On a beautiful, clear day in June, Mason astronomer Harold Geller, MAIS ’92, DA ’95, is on the roof of Research Hall when, to his surprise, he sees that a part for Mason’s new telescope is being delivered. One of the men carrying it to the observatory looks up and says, “What’s up, Harold?”
Everybody, it seems, knows Harold.
Wearing one of his solar system ties, he follows close behind them instructing and asking questions. Then, he pulls out his camera and begins snapping. He wants to capture every detail. He takes pictures of the new part, the people delivering it, the stairs that it traversed before being installed—tweens at a Twilight convention can’t hold a candle to Geller’s excitement.
Geller’s interest in astronomy began when he was growing up in Brooklyn, New York. “I still remember the first time I was taken to the Hayden Planetarium,” he says. “You had to be five years old [to go in].”
He became increasingly interested in the sciences, studying biomedical research in high school and then majoring in physics at Brooklyn College, where he helped run the school’s observatory. When he decided to come to Mason for graduate school, he says, “I decided to study what I liked, so I got my master’s in astronomy and my doctorate in astronomy education.”
From there, Geller has become a tireless advocate for Mason’s astronomy program.
“[The observatory] has a long history that in a sense goes back to the very first one at Mason, which was built by students in 1974,” says Geller (see sidebar). After the first observatory was torn down to build the Field House and the subsequent one was vandalized and destroyed, Mason went without one for almost 28 years.
“The Department of Physics and Astronomy was promised an observatory for many years,” explains Geller, who first circulated a petition for a new observatory in 1982. “First on the Science and Tech I building, then Science and Tech II, then Enterprise Hall, then Innovation Hall, then finally Research I.”
Construction on the current observatory in the building now named Research Hall began in August 2004. It officially opened in January 2007.
Since then, Geller has kept the observatory stocked with various telescopes, always with the hope that someday soon, Mason would have its own high-caliber, research-class instrument.
“In 2002, we started an undergraduate degree [program] in astronomy, but we [still didn’t have] a large instrument to actually demonstrate to students how such a facility works.”
In 2006, 25 years after he circulated his petition, Geller finally got the green light. On behalf of the university, he commissioned a telescope from a company in Georgia. But what followed was years of back and forth—and tremendous aggravation. The company filed for bankruptcy, which could cause Mason to lose money on the project, pending the outcome of an ongoing lawsuit.
“Most people would quit if faced with the tremendous obstacles he’s encountered,” says astrophysicist Joseph Weingartner, a colleague and associate professor in Mason’s recently formed School of Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Sciences (SPACS). “But Harold persisted.”
In January 2010, Mason hired Optical Guidance Systems to custom-build its new 32-inch Ritchey Chrétien telescope to fit the observatory (“32-inch” refers to the diameter of its mirror).
“With our other telescopes, we’ve had views of the Andromeda galaxy, which is almost three million light years away. With this telescope, we’ll get better views of such distant objects and we’ll be able to see galaxies even farther away.”
In fact, it’s estimated that compared with Mason’s previous ones, the new instrument will increase the number of stars that can be observed by about two billion, or 2,000 percent. With more than 5,400 students now living on campus, Geller says it was important that they have access to an instrument of this caliber, which is now the largest in the area.
“There’s a university in England that proved with a telescope of this size we can detect the presence of a planet around another star,” says Geller. “And that, I think, is pretty cool.”
Pretty cool, indeed. Each year, more than 1,500 students will have access to the new telescope through their astronomy classes. And Geller will continue to hold twice-monthly observing sessions for the public (weather permitting).
Even before the Ritchey Chrétien was installed, these sessions, which sometimes include guest speakers, would often attract 40 to 60 people a night. To accommodate more stargazers, Geller hopes to set up three additional, smaller telescopes on the roof right outside the observatory.
“It’s important to get people interested and to educate the public in astronomy,” says Geller. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, as well as public organizations such as the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, are among the community groups Geller has hosted in the observatory to share the view of the night sky.
After Geller’s Odyssean journey to acquire this telescope, it was finally delivered in May. On a rainy Saturday morning, a crane lifted the new instrument over Research Hall and carefully placed it in its new home.
Then, on the evening of July 9, 2011, Mason’s newest telescope had its “first light,” or its first celestial observation after installation. And wouldn’t you know it—Geller documented the moment by holding his camera up to the eyepiece and taking a photo.
In the future, Geller hopes that images captured from the previous night’s observation sessions will be displayed on large screens in the gallery on the ground floor of Research Hall.
“The acquisition of the telescope begins a new era in science education at Mason,” says SPACS director and professor Michael Summers. “Students will have opportunities to contribute in significant ways to astronomical research.”
“Dr. Geller was the catalyst for getting the observatory here,” continues Summers, “and he never gave up in spite of several delays. His efforts are greatly appreciated by all of us.”
Geller is one of those rare people whose passion and day job have aligned, and he consistently goes above and beyond to excite others about astronomy. Whether it’s giving presentations to young children, supervising research projects for high school students, teaching and mentoring at Mason, or leading observing sessions for the general public, Mason is most certainly better because of Geller’s dedication.
“Harold has worked tirelessly, and the vitality of the astronomy program owes him a lot,” says Weingartner.