In the waning light of dusk, on a hill overlooking the Ojai Valley, faculty members, students, members of the scientific and education communities, and other friends of the School recently gathered to celebrate the unveiling of the newly-renovated Thacher Observatory. Upgrades include a brand new PlaneWave CDK-700 telescope and fully robotized dome.
The transformation of the Observatory into a state-of-the-art, research-grade facility is part of a wider expansion of the astronomy program at Thacher and the result of years of hard work and vision by Dr. Chris Vyhnal, the chair of the Science Department, Dr. Jon Swift, director of the Thacher Observatory (in addition to being a math, astronomy, and physics teacher), and many others.
The Observatory has a long and interesting history stretching back to 1965 when UCLA and Caltech brought the facility to campus as part of a summer science program for high-achieving students hosted at Thacher. After the departure of the program and through the passing of years the observatory went into disuse. But it will now offer a new generation of students in astronomy and data science courses profound applied-learning opportunities once again. Among these opportunities is the chance to contribute to Dr. Swift’s ongoing NASA-funded research of eclipsing binaries and transiting exoplanets, which he’s undertaking in collaboration with colleagues at Harvard and Boston University.
To mark this major milestone in the advancement of the program, Dr. Swift, Dr. Vyhnal, and Katie O’Neill ’18 addressed the gathered crowd as the evening sky cycled through darkening shades of blue. They discussed the history and legacy of the Observatory; current projects and curriculum associated with it; and the School’s vision for the future of the astronomy program.
“I feel both deeply humbled and incredibly privileged to have played a small role in preserving this rich legacy for the astronomy research community, for The Thacher School, and for future generations of Thacher students,” Dr. Vyhnal said near the end of his remarks. “Like our current students, Jon and I are very excited to get started and put this facility to work. This is beyond my wildest expectations of what we thought we could do when we first reclaimed the Observatory, and to see the enthusiasm on the faces of our students when we brought them up here for the first time, it was priceless.”
Katie O’Neill, a junior who has been a trailblazer in the evolving astronomy program at Thacher since her freshman year, discussed the work that she and her peers are already tackling. They’ve attended and presented at professional astronomy conferences; learned to code in Python to help prepare for and assess the installation of the new equipment; written scripts to help automate observations made at the facility; and made simulated data sets to predict probable different discoveries, among other things.
“When I look back at where I started when I came in as a freshman, and where I am now, I’m so grateful to Dr. Swift and Dr. Vyhnal, and The Thacher School in general,” she noted. "And I’m incredibly excited to continue to learn and grow over the next year and a half and to see how the program continues to develop.”
Dr. Swift closed out the evening's remarks by outlining the exciting future of the program. “We have this fantastic new facility,” he said. “But a snazzy new telescope or an amazing new facelift for our historical building or the fastest computers, all of that stuff does not make a successful facility. That’s not really what makes it work. What makes it work is the people. This story about the future is a story of people.”