Planet Lehigh: Early Astronomy

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Introduction

In early December 1909, the Rev. Joel Metcalf, an amateur astronomer in Taunton, Mass., discovered a minor planet (the earlier term for an asteroid) with his own photographic method. Lehigh astronomy professor John Hutchinson Ogburn, an authority on the orbits of minor planets, noted this discovery. Ogburn needed a thesis topic for an M.S. candidate, Joseph B. Reynolds.

John H. Ogburn and Joseph B. Reynolds asked Metcalf for photographs of measured positions of this planet and offered to compute its orbit if Metcalf would grant the privilege of choosing a name. Under Professor Ogburn's directions, Reynolds produced the elements of the minor planet's orbit in a 1910 master's thesis. In recognition of this work, Metcalf permitted the new planet to be called "Lehigh", thereby gracing a piece of celestial real estate with the university's name.

According to a paper in the Minor Planet Bulletin (volume 27, 2000, pp. 27-28), available on the web at The NASA Astrophysics Data System, "691 Lehigh" is 44 kilometers in length and has a rotation period of about five hours.

This exhibition focuses not only on details about "Planet Lehigh" and asteroids in general, but also on the history of astronomy as a discipline at Lehigh. Included in the exhibition are: the original hand-written M.S. thesis by Reynolds; biographies of Reynolds, Ogburn, and Metcalf; publications about Planet Lehigh, including the Alumni Bulletin and student newspaper Brown and White; publications relating to the history of the astronomy and mathematics departments; and information about asteroids past and present.

The display includes astronomical instruments used at Lehigh's Sayre Observatory, including its telescope, recently rediscovered in storage; and information about Lehigh's current-day astronomy and astrophysics majors and department research.

"Planet Lehigh" is indeed one of the University's special distinctions. As mathematics professor Ralph Van Arnam wrote in his May 1958 Alumni Bulletin obituary of Ogburn, "to the best of my knowledge and belief, a certain institution several miles down the Lehigh River from our campus does not have a planet named in its honor. Lehigh will indeed 'shine tonight'."

The physical exhibition is curated by Ilhan Citak, Brian Simboli in association with Prof. Gary DeLeo and Prof. George McCluskey.

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