Stargazing Amid the Cornfields

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 am | By Kat Atcheson '12

Do you know what’s really cool? Seeing the stripes on Jupiter. The craters on the moon. The Andromeda Galaxy, which is approximately 2 million light years away.

I got to see all of them last semester when I took Professor Cadmus’ astronomy class, The Universe and Its Structure. The class is aimed mostly at nonscience majors who are still interested in astronomy, so if you only have basic math skills but an interest in space, it’s a good class to take. And, oh my gosh, I never knew there was so much going on in our solar system, let alone in the entire universe!

Each session started with picking up the day’s class outline on the front table, with lecture notes, homework deadlines, and observation sessions. Next, Professor Cadmus opened the class with “Show and Tell,” which was usually a brief little lesson about a physics concept, astronomy news, or another tidbit of interesting knowledge.

Then it was time to get down to business: galaxies, planets, stars, formations, deaths, light-years, gravity, and moon phases! Not in that particular order, of course. Most lectures involved video clips and slides to help us understand how the universe looks and how its laws behave. And don’t forget to ask lots of questions and take notes, because yes, it will be on the exam! Homework could end up being very hands on, involving things like astronomical calculations, predicting moon phases and positions, or observing various celestial phenomena on your own.

Thankfully, the astronomy class met during the day, even though the stars are only out at night. But the best parts of the whole course were undoubtedly the nighttime observation sessions throughout the semester. Grinnell has its own observatory, just beyond the track and about a 10-minute walk from the dorms.

Experiencing a session in the observatory might just have been the most awesome science-related thing I’ve done on campus. Bundled snugly in my favorite hoodie and holding my trusty flashlight, I would walk the path around 9 p.m. to meet my classmates at the observatory. A dozen or so of us stood around the telescope, listening to Professor Cadmus explain what we were about to view. Then each of us took our turn looking at the sky. This is not exaggeration — it was awe-inspiring. Seeing the moon’s craters up close, or a binary star, things I had only read about or seen pictures of in books, with my own eyes was incredibly humbling and inspiring at the same time.

I’m not really much of a science nut, but The Universe and Its Structure really did click with me. Maybe it was the fact that for the first time in my life, I could actually understand the laws of physics. Maybe it was the fact that astronomy appeals to my nocturnal tendencies. Maybe it was the resources Grinnell has to make a class like that not only possible, but also truly excellent. But really, I think it was simply that after taking the class I can look up at the heavens and think, “…You know, I kinda get that.”

Kat Atcheson '12 is an Anthropology Major from Overland Park, KS.