Above, astronomy student Jea Adams ’21. The number of astronomy majors has surged, thanks to efforts by Kate Follette, below.

“Everyone loves the sky,” says Jea Adams ’21.

Even after conducting advanced research in Kate Follette’s astronomy lab, the Amherst sophomore still giggles with excitement when she talks about recently getting her first telescope: a Celestron PowerSeeker.

“I haven’t completely figured it out yet, but I love looking up at the sky with it,” she says, speaking over the din of the Amherst Coffee afternoon rush. “I’ve managed to see Mars and the moon.”

Observing things firsthand—even ones that have been well-researched—is part of the allure of astronomy, says Adams. She had been interested in science since childhood, but it was an introductory class with Follette, assistant professor of astronomy, that convinced her to pursue the major.

“That was the one class where every day outside of class, I’d be pointing things out to my friends,” Adams says. “Doing that made me realize: this is what I’m passionate about. There’s really never been anything else that made me feel that way.”

Follette is confident that more Amherst students—and the public, too—can be lured to science through astronomy. The first step in that effort (which she hopes will eventually include a much larger telescope, a dome to house it and a director to manage it) was completed this summer when an observation deck opened at the new Science Center.

Located on the top floor, down a hallway lined with the large equipment that helps power the building, this wheelchair-accessible deck could be mistaken for a patio. The flooring is concrete pavers; there is a functional guardrail around the edge. The centerpieces are six Celestron telescopes, with 11-inch-diameter lenses that make them much larger than Adams’, and more capable of viewing faint astronomical objects. (Equipment and some construction costs were supported by a $150,000 grant from the George I. Alden Trust.)

Amherst has long been a place to see the stars. Wilder Observatory, with its Clark & Sons 18-inch refracting telescope, was world-class when built in 1903. Science has since developed well beyond the Clark & Sons technology. When she first saw this “beautiful antique piece of equipment,” Follette was taken aback to learn people still had to pull ropes to adjust its position.

Kate Follette, assistant professor of astronomy.

To do her own research, Follette travels to Chile or Arizona to use telescopes that are the size of a building. She spends her time with these behemoths looking for Jupiter-like planets around other stars. By examining the colors of light emitted from a planet, Follette can even extrapolate the composition of their atmosphere. Among other exciting discoveries, she recently identified an actively growing “baby planet” named LkCa 15 b.

In a light-saturated place such as Western Massachusetts, such research is no longer possible. Still, smaller observatories are valuable to the curriculum in a way comparable to chemistry or biology labs: “It’s important for students to have an experience of using equipment and observing the sky.”

Follette herself didn’t set out to be an astronomer. As a Middlebury undergraduate, she planned to major in language and join the Foreign Service. An introductory astronomy class changed her plans: “I’d never seen math applied in any kind of interesting or useful way before. That class made me become a scientist.”

Follette, the department’s only astronomer, strives to build a similar culture of astronomical wonder at Amherst. As a result of her efforts, the astronomy program has gone from attracting one major every few years to having seven majors last year—a total on par with the number of physics majors.

Future plans for the deck include a planetarium and a telescope with a mirror of up to a meter in diameter. “Eventually we will have a full modern observatory,” says Follette. “But half of a modern observatory is a big step in the right direction.”

Photo Credit: Maria Stenzel