It’s easy to overlook the planetarium. The smallest building on campus is enveloped by the overwhelming shadow of the ominous chemistry building.
The unassuming brick planetarium with its metal dome sits on the bank of Swan Lake. Countless people walk past every day dismissing it as just another nondescript building on campus, or maybe, (the ultimate insult!) a storage shed.
So much for public opinion. Built in 1954, it is the oldest planetarium in Connecticut. It provides a unique and valuable service to the UConn community.
A one-woman show
Cynthia Peterson, a physics professor at the school for 40 years, runs the planetarium and does all the shows by herself.
“It’s awesome. It’s a lot of fun to teach” Peterson said. “I’ve been so lucky I’ve been able to do it all these years.”
It’s admittedly a great deal of work. Peterson gives up to four one-hour shows daily. Yet four decades in she still enjoys the work.
“I love doing it, I don’t mind a bit,” Peterson said.
UConn students are only part of her audience. Outside groups also attend. Peterson includes planetarium shows in a summer camp she runs for younger children and groups such as girl scouts and adult education are frequent visitors.
Those star gazing frosh
The planetarium is most valuable, however, as a teaching tool. Peterson teaches an introductory astronomy class – a staple for freshmen needing to rack up general education credits – and a trip to the planetarium is a necessity.
“If you’re a botanist you want to look at the trees and if you’re an astronomer you want to look at the stars. You can even use this on a cloudy night.” Peterson said.
Along with the planetarium, which simulates the night sky, UConn also has an observatory, which allows visitors to view actual stars first hand. But that requires cooperative weather conditions.
In a large white dome that sits atop the physics building, the observatory holds sessions on clear nights at 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Visitors are welcome. Just check the observatory web site before walking over, to determine whether the skies are clear enough.
The inside of the observatory is not very impressive. Panels have begun to rust and fewer than 15 people can fit comfortably while waiting to look through the telescope. In fact when it switches azimuth, or alignment, the noise is almost cringe inducing.
Endearing drawbacks aside, the observatory provides views of extraterrestrial objects unlike any other facility this easily accessible.
Though most of the occupants are introductory astronomy students – doing three observing sessions a semester is required – there are some who return simply for the experience.
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