecting telescope was installed atop Bicentennial Hall in 2001 and has been a useful tool for students and faculty ever since. The telescope cost the College $250,000, but the bill was footed largely by the National Science Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and other various donors.

“The telescope is an amazing optical instrument,” Perreault says, “and the facilities to support it have been under continuous improvement by the efforts of experts like Professor Winkler and skilled computer technician Rick James.”

Due to the expense and delicate nature of the telescope, students must take several gateway physics classes – a daunting task to more than a few students on campus – if they want to operate it on their own.

“Without the application of physical principles, the images in the telescope would be nothing more than pretty pictures,” Perreault says, “and we’d have no idea of the truly remarkable things happening in our skies.”

Perreault himself is testament to the fact that physics is not an emotionless science governed by rule and reason. It ties in to philosophy, literature and myth – most five-year-olds contemplate building a rocket ship to the moon.

“Walt Whitman wrote a poem entitled ‘When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer’ in which the narrator walks out on an astronomy lecture to view the stars himself,” Perreault says, “but I think the cosmos only becomes more alive and interesting as we discover its nature.”

As the skies over Middlebury remain cloudy and gray for most of the academic year, the telescope is usually not in operation. The late spring, summer and early fall offer the best weather for stargazing.

“The best nights to look at the stars are cold and completely free of clouds, with clear air and a new Moon,” says Perreault. “This makes for the best observing conditions, which astronomers refer to as ‘seeing’.”

If seniors graduating this May are already feeling like an insignificant little fish in the bigger pond, it might not be a good idea to factor the entire universe into the picture however they should definitely take advantage of the extraordinary quality and availability of the telescope.

“After a good night, I feel a strange mix of satisfaction and what might be called a cosmic perspective,” Perreault says “I’m a speck of dust, but a happy speck of dust.”

Spending hours bathed in the red light of the lofty telescope dome searching for celestial phenomena that may occur only once in a thousand years, Perreault is continuously enlightened, and at the same time befuddled by the celestial bodies on the other side of the telescope lens.

“It’s interesting to many people exactly how large and small the quantities astronomers work with actually are. Jupiter’s mass is more than all the other planets, satellites, asteroids and comets in our solar system combined,” Perreault says, “and it’s just a planet.”

If none of these reasons presents itself as poignantly motivating, the stars have been sought for the answers to life and love since the beginning of time, but Perreault seems to have already found love.

“I don’t need to use the stars to impress a certain special lady because the stars in her eyes outshine all the others in the sky,” Perreault suavely stated.