Ironically - though happily - today as never before it is not necessary for a school to have a first-rate observatory in order to have a first-rate astronomy program. In the way that large mountain-top observatories were out of reach for all but the largest universities in the early part of this century, the resources to build and maintain a state-of- the-art optical, infrared, or radio telescope facility in the latter part of the century are beyond all but the Federal Government or consortia of "multiversities." At most universities astronomy faculty make regular observing trips to one of the national observatories - e.g., Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona, the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico - and spend months back home, usually with the help of their advanced students, analyzing the data. A good physics program, an active, respected research astronomer, and travel funds are the key prerequisites for a modern astrophysics program in a college or university today. Of course, having a proud tradition and a good 19th century observatory at hand does not hurt....
When Mathews retired in 1984, the College hired astrophysicist Joel Weisberg to replace him. In the tradition of Professors Wilson and Fath, Weisberg is a visible and productive member of the national scientific community. Elected to the International Astronomical Union in 1985, Weisberg has also served on advisory committees for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Arecibo Observatory. Weisberg's research activities focus on pulsars - rapidly spinning neutron stars containing more matter than the Sun in a region about the size of Northfield - and he publishes regularly in scientific journals (including, of course, Carleton's creation, the Astrophysical Journal). To pursue his study, he makes several observing trips each year to major radio U.S. Government radio observatories, and spends each summer on research at either Princeton or Cornell.
Building on a century-old tradition, Weisberg has involved Carleton students extensively in his research projects: several have traveled with him to the radio observatories, and typically two or three work with him on analysis of the data back at Carleton. Moreover. Weisberg has succeeded in placing students in summer research positions at such national observatories as Arecibo (in Puerto Rico) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (in Virginia). Fittingly, much of the students' off-campus study has been funded by endowments provided to Carleton by alumnus Clinton Ford and Edward Fath's daughter Catherine Sherry.
Meanwhile, radio astronomy itself has come to Carleton, in the form of a small but useful radio telescope built by Weisberg and several students. Dubbed the "Sogn Valley Radio Astronomy Observatory" (because it must be used in the lowlands 15 miles southeast of the campus to avoid terrestrial radio interference), this unusual apparatus has successfully observed an exploding galaxy hundreds of millions of light years away. In a curious echo of the days when the first Carleton observatory sat alone amidst acres of fields and prairie, this newest Carleton observatory is itself observed by a dairy herd pastured nearby.
Amidst such research, the normal astronomy curriculum is stronger than ever. The lecture and labcourses for non-physics majors are usually entirely filled by juniors and seniors - a mark of popularity, since they are the first to sign up for classes each term; the advanced astrophysics course is taken by over half of all students majoring in physics, many of whom now write their senior comprehensive exercises in the field.
Beyond advanced physics students and the larger group of non- physics students, the Carleton astronomy program continues to serve a wider public. The venerable viewing nights remain a popular event. Weisberg has also been a part of the American Astronomical Society - Harlow Shapley Visiting Lecture program, which took him to colleges and universities across the country to give public talks and advanced lectures in astronomy.
In the involvement of students in advanced research, in faculty contributions to the science and profession, in reaching out to the nonscientist on the campus and in the broader community - innovation has not replaced, only enhanced, tradition.
The observatory itself has become a symbol of the melding of old and new. To this day, the Howard clocks still keep time in the rotunda, though now they are set periodically by reference to a nearby digital display of the National Bureau of Standard's atomic clock rather than to astronomical calculations. The two telescopes are kept in good repair and are used for instruction and for the ever-popular public viewing nights. (Goodsell is, indeed, one of only six active observatories at a liberal arts college in the United States.) The meridian circle reposes, unused but still imposing, in the center of what is now a library/lounge sporting the latest astrophysical publications.
Though the College is now better known than its observatory (quite a change from the 1890s), the astronomy program itself remains one of the best of its kind in the nation, and an active and important part of the liberal arts at Carleton.