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Eyeing the Skies With a New Telescope

By Kristen Cole

Scheduling a telescope viewing in New England is no task for the meek.

When the Smith Department of Astronomy received as a gift a sophisticated solar telescope this year, overjoyed faculty members immediately set a date and time to demonstrate its capability on the steps of the Campus Center. It took three attempts before they pulled it off.

Having a the telescope that offers a close-up of the magnetic storms that erupt on the surface of the sun 93 million miles away is of little consequence if the weather on earth does not cooperate. “It’s just part of being an astronomer,” says Suzan Edwards, professor of astronomy. “We take it in stride.”

Although the astronomy department has an extensive collection of telescopes to peer at the night sky, until this year it did not have one to see the sun.

A solar telescope had been at the top of the department’s wish list when Edwards learned that the mother of Smith alumna Lisa Ilka Abrams ’90 was donating a Coronado Solar Telescope in honor of her daughter.

Despite the December cold, the astronomy department’s new solar telescope performed quite well in the hands of Leah Ingraham ’08, left, and lab instructor Meg Thacher. Photo by Fish/Parham.

Geraldine Hogan presented the instrument to Smith in recognition of the role played by the college “in the formation of the many fine women of the class of 1990.

“Lisa is just one of the many who learned, through a Smith College experience, that the sky is not the limit and that you can reach for and be anything you want to be,” Hogan said.

Although science was one of her favorite classes at Smith, Abrams was not passionate about the subject. A student of government and economics, Abrams went on to receive a law degree and is an associate attorney at Karp­HeurlinWeiss in Tucson, Arizona.

“The college gave me so much more than four years of education,” Abrams adds. “Smith is really the place that taught me how to think.”

Her mother cofounded the Coronado Technology Group, a leading manufacturer and distributor of solar telescopes and filters and producer of the instrument that is now available for use by students in all of Smith’s astronomy classes.

Those who put their eyes to the lens will glimpse a sun that appears reddish because the telescope filters out all but the red light emitted by the hot hydrogen atoms that cause the storms on the sun, explains Edwards.

Hogan invited two Smith students to attend her fall solar conference for amateurs in Tucson and to stay at Abrams’ home. Senior student Katie Means and sophomore Rouwenna Lamm accepted the offer.

“I used to think that the sun was just an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy, but there’s a lot we don’t yet understand about it,” says Lamm, an astronomy major from Berea, Kentucky. The conference “made me realize it is an interesting field that is accessible to anyone.”

However, getting an unobstructed view of the sky is admittedly more difficult in Northampton than it was in Tucson, where she could see from horizon to horizon, says Lamm.

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