Tech’s Astronomical Observatory comes of age…40 years later

Mar 25, 2009 | General News

Wallace Herbert was considered something of a “nutty professor” during his early days on the faculty at Louisiana Tech. He’d fallen in love with astronomy as an undergrad at Ouachita College, and he taught the lone astronomy course on the Tech campus in the 1950s, a course students ignored.

“It was simply a dead letter subject,” the now-deceased professor wrote in his memoirs, “which, I suppose, made me a dead letter instructor for it.”

But then came October 1957. And the Russians. And Sputnik.

“Almost overnight,” Herbert wrote, “astronomy blossomed as a subject. I had a class of six students the next term of school; then 12; then 20; and ultimately, even 60. It became difficult to find a classroom large enough for them.”

Herbert would be proud on Wednesday, April 1 when – no fooling – the College of Engineering and Science rededicates and celebrates the 40th anniversary of the university’s Astronomical Observatory.

Funny, but the building remains on what was to have been the school’s research park eight miles west of Ruston, site of a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. Enterprise Campus, Louisiana Tech’s research and technology complex, is being built only now, on and around campus, and the observatory, ahead of its time, is 40 years old.

“Construction of the observatory as the first building in what was then the research park did mark a forward-looking attitude and a dedication to making basic science the underpinning of research and development,” said Tech physics professor Lee Sawyer.

“Underpinning” happens when smart people think of smart stuff ahead of time. Such was the case with the observatory, built first in the mind of the nutty professor and with the same type fuel used to go to the moon – human ingenuity, vision and dedication to a cause.
Herbert and others formed an Astronomy Advisory Committee, one unrecognized by the school’s administration.

“Consisting entirely of mathematics and engineering professors, (we) functioned so selflessly, and dedicated to the sold purpose of building a telescope and an observatory, that our administration could not help but notice us,” Herbert wrote.

The school finally gave them $1,500 and built the little brick building that was the observatory. At the groundbreaking, the university president praised the committee members as “scroungers.”

They were also bootleggers, getting donations and some “miscellaneous budget funds,” like telescopic lenses from a speech department friend whose $100 requisition meant a box of lenses. The machine and welding work for the telescope was done in the school’s engineering building by professors.

Today’s students will benefit from new courses and projects available in the refurbished observatory, thanks to Herbert’s idea.

Already we have seen a marked increase in use of the observatory,” Sawyer said. “Of course, people are more important than buildings, and the key to having astronomy as an integral part of the educational experience at Louisiana Tech is to have dedicated astronomy instructors like our Dr. John Shaw. Over the next few years, I foresee Dr. Shaw developing a wide range of new course offerings and projects involving students with the observatory.”

Written by Teddy Allen