A Columbia Skyscraper Clouds Views for the University’s Astronomy Students


Despite all the bright lights and tall buildings here in the center of the universe, Rutherford Observatory, on the roof of Columbia University’s Pupin Hall, has for decades offered students, researchers, and members of the public plenty of outer space.

Astronomy majors learning about the motions of celestial bodies, for example, could see all eight “recognized” planets (sorry, Pluto). Members of the public attending a free lecture on, say, “Black Holes for Dummies” could use the astronomy department’s reflecting telescopes (which use mirrors instead of lenses) for a post-talk stargaze. Researchers could capture images of the moon to check for changes on its surface or monitor the brightness of stars.

But now, Columbia’s new Northwest Corner building, under construction adjacent to Pupin Hall at 120th Street and Broadway, has obstructed much of that view, according to the department. Mercury and Venus now disappear in the west behind the glass and steel structure that will house faculty offices, classrooms, and scientific research facilities when it opens next year. Worse yet, light shining through the transparent façade 24 hours a day has polluted the night sky, blinding the rooftop stargazers and distorting research images.

“We have no more sunsets,” says Josh Schroeder, a third-year Ph.D., as he points out how the western neighbor looms over Pupin’s roof. While the department could probably live without sunsets, he says, the light next door bears down “like a spotlight.”

The centerpiece of Columbia’s observatory is its wooden dome, with a Columbia powder blue–painted interior, that was built atop a brickwork foundation in the late 1920s. In the center of the dome is a reflecting telescope with a 14-inch aperture that’s currently experiencing mechanical problems: The motor that allows it to follow celestial bodies as they cross the sky is out of order, and the telescope must be turned manually. It’s the third in a series of telescopes to have this problem, dating back to a decades-old refracting telescope that was finally sold to a museum in South Carolina several years ago.

Despite the light pollution that prevents New Yorkers from seeing much more than the moon with the naked eye, most local universities, including Columbia, New York University, and the City University system, have astronomy courses and programs, and even observatories. CUNY maintains observatories at York College in Queens and at the College of Staten Island, but they’re used, according to Professor Ariyeh Maller of the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, more for showing “how it was done than for what you’ll be doing going forward.”

Most high-powered research telescopes are located far away from here, where there’s better weather and darker skies. Many are in such places as Arizona (where Columbia shares an observatory with four other universities), Hawaii, Chile, and in outer space itself.

“Virtually no one lives close to where the telescopes are,” Maller says. Professional astronomers and astrophysicists based at universities in New York City instead use data captured by those telescopes for analysis and research. Last week’s Tri-State Astronomy Conference at CUNY’s Graduate Center was a forum for those universities’ departments to compare notes.

At Columbia, Cameron Hummels, an astronomy Ph.D. student and public outreach director for the department, is hoping the roughly 200 undergraduates, 6,000 annual public visitors, and four federally funded research projects under way at Pupin Hall will get their view back.

“Astronomers need the sky in the same way that chemists need chemicals or geologists need rocks,” he says. “If we have this bright wall next to us, it’s impossible for our eyes to ever adjust to the dark conditions to be able to see some of these faint objects that are still visible from New York.”

Hummels says he was told the constant light was required to comply with fire code emergency mandates for interior construction. He isn’t sure whether the lights will be turned off once the building is completed, but even then, astronomers would still have to deal with professors burning the midnight oil.

The university says it’s working with the department on a resolution. In a prepared statement, David Hirsh, executive vice president for research, said the new building was “planned based on extensive, detailed input from Columbia’s science departments, a process that has spanned more than five years. It has long been known that the new building would affect a small percentage of the westernmost sky views from the historic Rutherford Observatory. There will be continuing discussions about moving this telescope to another location.”

Hummels confirms that the administration recently contacted him to schedule a meeting. The light problem tops his agenda, but he also wants to discuss possible new locations for the telescopes.

“Students come here, they take an astronomy course, they want to be able to see the sky, and who blames them?” Hummels says. “The sky is awesome.”

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