37th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy



September 15th marks the 37th anniversary honoring the founding of Department of our department.

So, this is my annual message to our department honoring the late Professor John P. Oliver, who never failed to remind us about the history and formation of UF's Department of Astronomy.

Astronomy has been practiced at UF for at least three quarters of a century when a student observatory was erected on the hillside south of the present Campus Police station during the 1930s. This small wooden building housed 3-inch and 4-inch refracting telescopes under a slide-off roof.

By 1948 the roof no longer opened, and one could easily kick a hole in the rotting walls! During the early 1950s Dr. Alex G. Smith and Dr. Leonidas Roberts, from the Physical Sciences unit, held weekly observing classes for Physical Sciences students on the hilltop above the defunct observatory. Both professors conducted these "open-air labs" with their homemade reflecting telescopes.

In 1955, Dr. Guy C. Omer, Jr., Chair for the Department of Physical Sciences, established the Teaching Observatory (TO) south of the UF Police Station with its 8-inch Clark refractor. (The TO was later moved to its present site west of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Building in 1972 under the guidance of Dr. Oliver.)

However, the present UF Department of Astronomy was not formally inaugurated until approximately September 15, 1979 with Dr. Heinrich K. Eichhorn as the first department's chair. Previously, astronomy was offered through the Department of Mathematics and then the Department of Physics with Dr. Alex G. Smith as Chair for the astronomy component of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Meanwhile, during the 1950s the department's radio astronomy research program was initiated by Professor Thomas D. Carr and the Rosemary Hill Observatory 30-inch commissioned in 1968 primarily through the efforts of Professor Alex G. Smith. (Later Professor Oliver would help make the Rosemary Hill 18-inch operational in 1994.)

Every year the late Prof. John P. Oliver would send a reminder to astronomy personnel about when the University of Florida's astronomy department became its own entity at UF. He was proud of this fact.

Unfortunately, those new to the UF Astronomy Department never had the opportunity to know Professor Oliver, who passed away 2011 February 10. Those who did have the good fortune to know him will remember that he was uncommonly devoted to this department.

Dr. Oliver was a highly respected member of UF's Astronomy Department. During his 42-year tenure in UF's astronomy program he strongly shaped the operation of both the Rosemary Hill and Campus Observatories. Besides other duties, he also served as Associate Chair of the Department. John was unique among many astronomers due do his abilities and flair as an excellent speaker and teacher, a superb instrumentalist and programmer, and as a talented research scientist. He was a friend to all who knew him.

John devoted more than forty years of his life to his department and was passionate about both astronomy and the mission of our department.

I believe John would have liked us to continue his tradition of sending a department birthday announcement.

Therefore, since 2011, I have continued to send John's birthday greeting both to honor him and the department he so loved. (I Hope others will continue this tradition when I am no longer able to do so!)

So, as John would have written:

The Department of Astronomy was born on (approximately) this date, September 15, 1979.
Happy Birthday!

Howard L. Cohen
Emeritus Assoc. Professor of Astronomy
2015 September 15