The Pleiades—seven sisters lofted into the night sky by Zeus—shine crisply through the eyepiece of a handsome new telescope that Austin College bought to top off its two-year-old science building. David Whelan, an assistant professor of physics, describes the star cluster’s astronomical significance after Amy Anderson, who is double-majoring in physics and theater, has given visitors some background on the sisters—daughters of Atlas and a sea nymph who were pursued by the lusty Orion till Zeus put them eternally out of his reach. It’s a perfect liberal-arts-college moment—professor and student, science and the humanities—playing out under a dome open to the cosmos.
What it’s not is a moment that comes cheap. The telescope cost about $1-million all told—a lot of money for this 1,300-student college an hour north of Dallas. Mr. Whelan, who was hired last fall, says the instrument is equally valuable for research and teaching. Working alongside a professor, “it’s within a student’s reach to observe a small subset of stars, perform the data reduction, and present results at the end of a semester,” he says.
Coincidentally, the instrument also serves another purpose. From its perch on the roof of the $40-million science building, the telescope overlooks a campus quadrangle that every admissions tour crosses. So even during the day, the telescope and its dome make an important statement about the kind of college Austin is. <Read more.>