Observation Night Bonding in the Physics Department

Speaking of Swat’s tight-knit community with the intellectually curious and collaborative Swatties along with the supportive and understanding professors who truly care about our passions and endeavors, I cannot hold back from talking about our amazing Physics department and several stargazing events we had throughout this past year. Despite various COVID-19 restrictions in place, I still had the opportunity to meet new Swatties across all class years and interact with them safely in these more personal settings. 

Some students from Physics 5 and profs at the balcony

I took Physics 005: Spacetime & Quanta in the pass-fail Fall semester of my freshman year. It’s the intro course to majoring/ minoring in Physics/ Astrophysics and just a fascinating course to take for your Natural Sciences Distribution Requirement to explore special relativity and quantum theory (who wouldn’t want to learn about such cool things really?) just in case you are not exactly a “STEM” person. Just like how most course work at Swat is designed to be done in groups, the weekly problem sets were assigned to be worked on in our individual cohort of 4-5 people. The class was co-taught by two professors, Tristan Smith and Catherine Crouch, who did an outstanding job handling the in-person and remote components individually. 

Being in the in-person session of the hybrid class was particularly exciting and what caught my attention even more was when Prof. Crouch announced that the Physics department Chair at that time, Prof. David Cohen, would host an open “Telescope Night” as a special treat for the curious first-years. It was quite an experience meeting up the Photons (Physics TAs) after dark at the right corner of Sci (the Science Center), stepping carefully onto the tall staircases that lead to the third floor, pulling open the mysterious white door at the end of the hallway to enter the great balcony, and finally stepping into the Peter van de Kemp Observatory where the great 24-inch telescope is located. I did have a hard time recognizing people with masks on in the darkness, but the night sky and the astronomical objects (Saturn was definitely my fav!) being displayed on the telescope were the true stars of the night show. 

My friend and I at the telescope

A lot of my peers are doing research on campus which is completely funded by the College during the summer as well as the school year and the Physics & Astro Department has a wide range of research opportunities that reflect our professors’ diverse interests. A lot of their research projects also involve using data that are taken from our observatory including research on exoplanet transits, young stars, and massive stars. I just want to emphasize how accessible Swat professors are here: you can really talk to them about your interests and their research interests anytime and especially during those fun and free social events that academic departments host! 

After that first visit, the observatory easily became my favorite spot on campus where my academic interest, the beautiful view, and the fantasy of the universe converged. I was eager to come back there but the lack of public viewing events during the pandemic became a barrier. However, as the Chinese Mid-autumn Festival came around, I foresaw a valuable opportunity. 

The Mid-autumn Festival is one of the traditional festivals in China when families reunite and observe the full moon of the eighth month of the lunar calendar to perform public rituals. I wanted to bring my familial tradition of observing the full moon to Swat and so I reached out to Prof. Cohen in order to organize another moon observation night with a few other first-years of Chinese backgrounds. We ended up inviting other Astrophysics majors and a lot of my peers of different backgrounds with the attraction of mooncakes. My mom shipped two boxes of mooncakes from California and it was truly delightful to be able to share them with my fellow Swatties and the prof and not get cavities after the festive season. 

mooncakes with egg yolk

As we surrounded the telescope, maintaining six feet distance under the moonlight, and hearing Prof. Cohen’s enthusiastic speech about astounding space facts that ranged from moon craters to the flatness of the universe, I felt the sense of unity that the moon festival aims to transcend.  I enjoyed having those intellectual conversations that sparked my interest in the mythology of the moon in different cultures and the astronomical background that influenced them. From observing the full moon with Swatties during such a meaningful night, I realized the capability and resilience of the Swarthmore community against unexpected challenges such as the pandemic. I was certain that I discovered a family and a home away from home where I can explore all the mysteries of the universe with the support of my peers and faculty at Swat’s Physics & Astronomy Department.

S’mores + Stargazing!! Right in front of the Observatory

Later in the year, the Society of Physics Students (SPS) also hosted a S’more and Stargazing event to engage the faculty and Swatties and I cannot wait for more exciting events to come this upcoming year! If you’ve read up to this point, you have to at least come to one of our observation nights and perhaps take Physics 5 in your Swat career as well to truly experience the bonding we have at our department! Anyways, best of luck!!

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