“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.