Ask Abe: Washburn Observatory

Does the Washburn Observatory still observe anything?

Abe

It does indeed! While Washburn Observatory — the namesake for campus’s Observatory Hill — isn’t the forward-looking scientific facility it was when it was first built, it continues to offer views of the heavens, particularly to the people of Wisconsin. Ever since 1881, on the first and third Wednesday of each month, Washburn has been open to the public for observing sessions. The observatory was the gift of Wisconsin governor Cadwallader Washburn, who agreed to fund the observatory’s construction entirely out of his own donations. He chose the site, the contractor, and even the size of the main telescope: a 20-foot-long tube with a 15.6-inch lens, ensuring that it would be larger than Harvard’s. For half a century, Washburn Observatory was one of the nation’s leading astronomical facilities, until technology advanced beyond it. Though it’s now obsolete for science, it remains a treat for amateur astronomers. “It says a lot about the UW that public nights [have] been the policy since April 1881 without interruptions except for weather or equipment problems,” says Jim Lattis MA’87, PhD’89, director of  UW Space Place. “That’s got to be the longest running science outreach program at UW (and quite possibly anywhere else).” If you can’t make it to Madison, follow Washburn on Twitter.