"Seeing and Knowing" Student Workshop at Lick Observatory

UCSC student Elliot Eckholm with the Great Refractor at Lick Observatory
UCSC student Elliot Eckholm with the Great Refractor at Lick Observatory

For me, one of the highlights of a year full of them was definitely the two-day student workshop we had at Lick Observatory in May. It was called "Seeing and Knowing in Art and Astronomy." The program emerged from Russell Crotty's residency at Lick and the exhibition we are working on for the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Jose, which will open this November. During Russell's time here we wanted to bring a group of undergraduate students up to Lick to experience the unique flavor of this historic and still scientifically significant observatory. Our goal was to involve the students in two days of intensive interaction about art and science, exploring how they are at times similar, at times radically different, and what it could mean to pursue them across a lifetime. We did it, and the feedback we got from students was fantastic. Here's a sample:

As a student pursuing astrophysics, just being able to set foot in a place like this makes the science come to life, and I can almost feel the love and passion of those scientists and astronomers who have worked here, and it is really inspiring. Despite the fact that I have always loved art, when I came to college I started to focus purely on physics and math, and I neglected my passion for art. However, this experience has been very, very inspiring, and I am actually surprised at how many ideas for art projects and installations I have that I have probably wanted to make a reality for a long, long time. It's refreshing to be with others who also seem to have an appreciation for more than just one subject, and willing to work with each other to create something beautiful. This is one of the best experiences ever, I'm thankful that I was able to attend this event. Thank you!" - Gabriela Hernandez, 1st year student

The staff and volunteers who helped us at Lick were all tremendously supportive. And even though we had cloudy weather, "Seeing and Knowing" was every bit the unique, magical experience we hoped it would be for our students. Thanks to everyone at Lick for making it happen, and thanks to the UC Santa Cruz Foundation for helping to fund this program, along with our annual donors and other supporters, which guaranteed that the program was free to all students.

For readers who want to know more, what follows is a description of the workshop and the time we spent together on Mount Hamilton.

Lick Observatory, photo by Gabriela Hernandez

First, a couple of sentences of background. Lick Observatory is truly "Silicon Valley's first research institute," opened in 1888 as the world's first mountain-top observatory. At the time it had largest telescope in the world, the 36-inch Great Refractor, and Lick continues to be a site of leading-edge work in astronomy in the areas of exoplanet (i.e. extra-solar planetary) research, the development of next-generation, ground-based adaptive optics systems, and more. 

The IAS developed the Seeing and Knowing workshop with the hope of offering UCSC undergrads a potentially life-changing experience at Lick, an amazing place that our undergrads rarely get a chance to experience first-hand. Working with faculty members Melissa Gwyn (studio art), Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz and Greg Laughlin (astronomy and astrophysics), together with Tony Misch (Lick's collections director) and Russell Crotty, we planned a series of activities about art and science, combined with a behind-the-scenes look at some of Lick's most spectacular research facilities and its rich historical archive. Working directly with astronomy and arts faculty members and putting out an open call across campus, we recruited 20 undergrads and two graduate assistants, the maximum number we could fit in the available beds at Lick. 

Our time began on a Friday in May toward the end of the spring quarter, meeting on campus for transport to Lick. After a quick lunch we enjoyed an extensive tour of the Lick campus, led by Keith Wandry, one of Lick's superb Public Program Telescope Operators. It included a behind-the-scenes visit to the 120-inch Shane telescope and a ride around the rotating dome, both inside...

Inside the dome of the 120-inch Shane telescope

...and outside....   

After the tour, we met in the Lecture Hall for presentations by Melissa and Russell, followed by a thought-provoking set of questions about art and science prepared by Tony Misch. Tony began his life as an artist, but gravitated to astronomy and spent more than two decades at Lick as a support astronomer. He is also co-curating the exhibition at the San Jose ICA with me. 

Lick archive director Tony Misch with Lick workshop group 

Then students were introduced to a grant opportunity for workshop participants, offering students up to $1500 to support collaborative public projects about an art and science idea, intersection, or topic of their choice. After dinner and a rest we went back to the historic building for an in-depth look at the Great Refractor and also a hands-on workshop about modern astronomy data visualization methods, prepared and led by one of our grad student assistants, Asher Wasserman, a Ph.D. student in astronomy. Seeing the historic refractor was predictably jaw-dropping, but we also wanted students to get a glimpse of how contemporary astronomy is pursued.

Great Refractor, photo by Gabriela Hernandez

We had hoped to give students a look through both the 36-inch telescope and the newer 40-inch Nickel telescope, but a dense layer of clouds kept that from happening. As I've learned on this project, that's how it goes sometimes with astronomy. If the weather isn't clear, you can't do any seeing. Fortunately our terrific Public Telescope Program Operators gave students a real feel for the Great Refractor and its history, and everyone got a look at James Lick's tomb underneath the dome. 

On Saturday we investigated the Lick archives, including astronomers' log books dating back to the 19th century, a trove of more than 150,000 glass plate photographic negatives, and a collection of historic instruments, many of them created at the observatory. We also enjoyed a fascinating talk on the history of James Lick and the founding of the observatory by Rod Norden, another of Lick's super informative Public Program Telescope Operators. 

Students also heard talks by Russell Crotty and our second grad assistant, David Harris, a 2016 Digital Art/New Media MFA graduate who had previously done a Ph.D. in physics and founded a noted science journal before embarking on a new career in art. At the close of the workshop, students had free time to brainstorm ideas for grant proposals together.

Lick Workshop group photo

After gathering for a group photo under the portrait of Lick, we headed back to campus at about 5pm Saturday, exhausted but inspired. Three students had already inquired about volunteering at Lick and getting involved, and their highly positive feedback has us thinking about whether the event should be an annual or biennial occurrence. We did end up funding an ambitious student proposal to create a multimedia extravaganza about black holes and the cosmos, combining video, dance or poetry, motion sensing, and more. I'll be working with the students on that this coming academic year, with Astronomy and Astrophysics chair Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz as scientific advisor. 

Thanks again to everyone on the mountain at Lick who made this happen, including especially Elinor Gates, Kostas Chloros, Camille Martinez, Erik Kovacs, Keith Wandry, Rod Norden, Paul Lynam, Joe Halay, and Darlene Perez. Thanks on campus to Professor Claire Max, director of the UC Observatories, to Graeme Smith, Lick's Associate Director, to faculty Melissa Gwyn, Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, and Greg Laughlin. Finally a huge thanks to Tony Misch, to Russell Crotty, and to all the students who took time out of their busy spring quarters to participate.