Astronomy Department Profile

Planetary systems now forming in Orion Planetary systems now forming in Orion. Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (STScI/ESA), the HST Orion Treasury Project Team, & L. Ricci (ESO)

Several centuries and a universe of knowledge beyond Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and the other pioneers of astronomy, we find ourselves in the most exciting era in the study of the universe. Planets circling distant stars… starquakes on magnetars sending bursts of electromagnetic energy through space… the Mars Rovers and NASA’s sample return missions, which will allow scientists to study cometary material in laboratories on Earth… new infrared sky maps revealing a uniform glow that arises from dust warmed by all the stars that have existed since the universe began. Astronomy’s present is fascinating – but who knows what wonders astronomers will unveil in the future?

Astronomy students at Whitman can either major in astronomy or combine astronomy with another discipline to complete their major. Astronomy-geology and physics-astronomy are the two formally recognized major combinations, but other students have individually designed astronomy-mathematics, astronomy-biology, and astronomy-chemistry majors. The department also offers a minor in astronomy.

Our introductory courses teach methods of science and our place in the universe either at a level appropriate for nonscience majors or through a more mathematical approach. As a serious astronomy student, be ready to explore the characteristics of our Solar System’s planets, the properties, motions and distribution of stars, the structure of galaxies, and the nature of the universe through a three-semester introductory series. In the advanced Astrophysics course you will study the physical processes occurring from the centers through atmospheres of stars. Galactic Astronomy offers the advanced student a chance to study exotic objects such as quasars, active galaxies, and dark matter. The large-scale structure and curvature of the universe are prime topics for the upper-level Cosmology course. In recent years, subjects of the Special Topics course have included planetary astronomy, the interstellar medium, and advanced observational astronomy.

Whether a celestial rookie or a devotee of the stars, you may make full use of the Astronomy Department facilities – beginning with Clise Planetarium. Either for pleasure or for courses such as Descriptive Astronomy and Sky and Planets, you will discover this sanctuary while observing the constellations, coordinate systems, and seasonal changes in the night sky. To improve speaking and teaching skills, advanced astronomy students often present lessons to local school groups in Whitman’s own planetarium. Students also have ample opportunity to examine the nighttime skies at the college’s Bracher Observatory, located eight miles north of town, which houses a 16-inch Newtonian telescope. On campus, an Ash dome houses a 14-inch Celestron telescope and PC for use with film or our SBIG ST-200XM CCD camera.

Other equipment includes 12 small telescopes available during evening lab periods for astronomy students, including six 8-to-10-inch Newtonians, three 8-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrains, and a particularly fine 4-inch Alvan Clark refractor. You may also do solar observing using a neutral-density filter on one of the 8-inch Celestrons or using an H-alpha filter on our 4-inch Takahashi refractor. Department computers available to students include Macintosh, PCs, and UNIX workstations.

Majors who wish to continue on to graduate school in astronomy are encouraged to write an undergraduate thesis based on a research project with a faculty member. In recent years, students have participated in faculty research projects that made use of data from the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer satellite, and the Interstellar Medium Absorption Profile Spectrograph (a Space Shuttle payload instrument). Graduates from the past several years have enrolled in astronomy or aeronautics Ph.D. programs at the University of Colorado, Indiana University, New Mexico State University, Yale University and Dartmouth University.