Join the Friends of Chamberlin Observatory

Send an email to rstencel at with contact info.

A student recently asked how the study of astronomy helps the nation. Astronomy inspires and challenges. Since ancient times, people have learned to use the stars for time and calendar keeping. Movements of the planets inspired theories of gravitation, which helped promote physics and engineering, and continue to offer extreme tests for both - relativity/cosmology and spaceflight. Finally, astronomy gives us "the biggest picture" of the universe and our place in it, and provides lessons about why we should take better care of this special planet we depend upon, starting with keeping an eye out for hazardous asteroids and finding cures for energy-wasting light pollution.

In light of the foregoing, what now are the possible roles and futures for the University of Denver's historic Chamberlin Observatory and its antique telescope? Three overlapping roles include research, teaching and outreach - the trinity for university faculty and academic facilities most everywhere. In October 1993, Prof. Stencel organized a "Chamberlin Centennial Re-dedication" event to officially breathe new life into the old observatory, and to set the stage for renewed recovery efforts. In those days, the University of Denver was busy with larger issues of financial recovery from a recent recession. Thus he needed to organize funds, volunteers and contracts for work at Chamberlin. Immediate needs, like the failing balcony and bathroom flooring were addressed with small contracts to local carpenters. Fortune had it that DU's Risk Manager, Janet Parnell's husband, James, was also a restoration engineer at CSU (Colorado State University), who advised on proper methods for re-pointing a great deal of failing mortar in the pier basement interior walls. Keith Heaton of Physical Plant recommended the help of a delightful "old school" German mason to tuck-point all the exterior mortar, on contract. The high point in this period was reached on Aug. 1, 1994 - close to the hundredth anniversary day of the telescope's first light, when the Denver City Council unanimously approved the resolution naming Chamberlin Observatory as a Denver Landmark, giving it real legal protections from demolition. Susan Conat-Stencel deserves the full credit for writing and assembling the Landmark application and guiding it through the review processes.

As of this writing, in addition to programmatic needs, there are many infrastructure needs to attend to as well. Thanks to the perseverance of those directly associated with the drive to sustain the astronomical tradition Chamberlin Observatory represents, there exists several proposed goals for the coming years regarding its survival: (a) restore the Clark-Saegmuller refractor to its historically accurate condition, and continue public outreach programs with staff and volunteer collaboration; (b) address code and ADA problems with the building, per the preservation master plan - developed as part of a building preservation grant from State Historical Society; (c) recapture the research and training component for which Chamberlin was intended, but has lost due to antiquated equipment and infrastructure. The most important facet of the Chamberlin Observatory is that it continues to be a magnet that enables students and the public to view astronomical objects, and not be merely an architectural mausoleum. Although it appears that Chamberlin Observatory has muddled along with volunteer help and occasional emergency repairs, it awaits the interest and energy of an organization willing to invest in a level of staffing and budget never before realized. By sustaining Chamberlin Observatory, we will inspire new students and fulfill Howe's vision "to encourage the habit of accurate observation; to strengthen reasoning by the application of mathematics to astronomical phenomena, and its pure disciplinary value - lifting the mind from daily cares, to the contemplation of awe-inspiring grandeur."

Uncontrolled lighting practises

As electric lights became more affordable, and housing density grew around the observatory, the issues of glare, light trespass and sky glow have become a problem for observing. Poorly aimed lights and excessive levels of lighting, such as those found around commercially zoned districts, cumulatively create light pollution. The lights create a sky glow, which makes it difficult to see fainter stars in the night sky, and represent a substantial amount of energy waste, going upwards into the sky - illuminating clouds and birds. Visibility of the Milky Way vanished from Denver a couple of decades ago, and the ability to see all but the brightest stars is a challenge to most observatory visitors and students. This is a widespread problem for observers, because there are fewer and fewer places where there are no electric lights. The area around Chamberlin was once a perfect spot to observe the night sky, free from the glow of electric lights. Over the years, Observatory Park has been under assault by more and more lighting, making observing increasingly difficult.

Astronomers recognized the growing problem as early as 1980 and formed the International Dark Sky Association []. In Colorado, campaigns to modify building codes to deal with glare, light trespass and skyglow problems have been underway for several years at local, county and statewide levels. Artificial light is a form of radiation that we must learn to use wisely, not merely because of the energy and environmental costs, but for human health reasons: increasingly the link between disruption of nocturnal melatonin production [a brain hormone] and stress, eyesight problems and cancer is being recognized. For those with problem lights from a neighbor: talk with the person about adding some shielding, to shade your direction, or replacing the light with one of many energy efficient, directable lamps now available in hardware stores. Members of the Colorado section of the Dark Sky Association also are available to help with your questions, email coloida at .

More to follow... 080323