Long ago, the sun set on USF’s astronomy department.
Many students may be unaware of it, but an astronomy department used to exist at the University. Due to technical problems and poor funding, the program was forced to close and the majority of its professors were transferred to the University of Florida. It is uncertain whether another astronomy program will resurface, but what is certain is that in two years, Carol Williams – the only professor teaching courses in astronomy – will be retiring, and students may be left without any access to courses related to the subject.
According to Williams, in the 1960s the astronomy department consisted of six faculty members: Heinrich Eichhorn, Robert Wilson, Edward Devinney, Sabatino Sofia, James Hunter and herself. The department made use of an observatory that was located just north of Fletcher Avenue next to the golf course and the planetarium that now belongs to the Museum of Science and Industry. According to Williams, the fully functioning astronomy department consisted of courses such as stellar evolution, kinematics – the study of how stars move – stellar atmospheres and galactic structure and cosmology – the study of the formation of the universe.
“The astronomy courses available at USF are only introductory-style courses and not designed for students seeking degrees in astronomy,” Williams said.
Williams became involved with astronomy when she acquired a summer job with Eichhorn during her sophomore year at Connecticut College. This led to Eichhorn offering Williams the chance to pursue graduate studies in astronomy at Yale University.
Williams said she was unsure at first but eventually took the offer, and found out she loved astronomy. Some of Williams’ major accomplishments include working on the Ranger Mission and the Apollo Program as an associate research engineer in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and working as a consultant on the Galileo mission.
According to a 1966 Oracle article, one of the first major successes for the astronomy department occurred when Eichhorn developed a unique photography method used to create a star catalog for the U.S. Army mapping service. This method made it possible for the Army to determine star positions necessary for surveying and determining the position of artificial satellites. Astronomers took advantage of this accomplishment as well, using the catalog to study the movement of stars.
Carl Riggs, the vice president of Academic Affairs in the early ’70s, once said, “The astronomy program is the jewel of this University. It’s turning out good research and good jobs. Some of the graduates are even working on the Hubble Space Telescope.”
It may have seemed that USF’s astronomy program was off to a successful start; however, problems began to arise with the observatory.
According to Williams, the observatory consisted of a flat roof that rolled off and folded under, allowing for a view of the night sky through a 26-inch reflector telescope. The lens of the telescope was a curved mirror created by famous optics designer James Gilbert Baker.
Problems with the telescope became prevalent as time passed and the population of Tampa grew.
“The start of the problems began when regular watering of the golf course grass created water vapor and made fog. The fog limited visibility from the observatory,” Williams said.
City lights were also becoming a problem.
“The scattered lights from the city of Tampa lessen the effectiveness of our big telescope,” associate professor of astronomy Edward Devinney said in an Oracle article in April 1973.Williams added that there was also a major technical problem with the telescope.
“The mounting was never quite adequate. There was always trouble with the telescope’s expansion and contraction. This threw everything off. We asked for money to fix this problem, but the state said no,” Williams said.
In light of these problems, the astronomy department began devising a plan to create a new observatory in a location in Brooksville called Chinsegut Hill.
“We will have to build a whole new observatory,” Devinney said in the 1973 Oracle article. “We would like to move to Chinsegut because the only city nearby is Brooksville and we don’t consider that a threat. Chinsegut has water and electricity, and we would build behind the big mansion up there. The money will have to come from University funds and public donations. The federal government is pretty stingy about stuff like this.”
Today, Chinsegut is owned and operated by USF and is used for professional conferences, retreats and events such as weddings.
“We were asking to move the observatory to Brooksville, but no money was granted. This was a serious issue,” Williams said.
The astronomy department was also having problems with the amount of students graduating from its master’s program. The master’s program and the doctoral program were both placed on probation by the Board of Regents in 1973.
In an effort to accommodate astronomy students and to keep the program on its feet, the department began a joint doctoral program with UF in the spring of 1975.
“The doctoral degrees were coming from UF, but master’s students were able to continue their work on the USF campus,” Williams said.
According to Williams, UF had been building up its astronomy program during this time. UF was granted an observatory north of its campus. USF was denied the funding for an observatory in Brooksville.
“We wanted the observatory to be located in Brooksville. That way we could have shared the observatory between USF and UF,” Williams said.
During the summer of 1979, the astronomy department at USF was officially moved to UF in Gainesville. Williams said an astronomy program requires an observatory in order to function.
“Because we didn’t receive the funding for the observatory in Brooksville, we asked to transfer our department to UF. It was our last resort,” she said.
The disparity between the astronomy department’s success and its lack of funding wasn’t lost on the department’s faculty.
“The administrators kept telling us we were the best department at USF, but that’s not what they told the Legislature or media reporters (because they had an agenda for boosting other departments),” said Robert Wilson, one of the astronomy faculty members who transferred to UF.
“So we became tired of getting little in the way of resources and managed to extricate ourselves. The astronomy department did not fail – UF wanted us, and we were glad to go.”
According to Williams, she stayed behind because her work in astronomy was very mathematical. The department of mathematics hired Williams to teach courses in the fall of 1979. Over time, demand for astronomy grew and she was given permission to teach only astronomy courses.
“There is a real public interest in astronomy. With the space program and the appearance of astronomy in books and movies, I think there is a high demand for astronomy,” Williams said.
Williams said in order for USF to create a new astronomy department, there would need to be adequate student interest, funding for at least six professors and a new observatory located in Brooksville, as originally planned. Williams said that although USF would still need a small observatory, having a high-tech observatory might not be such an issue anymore because work can now be done with computers.
“We can now use computers to access large observatories around the world,” she said.The interest is there. Williams said many students have come up to her or sent her e-mails asking if there is an astronomy major.
“I really enjoy astronomy. I was hoping they’d have more astronomy courses here. I was thinking about going into astrophysics. Having more of a background in astronomy would help me figure out what I want to do,” junior physics major April Lane said. “I was hoping to join physics together and dual major. When I go to graduate school for physics, I will probably take a concentration of undergraduate astronomy courses.”
As far as desire and talent are concerned, Williams said students interested in an astronomy program would need to take math and physics courses, which are common requirements for astronomy degrees.
“My main interest is astrophysics,” senior physics major David Schwab said. “My hopes were to steer my courses in that direction and possibly make it to the faculty in that department after I completed my grad work. It is good to see that people are interested in astronomy and space science here at USF, and it would delight me to see this program come to fruition.”
Williams said with USF looking to build up its reputation as a major research university, an astronomy department would be beneficial.
“Astronomy is a high-tech field and very visible to the public,” Williams said. “I’m hoping that something will happen that would keep astronomy alive at USF.”