Carpe Diem

Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff may have missed out on the Stanford University Class of 1974’s 40th reunion this past weekend because of meeting conflicts, but he still got the chance to revisit his undergraduate past.

Nick arrived on the last day, showing up just in time to walk over with Redwood High School and Stanford classmate Mike Kast to see the student observatory the two built together in the early 1970s. Not unlike the Texas A&M Bonfires of old, the structure was equal parts commandeered and sheer will — no doubt part of the reason Nick makes such a good Aggie nowadays!

As usual, Nick tells it best in both photographs and captions, so I’ll let him take it from here!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Mike Kast and I built this observatory at Stanford back when we were undergrads. Amazingly, it is still there and has not burned down, considering I did much of the wiring. The telescope and dome have been replaced, and it has been spiffed up a lot (like the rest of Stanford), but it is still there and still being used for a popular astronomy lab class. Sally Ride helped and was a student in the first lab class we had! The real catalyst was Dr. Walter Meyerhof, who was the Chairman of the Physics Department back then and had confidence that a bunch of green undergrads could do such a project. We took the pier from aeronautical engineering (sort of without exactly asking), the 100-year-old Leuschner Observatory dome from UC Berkeley, a B/C mount from a Southern California aerospace firm that had previously used it to track downrange missile tests, and furniture from somewhere we can’t remember now. Mike figured out how to replicate the key to the electronic lock at the gate to the road up the hill so we could get in and out without anyone at Behavioral Sciences noticing. I was told the observatory hill became a place where undergrads often go on first dates.


OK, if you are fortunate enough to know Nick Suntzeff or have read any of this blog’s previous entries involving him, you know that there’s more to the story and that it’s worth telling/reading. More from Nick on his and Mike’s friendship and their Stanford adventures:

It was nostalgic going back and seeing it. They actually have done some remodeling of the building, and it looks a lot better. It is weird what one remembers. Mike and I told each other stuff that we remembered, and basically, we remembered completely different events. It is not that he would remember some event, and I remembered it differently — rather that I generally had NO memory of what he remembered. So it was fun piecing together the story again.

Just a short prologue. Mike’s mother is Russian, and their family knew my family. His father was a vice president for Bechtel Corporation and, thus, a really important engineer. But his father was also really interested in astronomy. So Mike grew up around telescopes. He and I were best friends in high school, and my interest in astronomy grew, albeit slowly, because of Mike and his father.

We started Stanford together. My advisor was Dr. Meyerhof, the chairman of the physics department — a rather scary, serious German fellow, or so he at first seemed. He would come over to my dorm once a week to eat with his three advisees. Mike would come over, too, so there would be four of us with Dr. Meyerhof. The other two students sort of drifted away, and the dinners were just usually Mike, me and Dr. Meyerhof. At one dinner (and this both of us remember), Mike and I were talking about the fact that Stanford had no observational astronomy and no “real observatory.” And then, Dr. Meyerhof looked at us, and said, “Why don’t we build one?” That floored us. I was 17 and Mike 18, and this famous professor at Stanford is telling us we can build an observatory? How would we start? Where would we get funds? Geez, we were zit-faced freshmen.

But Meyerhof was serious. He had always wanted to have a traditional astronomy program (like what we are doing at Texas A&M) at Stanford, and he could not get a lot of interest with the administration and even with the physics faculty, who tended to look down on astronomy as “postage-stamp collecting” — the ultimate insult of a physicist to astronomy, geology, biology, chemistry, etc. So he told us not to worry about funding, but to put together a plan. So we did. And he found money. And we started to generate interest among undergrads and graduate students in the project.

Three years later, it was done. The building was designed by an undergrad in architecture. Mike acted as the general contractor, and a SeaBee grad student in engineering did the major construction. We got volunteers to help build and outfit the building. We got companies to donate money and parts of the telescope. I was kind of the spokesperson and organizer, finding people and convincing them to help us. By the end of the 1972-73 academic year (that summer), we finished. Mike lived in the building for a year as he worked on it. In the first class taught (by me), Sally Ride was one of my students, and I had to give her a grade. (She got an A. Sally always got an A in everything she did.) The next semester, she was a teaching assistant at the observatory.

Meyerhof did not get the university to start an astronomy program, but he opened the floodgates to teaching astronomy, and new astronomy classes appeared after we left. Sally Ride’s thesis advisor, A.B.C Walker Jr., took the observatory under his wing and got significant further funding for it. There’s even a history page.

Looking back, it is amazing we got the thing done and still graduated. I graduated with the absolute minimum number of credits in four years and could not start taking grad classes as a senior like the other students in senior physics. But building the observatory was way more cool. Mike in his fourth and fifth year also built a solar observatory for Stanford, which is still working. That was a more serious professional observatory, near our student observatory, and is still used by the solar physicists at Stanford.

cheers, nick

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