The Department of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College is raising concerns that a large dormitory complex contemplated for construction near the department’s labs could disrupt their research and possibly displace a 163-year-old observatory.
College administrators have commissioned plans for 750 beds’ worth of living space in College Park, the wooded area east of the Dartmouth Green that hosts some of the school’s oldest landmarks, including Bartlett Tower and the Shattuck Observatory.
New dormitories with that capacity could free up space to renovate other college dorms and to accommodate a potential 10 to 25 percent expansion of Dartmouth’s undergraduate population — a move that could add as many as 1,000 students.
Officials on the College Park project say nothing is final, but say they plan to preserve Bartlett Tower and the “Bema,” a nearby clearing that serves as an event venue and a quiet place for meditation.
They have not made the same assurances about the Shattuck Observatory, a brick building with a two-story dome that was built in 1854 amid a wave of astronomical interest in the United States and now is one of three structures of its generation to operate on its original footprint.
Members of the Department of Physics and Astronomy last month sent a letter to President Phil Hanlon asking him to reconsider building in College Park.
“Such a major development would impede our ability to effectively teach undergraduate astronomy, disrupt in the intermediate term the research efforts of our experimental condensed matter physics program, and possibly result in the loss of a prominent beacon of Dartmouth’s scientific and architectural heritage — the Shattuck Observatory,” the professors said in their Oct. 17 letter.
Faculty members said that a handful of experiments ongoing in nearby Wilder Hall, which houses their department, could be disrupted by construction, which they anticipated would require blasting the exposed bedrock ledges that peek out of the College Park hill.
That research includes an effort to use carefully calibrated lasers to control and study matter reduced to a temperature near absolute zero.
“Such experiments can only be carried out under rock-steady conditions,” the letter said. “The slightest vibration can swamp the delicate signals that they seek to measure.”
Others expressed a desire to preserve College Park’s 35 acres of recreational land and the nature access it affords close to downtown Hanover.
“This is all leaving aside the fact that we’re talking about a park — a park with a capital P,” Miles Blencowe, a professor of physics who signed the letter, said in an interview. “A park is used by people from all walks of life. It’s a place for recreation, relaxation. People walk their dogs here.”
Passions also ran high within the department about the Shattuck Observatory’s place in history, given that it is Dartmouth’s first building meant solely for scientific research and only a few similar observatories remain in the country.
“For America’s scientific heritage, the Shattuck Observatory is what Gettysburg is for America’s military heritage or New Orleans is for jazz; places matter for preserving heritage,” the faculty letter said.
And, even though the main telescope in Shattuck rarely sees use these days, the building does house a handful of professors, including Blencowe.
Hans Mueller, a space physicist, has an office directly below the dome. The cramped circular room wraps around a pillar and is strewn with books, papers and historical memorabilia.
During a visit on Wednesday, Mueller said that despite the office’s snugness he had grown fond of it — of its drafts, of the mice that move in with the cold weather.
“It’s got flair,” he said. “It’s not just like any old office building.”
Counterintuitively, perhaps, all of the faculty members in the observatory are physicists.
But that doesn’t seem to dim for them the excitement of coming to work each day inside a piece of history.
An office occupies each of the building’s three wings, and in each wing the ceiling has a closed-up slit that once allowed for “transit” observations — tracking the passage of celestial bodies across the sky.
Those slits once helped the trains run on time — literally.
In earlier days of timekeeping technology, Dartmouth’s astronomers helped set local clocks to the regular movements of known planets or stars, and a train station in Lewiston, a now-abandoned village directly across the river in Norwich, depended on Shattuck Observatory for accurate timetables.
Above the offices is the dome, which still boasts many 19th-century mechanical parts. In the bare, cold room (the heat stays off to avoid disruption to observations), Mueller demonstrated how to move the telescope: by pulling on a rope and watching gears on the instrument turn.
To open the observation slit, he crossed the room, climbed a ladder and began cranking a wheel at the dome’s base. With some effort, and a screech from the aged mechanism, Mueller revealed a stripe of sky.
Hanlon, the college president, offered the faculty members a short reply in October assuring them that he would keep their concerns in mind. Later, when the professors re-sent their letter with additional signatures from alumni, he offered a fuller response.
“We share an appreciation for the historical significance of College Park and admire the many accomplishments, past and present, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy,” Hanlon said in an Oct. 27 email.
Hanlon also suggested that the scientists meet with the official heading the planning process, Executive Vice President Rick Mills, to share their thoughts.
College spokeswoman Diana Lawrence last week emphasized that administrators had not made any final decisions about the observatory and a nearby weather station, which has been submitting observations to the National Weather Service for about 150 years.
“With respect to the historic buildings, there are several options under consideration, including building around them or relocating them,” she said.
Lawrence also noted that the telescope inside the observatory, a 145-year-old, 9.5 refractor that struggles to match the powers of modern instruments, wasn’t often used, and she raised the possibility that it could be upgraded as well.
“It might make sense to refurbish it and incorporate the current uses of the observatory into the design of the new dorm,” she said.
Brian Chaboyer, an astronomy professor who helped author the department’s letter, said moving the observatory would be better than tearing it down. But he also raised concerns about continuity of location and the potential effect of a move on public observing sessions.
“Shattuck Observatory would still lose its distinction as being the oldest college observatory in the USA in its original footprint,” he said in an email. “Furthermore, moving the weather station next to Shattuck breaks the over-125-year history of obtaining daily weather records from the same location, making it difficult to interpret new weather measurements compared to old records.”
Chaboyer also noted that relocating or building around the observatory would not address the department’s concerns about vibrations during construction and their potential effect on research.
Plans for a potential dormitory cluster are due this month from the Massachusetts-based firm Sasaki.
Chaboyer said his department was scheduled to meet with administrators about the project, but only after the architectural consultants had turned in their plans.
“We will meet with Executive Vice President Rick Mills in January, but have not been asked to provide any input to the designs for College Park as they are being developed,” he said.
Lawrence, the college spokeswoman, said administrators were trying to accommodate the department.
“We are working to understand and address all of the concerns of the faculty as part of our planning, including their research and office needs,” she said in an email.