Tossing Lines: An astrophysicist’s view of the galaxy

While you’re nodding off over a book in bed, the Connecticut College observatory dome rumbles in the night, slowly turning, opening its door to the starlit sky.

Astrophysicist Dr. Leslie Brown, associate professor of physics at Conn College, recently escorted me onto the rooftop observation deck of the school’s three-story F.W. Olin Science Center, where the view of New London Harbor was spectacular. Along with teaching and conducting research, Brown manages the school’s two observatories.

When an astrophysicist apologizes for “spacing out,” it’s obvious she has a sense of humor. I also found Professor Brown to be a super smart, hands-on, down-to-earth person.

Brown’s students use the Olin observatory and an 1881 telescope on Bill Hall to study the nature of stars and celestial bodies, applying the laws of physics to their observations.

We chatted as we walked around the big silver dome, enjoying the views.

She recalled the freezing February day many years ago when she stood here overseeing the lowering of the heavy telescope by crane onto its stand.

I asked about gender challenges in pursuing what was still a “man’s” profession in the 1970s.

“Discrimination existed,” she said, “but when walls came up, I pushed through them. I’m too stubborn to be stopped.”

Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Brown attended the University of Delaware and Brandeis University, where, after discovering physics and astronomy, she changed her major to physics and earned a minor in Russian. She can still speak Russian now, many years later.

After earning her Ph.D, she taught at Wellesley College and Brandeis, until accepting research positions at the Very Large Array and Very Long Baseline Array in New Mexico.

Then, in 1992, Brown joined the faculty of Connecticut College’s Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geophysics.

She has taught various physics and astronomy courses, and, more recently, classes on our solar system.

Brown has presented lectures across the nation on astronomy, education and research.

Her position includes overseeing year-round research, like conducting “differential photometry projects on various celestial objects ranging from active galactic nuclei to comets and asteroids,” and other esoteric themes.

She led me into the observatory, which has three main components: a small office just off the rooftop where computers control all telescope functions and receive its camera images, the main telescope under the dome and a basement image processing and analysis lab.

We climbed the stairs to the main telescope under the dome. It’s older now, yet still impressive as it towered above us.

Brown demonstrated how the dome spins and opens, sending it clunking on its track.

When I asked how far the 20-inch-wide lens can see, Brown performed a mind-boggling, “thinking out loud” calculation of red shifts, astronomical units, parsecs and light minutes. Suffice to say the telescope can see out past the Andromeda galaxy, over 2.5 million light years from Earth.

When electrical equipment needs repair or installation, Brown does the work herself. She’s a jack-of-all astronomical trades.

In 1997, crowds packed the observatory to view the famous Hale-Bopp comet. The raucous throng filled every space, shoulder to shoulder, spilling out onto the street. It was so crowded that when Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, in town filming “Amistad,” arrived, he couldn’t get near the place.

“It was insane, out of control,” Brown said.

Our conversation turned to humans in space:

On the Apollo moon landing in 1969: “I didn’t give it much thought. It was the summer of love,” she said, smiling.

On colonizing Mars: “New technology will be required, and the cost will be in numbers we can’t even fathom today. It’s a long way off,” she said.

On whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe: “There might be microbial life somewhere, but that’s it.”

“Why no one like us?” I asked.

“Our evolution is too complex. We just happened to win the lottery.”

“Asteroid mining,” she said, “is the next big thing. Far more doable than Mars and it can be done with robots. Space does not like humans. It has no use for us.”

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has said “We do not simply live in this universe. The universe lives within us.”

This is a great time to explore that connection, as the national summer reading program is themed “A Universe of Stories,” with local libraries offering interesting activities and reading suggestions.

Brown’s success is a lesson for all women: when walls come up, push through them. Be stubborn.

She looks forward to retiring soon, when she can enjoy her home on the shoreline and the short walk to her boat. She’ll garden and read the classic literature she hasn’t had time for. She’ll still help the school with certain projects, especially involving electronics, a field she enjoys.

“But,” she says with a grin, “I also hope to sit on the porch in the evening with a glass of wine. And my telescope, of course.”

John Steward lives in Waterford and can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com, or visit www.johnsteward.online.

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