Astronomy program history

The history of the Astronomy/Astrophysics Program at KU is long, dating back to the 1870's, and filled with a mixture of academic successes and missed opportunities. Until recently, the common thread linking the first century of Astronomy at KU has been individual effort. Until 1982, the typical size of the Astronomy faculty had been one, with a short-term growth to two during the 1950's and 1960's. Thus, the survival of Astronomy at KU has depended in large part on the sacrifice and effort of the individuals who worked diligently, often without recognition or adequate resources, to maintain the quality of both the undergraduate program and, until its cancellation in the 1970's, the master's degree program in Astronomy. The extensive list of KU alumni who have contributed professionally to the development of astronomy and astrophysics in the 20th century is a tribute to the faculty noted below, Drs. Alter, Storer, and Horak, a tradition we hope to build upon and to expand in the 21st Century.

This modest summary is predominantly abridged from three primary sources that are accessible in complete form via links below: a history of the Pitt Telescope by Don Bord, a short history of the KU Astronomy program written by Dr. N. Wyman Storer, and an extensive, personal compilation of the history of the program during the middle of the 20th century by Dr. Henry Horak. The efforts of these three gentlemen provide insight into the importance of faculty dedicated to the development of their students on both a professional and a personal level; the reader is strongly encouraged to investigate them further.

Astronomy has been taught at KU since 1876, though a crude observatory did not appear on campus until almost ten years later. The 6-inch Alvin Clark refractor was purchased new for $1,000 and arrived on the KU campus on October 20, 1885. Among the first individuals involved in the Astronomy program at KU during the end of the 19th century was Dr. Edward L. Nichols, a physicist who taught Astronomy as part of the course offerings at KU. Dr. Nichols remained at KU until the mid-1880's, when he left to join the Physics program at Cornell. In 1892-93, in collaboration with Prof. Ernest Merritt of Cornell, he was instrumental in creating the Physical Review, the first American journal devoted to Physics. With financial support from Cornell, Nichols and Merritt served as Editors of thePhysical Review until 1913, when the Physical Review became self-supporting and the American Physical Society assumed sole responsibility for the publication.

The earliest available University Course Catalog (1887-88) lists two astronomy offerings: Descriptive Astronomy and Practical Astronomy, the latter primarily for engineers. These courses were taught for three years by Mr. M. S. Franklin, an assistant in Physics and Astronomy. In 1890, these were taken over by Prof. Ephraim Miller of the Department of Mathematics; the next year this became the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy, a common location for academic astronomy programs in the early 20th century, and so remained until 1910. During this period, Celestial Mechanics was added as a graduate course, also taught by Prof. Miller.

In 1910, a year after the arrival of Dr. F. E. Kester as Chairman of the Physics Department, this department became the Department of Physics and Astronomy. During the first year, the above three courses and one titled Introduction to Astrophysics were taught by Prof. M.E. Rice. The following year the classes were offered by an unnamed instructor. In 1912, the curriculum was expanded considerably under the guidance of Dr. R. K. Young to include a semester of the Observational Astronomy, two semesters of General Astronomy, a course in Theoretical Astronomy and one inPractical Computing. An undergraduate major in Astronomy was first mentioned in the catalog of 1912-13. For the next two years the above courses were taken over by a Dr. Cornelius and then, from 1915 to 1917, they were taught by Dr. Ellis B. Stouffer.

Dinsmore Alter 1917 – 1935

Dr. Dinsmore Alter was appointed to the KU faculty in Fall 1917 after completing his Ph.D. degree at the University of California at Berkeley under the well-known astronomer, Dr. Leuschner, but was granted a leave of absence for two years of military duty as a colonel in the First World War, returning sometime in 1918. Dr. Alter was promoted to Associate Professor in 1919 and Full Professor in 1924. On his return, the number of courses offered was further expanded to include theHistory of Astronomy, Method of Least Squares, Theory of Interpolation, Vector Analysis and Vector Mechanics, and theCalculation of Orbits and Perturbations - all apparently offered by Dr. Alter. He was instrumental in attempting to develop a research-quality, astronomical observatory at KU. Though his almost 20-year effort fell short of the desired goal, the Pitt telescope did play a critical role in the completion of a number of Master's Theses, including that of Clyde Tombaugh in 1939.

Dr. Alter's tenure at KU ended in 1935 when he took a leave of absence, resigning in 1936 to become the Director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. A more extensive summary of Dr. Alter's career is given in an excerpt from the article on the History of Griffith Observatory by David H. Menke. The article can be accessed at this site.

N. Wyman Storer 1935 – 1970

Dr. N. Wyman Storer arrived at KU after completion of his Ph.D. thesis on photographic photometry of stars in 1928 under the direction of Dr. Robert Trumpler at the University of California. In 1935, Dr. Storer was given a temporary appointment during Dr. Alter's leave-of-absence; this was made permanent upon the latter's resignation. At this time, the curriculum was modified in a limited way. Changes were made to the topics covered in various courses and, with the exception of Least Squares, courses that were not directly astronomical in content were deleted. The facilities for the use of the reflecting telescope were greatly improved by the construction, at the base of the rotating conical roof, of a floor that gave ready access to the upper, business end of the telescope. This made it possible, in 1938-39, for the first graduate student to earn his M.A. degree using the William Pitt Telescope as it was named on the occasion of its formal dedication on February 17, 1939.

But within two years it became necessary for Dr. Storer to devote much of his time to the teaching of Physics, Trigonometry, and Celestial Navigation to various military units.

Upon the demolition of the old observatory building in the fall of 1944, the 6-inch refractor was moved to a new structure on the roof of the newly constructed Lindley Hall, and the Pitt Telescope was placed in storage. Prof. Storer designed the new structure so that housing for the transit instrument and the Pitt Telescope could be added to it later. These additions were finally completed in 1951-52 and included, beside the transit room and circular room for the Pitt Telescope, two small offices for the use of advanced students, a small shop and a photographic dark-room.

Shortly after the war, Prof. Storer was asked to organize and teach a course called The Principles of Physical Science, a 5-hour course that was then taught by him every semester from the fall of 1948 to the spring of 1967. It was soon clear that he could not handle that and at the same time teach the courses in Astronomy needed for both an undergraduate major and a master's program.

Henry G. Horak 1950 - 1968

Consequently, Dr. Henry Horak was added to the astronomy section of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Dr. Horak had graduated from KU in 1940 and, after service in the war, received his M.A. from KU in 1947, doing his thesis on Vector Methods Applied to the Theory of Orbits. This was followed by a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1950 on the subject of Diffuse Reflection by Planetary Atmospheresunder the direction of Dr. S. Chandrasekhar, later winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

With his more recent training in Astrophysics, Dr. Horak served as advisor to most of the master's candidates in Astronomy through the end of this degree program. (A partial list of many of the students to work under Dr. Horak and a discussion of their work is given in his linked history of the program.) In addition he was instrumental in procuring for the Pitt Telescope a double-slide plate-holder for use in direct photography and a measuring engine for the precise measurement of photographs and spectrograms. He later had built a photoelectric photometer and a replica-grating spectrograph for use with the Pitt Telescope. In addition he added various more up-to-date features to the driving mechanism of the telescope.

During the early sixties the number of astronomy students at KU, both undergraduate and graduate, increased greatly and, by 1965, the elementary class amounted to nearly two-hundred, and the M.A. candidates to about six. Also, the campus had become rather bright at night due to the increasing number of light sources, and consideration was given to moving the observatory. Furthermore, the Physics Department was due for a new department chairman; in 1966 Dr. David Beard, whose interests included the plasmas of comets and the solar corona, was chosen to replace Dr. Stranathan.

During the summer of 1966, Dr. Horak worked at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Boston, where Dr. Charles Lundquist, a KU alum, had become the assistant director. Due to increasing disenchantment with the university administration, expanding research interests, and rumors of a possible shutdown of the astronomy program, Dr. Horak decided to leave KU, announcing his resignation in 1968 after spending 6 months as a visiting staff member at Los Alamos. Dr. Horak remained at Los Alamos National Lab until he retired in October 1989.

Thomas P. Armstrong 1968 - 2003

In 1968, research in Space Physics expanded with the hire of Dr.Tom Armstrong, then completing a postdoc at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority in Culham after finishing his Ph.D. thesis under David Montgomery at the University of Iowa. Armstrong's experimental/observational work provided an excellent complement to the theoretical work of Dr. Beard on space physics and Dr. Enoch on plasma physics. Tom Armstrong went on to supervise or cosupervise the Ph.D. theses of 30 students in Physics.

With Dr. Horak gone, responsibility for the entire astronomy program returned to Dr. Storer alone until his retirement in 1970. The position in astronomy was filled the same year by Dr. Peter Wehinger. Dr. Susan Wyckoff, his wife, having recently completed her Ph.D. at Indiana University, was given an adjunct appointment. Because of the situation at KU, they left the University within 2 years. At present, Dr. Wehinger is Development Officer for Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, while Dr. Wyckoff is a Professor Emeritus of Physics & Astronomy at Arizona State University, Tempe.

Stephen J.Shawl 1972 - 2008

The era populated by the current astronomy faculty at KU began in 1972 with the hire of Dr. Stephen Shawl, having recently completed his Ph.D. on Observations and Models of Polarization of Late Type Stars under the direction of Dr. Brian Warner at the University of Texas at Austin. Though the M.S. degree program at KU was dropped in 1974, the undergraduate options were expanded to include the B.S. The tradition of exceptionally high quality students remained in place at the undergraduate level. Courses in astronomy for non-science majors were taught by Dr. Shawl and a number of Physics faculty, though courses for the majors remained under the direction of Dr. Shawl.

John P. Davidson

During this time period, the Department instituted a summer camp in Astronomy for high school students that survived until the mid-80's, run primarily by Dr. Jack Davidson, making extensive use of the Tombaugh Observatory and its expanded facilities. These included 3 Celestron 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes and the 14-in Daus-Preston Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain, donated by the Daus-Preston family in 1979. The 8-inch telescopes were stored in Lindley Hall and transferred to fixed mounts on the roof when needed, while the 14-inch was housed on the roof in a roll-off dome obtained second-hand from Benedictine College. The entire complex officially became known as the Tombaugh Observatory in the early 80's.

Due to expanded enrollments in Astronomy through the 70's, it was decided that an additional astronomer was needed to handle the load. In 1982, Drs. Barbara J. Anthony-Twarog and Bruce Twarog were hired from the University of Texas at Austin to jointly share one position within the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Both had received their Ph.D.'s from Yale under the direction of Dr. Beatrice Tinsley, studying the white dwarf progenitor mass limit using open clusters (1981) and chemical evolution of the Galaxy (1980), respectively. Because of legal difficulties surrounding the option of joint tenure, the shared appointment was converted to two full-time positions in 1986.

Through the 80's, a variety of changes and improvements were instituted. Undergraduate research was expanded by obtaining on permanent loan a number of measuring engines useful for modest research projects, including a Mann two-coordinate precision measuring engine, a Grant 1-D measuring engine for photographic spectra, and a Cuffey iris astrophotometer, heavily used analyzing photographic plates of open clusters to produce color-magnitude diagrams for stellar populations studies. In 1987, these were replaced by a state-of-the-art I2S image-processing workstation for CCD analysis.

In related areas, the Department moved in a tangential but astrophysical direction in 1986, hiring a physicist and Enrico Fermi Fellow from the University of Chicago, Dr. Adrian Melott, a specialist in Cosmology, specifically computational modelling of the large-scale structure of the Universe. As a partial byproduct, the Master's program also saw an indirect form of resurrection with the institution of an M.S. degree in Computational Physics and Astrophysics in 1986. The first astronomically-oriented master's degree in almost 20 years was completed in 1989 by Tamara Whitacre (now Payne) under the direction of Dr. Anthony-Twarog. Mara went on to complete her Ph.D. in Astronomy at New Mexico State University.

An unprecedented event in the evolution of the program profile occurred in 1988 when KU, in cooperation with a number of smaller schools in the region, hosted a summer meeting of the AAS in Kansas City. Photos from this event and the AAS Council meeting can be accessed at the sites AASMeet and COUNCIL. A gathering of KU astronomy alumni also coincided with the time of the meeting, bringing together a large number of alumni from the previous 50 years of the program, including Clyde Tombaugh. Photos from this gathering are accessible at the site REUNION.

Within Space Physics, Dr. Tom Cravens from the University of Michigan joined Dr. Tom Armstrong in 1988, replacing Dr. Dave Beard who retired in 1987. Additions to the astronomy program in the 80's included two new courses, ASTR 291 (now ASTR 391), a Calculus-based survey class for science majors and engineers that has grown from 2 students to an average of 20, and ASTR/PHSX 593 (now 693) , a junior-senior level class in Cosmology. In the late 80's, the 6-inch Clark refractor was refurbished by the Astronomy Associates of Lawrence and a modern Ash dome was provided to house the scope on the west roof of Lindley Hall. Establishment of the Tombaugh Observatory Fund since the early 90's has provided an option for summer support for an undergraduate research intern.

During this increasingly active period, the Cosmology group expanded steadily, addingDr. Sergei Shandarin of Moscow State University on a permanent basis in 1991 and Dr. Hume Feldman of Princeton University in 1996.

During the 90's, the deteriorating conditions on the roof of Lindley Hall caused by expanded use of chemical vents, air conditioning units, and growing light pollution led to declining use of the facilities. With the need to shut down access to the roof for an extended length of time due to roofing repairs for the second time in 12 years, a decision was made to abandon the Lindley Hall site permanently in Fall 2001. With the dismantling of the Pitt Telescope and the small telescope mounts, the Clark refractor remains the sole astronomical occupant on the roof of Lindley Hall. For on-campus viewing, the smaller telescopes now operate from tripods on the observation deck at Memorial Stadium. The 27-inch mirror was given on permanent loan to the Northeast Kansas Amateur Astronomy League, which has used a NASA NEO grant to rebuild a modern CCD-equipped telescope at their Farpoint Observatory around this piece of KU history.

In Fall 2002, Dr. Misha Medvedev joined the faculty, bringing expanded expertise in the area of Plasma Astrophysics and supplying an invaluable transition for the retirement of Dr. Tom Armstrong in Spring 2003. As part of the extended 5-year plan within the department, the astronomers, cosmologists, and plasma/space physics faculty of the department officially agreed to cooperate together as the newly constituted Astronomy & Astrophysics Group at KU. Dr. Medvedev was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 2006.


In Fall 2003, the century-old dream of the KU Astronomy Program, acquisition of access to a research-quality telescope, was partially fulfilled. With the funding support of the National Science Foundation and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences of KU, the astronomers at KU joined in a cooperative project with Aerospace Engineering at KU, the Astronomy programs of San Diego State University and Dartmouth College, and the private company, CMA, Inc. of Tucson, to build a 1m-class, research telescope. The ULTRA telescope was designed and built to test the promise of using lightweight composite materials in the construction of telescope mirrors, the optical tube assembly, and the drive system, leading to a reduction in the total weight of the system by an order of magnitude over conventional design. The telescope was designed to be operated over the Internet under joint supervision of KU and SDSU. The projected was completed in 2008 but, unfortunately, the mirror technology failed to achieve the goal of research quality optics when scale from 13-in scale to 1m. The decision was made in 2009 to use the redesigned mount and infrastructure to hold a classical glass optical system of 1.25m diameter. The MLO 1.25m telescope project purchased a mirror blank which was delivered in Dec. 2010. The contract for the telescope upgrade was awarded to ACE, Inc. of Tucson, with plans for first light on the new optical system near the end of 2012. For more details on how you can help make this project a reality, please see the MLO Brochure (pdf).

If you wish to make a donation to the project, online contributions can be made safely at KU Endowment.

New directions related to astronomy and astrophysics in recent years include the addition of Dr. Danny Marfatia within Astroparticle Physics in Fall 2004 and the development of interdisciplinary research within Astrobiology headed primarily by Dr. Adrian Melott. Ongoing investigations include the effect of astrophysical phenomena, particularly supernovae and gamma-ray bursts, on the Earth's climate, with links to the past history of extinction events on Earth. Dr. Marfatia was promoted to Associate Professor in 2007.

The next critical transition in the program occurred in 2008. Professor Steve Shawl completed his 37th year as a faculty member in Physics and Astronomy, retiring to the much warmer climate of Tucson, and plenty of free time to hike and climb. The departure of Dr. Shawl was balanced by the addition of two new faculty in Astronomy, KU alumnus and astronaut, Dr. Steve Hawley joining the Department as a full professor and Dr. Greg Rudnick, an extragalactic observer, joining as an assistant professor. This marked the first time in the 125-year history of the program that the faculty included four full-time astronomers.