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The Astronomy Curriculum: The Relevance of Practical Astronomy

The question of the adequacy of the astronomy curriculum was a continual problem at K.U., but Storer and I had always agreed to offer as balanced an undergraduate curriculum as possible, which would include Elementary Astronomy, Practical Astronomy (including Least Squares), Observational and Theoretical Astrophysics. This would easily give enough hours to constitute an astronomy major. For senior majors and graduate students we also offered more specialized, flexible courses designed to fit each individual; for example, Observatory Practice, Orbit Computation and Thesis. Of course astronomy students were encouraged to take courses in mathematics and physics. Usually Storer taught the courses in positional astronomy, while I taught those in astrophysics. Most universities do not offer practical astronomy anymore, at least in the original sense of positional astronomy, and Brook Sandford has an interesting story to relate in this regard: "During my stay at Indiana University Professor Robert D'Escort Atkinson resided as an Emeritus Professor. He emigrated from the U.K. to the U.S. quite late in life after having lost the competition for Astronomer Royal. The battle was fought over the analysis and interpretation of records from the Greenwich transit circle, Atkinson having discovered systematic errors that were missed by his competitors. Politics intervened and the published results were allowed to stand. Upon emigrating, Atkinson brought with him all the original records in ancient wooden trunks, dating back to the early 1700's. I discovered a common ground with Atkinson, because I had a background in the sorts of traditional observatory practice that caused him to emigrate to the U.S. When I first made his acquaintance, he was entering all the transit records from the ledgers onto punched cards; as this task neared completion, he needed programming skills to analyze the data. At the age of about 75 he started to study FORTRAN, and I was pleased to assist him in this endeavor, and to pass along programs I had written at K.U. for the least squares analysis of the transit factors. Robert expanded these programs, analyzed the Greenwich data, confirmed the systematic errors, and published his results. And for four years, I found friendship with Robert D'Escort Atkinson and his wife, from the common ground we shared in using transit telescopes." The point of this story from the standpoint of a curriculum is that the fundamentals of practical astronomy are important, and their teaching should not be abandoned just because modern equipment and tools presumably give more interesting results. It has also been my experience that the use of the digital computer often gives a false sense of accuracy, not to mention complacency, especially when the understanding is lacking. Finally, the student should realize that positional astronomy is here to stay, regardless of whether he likes it or not!

Later, when Brook and I worked at Los Alamos, we encountered problems in practical astronomy quite frequently, especially in regard to the pointing of instruments; for example, the instrumentation package might be stationed aboard an airplane, rocket or artificial earth satellite and involve complicated light paths. We both became quite proficient at solving the trigonometry involved, though I preferred to make use of vector methods.