What's Happening at Dyer Observatory
February 2020 - Community Relations Team Member Spotlight
Name: Nathan Griffin
Title and responsibilities of this job?
My co-workers call me the Superintendent. I am proud to be entrusted with the caretaking of Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory. I function as the building maintenance technician and I oversee everything to do with the grounds and facilities, including renovations and building projects as well as educational and artistic installations. I perform maintenance on the historic telescopes, domes and other instruments.
I also help coordinate our large events, functioning with many hats in that role. I solve unique logistical challenges to make sure every event runs smoothly and safely. I keep a close eye on the safety of our guests, preparing for contingencies and troubleshooting needs as they arise. My duties include setting up and running audio/visual systems, working with event and security staff and making sure all of our guests have a great experience. I am also happy to give a tour of Dyer and speak about our historical significance to astronomy and to Vanderbilt University.
Hometown and educational background?
I grew up in Franklin, TN. My family moved from Pine Knot, Kentucky so that my dad could work in the record business in Nashville. I left for Breckenridge, Colorado after graduating from high school and attended college at the University of Northern Colorado and Colorado Mountain College. I worked for the ski area in Breckenridge in sales and guest relations and I was an avid backcountry skier. During that time I was the live-in caretaker of a non-profit advocacy center with a shelter and soup kitchen, called the House with the Red Door. I spent 12 years in Colorado before returning to the Nashville area. When I first came to Dyer I was working as a home builder in Williamson County, TN.
How long have you worked for Vanderbilt University and explain any offices where you’ve worked?
I first worked as a contractor helping to remodel the Dyer Residence in January of 2009, then took on more and more jobs. I loved it immediately and did everything I could to be useful. I was hired in April of 2010. All of my time at Vanderbilt has been at the Observatory.
What have you enjoyed most about being a Vanderbilt University employee?
I have been introduced to such a diverse group of people during my time here. Every day this includes people of all ages, backgrounds and walks of life. It has been a thrill to share in Dyer’s mission of educational outreach. I am proud to consistently deliver an excellent experience to our guests. I am integrally involved in the strategic planning and mapping of the future of Dyer. I have learned so much and I am continuing to learn and be challenged every day.
Special projects that you are working on in the community that you would like to share?
I am dedicated to the local food movement. For many years I have volunteered with the Long Hungry Creek CSA program and helping with farm events, festivals and pop-up restaurants. I have been a part of the Tennessee Local Food Summit and charity and fundraising events in the Bells Bend area of Nashville.
What do you do when you are not working?
I am involved in several music projects which keep me very busy. I write songs, sing and play guitar and upright bass. Also, my wife and I have a 2-year-old girl and we are expecting another baby this summer! I enjoy plugging into the mindfulness community in Nashville and hiking the trails at Radnor Lake and Beaman Park. I love cooking good food.
Every year during the winter months of December through February, Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory slides into a semi-hibernation. We are still quite industrious inside our gates during this time, but we do not schedule public events due to our unpredictable and sometimes harsh microclimate caused by our unusual altitude. The Dyer front doorstep features a USGS bench mark certifying us at 1,131 feet above sea level. For comparison, the State Capitol is about 567 feet above sea level, and famous Love Circle is but 748 feet in altitude. Our lofty perch provides for wonderful hilltop winter views of the surrounding vista, but it also makes for a very scary descent when sleet, snow, or even freezing fog make our road slick.
Despite the minor inconvenience, winter gives the Dyer staff an opportunity to plan summer camps, set schedules, fine tune programming, perform equipment maintenance, and complete at least one special project. This year’s project is the refurbishment of the historic planetarium projector. The work of bringing the illuminated starball to life is being tackled by Dyer’s Outreach Astronomer Dr. Billy Teets and Superintendent Nathan Griffin. The projector is a precious artifact for it was handmade specifically for Dyer in 1952 for the facility’s opening. Please plan on visiting us in the new year to see this wonderful piece of engineering shine again!
In the late 1990s, Dyer Observatory was in peril of heading down the same path as many university observatories, ending up a mothballed relic of antiquated astronomical research. Thanks to visionary leadership, Dyer was transformed into one of middle Tennessee’s most dynamic science outreach centers, a treasure on the National Register of Historic Places, and a verdant rental and event venue for the community. This past month we hosted a songwriting workshop with world-renowned artists, enjoyed the season-ending Bluebird on the Mountain Concert with six hundred attendees, served as the venue for a spectacular SEC dinner, was the site for Trevecca’s Senior Homecoming Night, educated hundreds of K-12 students on field trips, and held public open house, lecture, and telescope events. Dyer Observatory is proud of the many ways it serves the community, while building on the traditions of science, art, and outreach, established at its founding 1953!
October 2019 - Bluebird on the Mountain
Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory finished out its 15th Bluebird on the Mountain concert season on October 5th, 2019, with Bill Montana, Randy Montana, and Dave Turnbull bringing in near-record attendance for the season finale.
The partnership between Nashville’s world-renowned Bluebird Café and Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory began in 2003 when Amy Kurland, then owner of the Bluebird Café, commented, “Wouldn’t this be a wonderful place to have a concert?!” In its infancy, few imagined the success and popularity that the concert series would attain. Fifteen years later, the ever-expanding list of hit singer-songwriters who’ve performed at Dyer is staggering.
Due to the limitations of the physical size of Dyer Observatory’s hilltop, only 120 carload tickets (a maximum of eight attendees per car) are sold. This year, hundreds of people vied online for the precious tickets, which sold out in mere minutes. Though the concerts start at sunset, tailgating starts early in the afternoon for many of the attendees. Then, after an intimate evening of stories and hit songs, the observatory’s telescopes are opened and everyone is invited to view the “object of the night” through Dyer’s unique and historic Seyfert Telescope. Musical stars below, coupled with the heavenly stars above, have undoubtedly made Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory’s Bluebird on the Mountain concerts not only one of Nashville’s favorite outdoor concert series, but also its most treasured celestial event!
September 2019 - Community Relations Team Member Spotlight
Name: William Kenneth (Billy) Teets
Title: Outreach Astronomer
Educational Background: B.S. in Physics from Austin Peay State University (2004), Ph.D. in (astro)physics from Vanderbilt University (2012).
Hometown: Clarksville, TN.
How long you’ve worked at VU/Dyer?
I began the graduate program in physics at VU in 2005 and worked as a teaching assistant and research assistant until I graduated in 2012. During the summer of 2006 I didn’t have summer support, so Dr. David Weintraub, VU astronomer and later my Ph.D. advisor, suggested I contact Dyer Observatory since they sometimes needed help during the summer. I worked there for the summer and afterwards worked for a limited number of hours weekly throughout the year as a graduate student helper until I graduated in 2012. I was then hired on full-time.
Why did you choose this career path?
I have been fascinated with all things astronomy from a young age. My parents bought me a small telescope when I was in elementary school, and we used it every once in a while. As I got into high school, my interest in the sky grew and I received a larger, better quality telescope as a gift. Getting to see many of the objects I had read about solidified my interest in the field, but I was somewhat undecided in what career I wanted to pursue. During my freshman year of college I was an engineering major. Our course requisites required me to take an introductory physics course. When I began the class, I quickly realized that physics was my ultimate career path and that I could tie in my love of astronomy since it was just a field of physics. As my classes progressed and I began working as a teaching assistant, I quickly learned that I really enjoyed the teaching aspect of the job. So, being able to teach physics and astronomy became a passion, and I was lucky enough to end up in a job that allows me to do that every day.
What is the most interesting thing that you've seen since you've been at Dyer?
This is by far the hardest question to answer. Astronomically, one thing that sticks out in my mind is a night in which we observed Jupiter as two of its moons passed in front of it and cast inky black shadows on Jupiter. But, there are a number of other really interesting things I’ve seen at Dyer Observatory that weren’t particularly astronomical. For example, we were very fortunate this year to observe a Great Horned Owl raise two chicks in an oak tree about 100 feet from the observatory. When we first saw signs of the owlets, it was a treat to get to walk out to the tree each day and see them staring back.
What books are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading The Immortal Fire Within, a biography by William Sheehan of Edward Emerson Barnard. Barnard was a Nashvillian who was born into poverty, had virtually no formal education, but would become one of the most famous astronomers of all time. For a time he worked at the first observatory at Vanderbilt University and would go on to make a number of great discoveries that bear his name today. I’ve also just started Leadership Presence by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, which instills some of the qualities of leadership through techniques used in the performing arts. This is the book that we are also using in our work at the Vanderbilt Leadership Academy.
Why should someone visit Dyer?
As many have said before, Dyer Observatory is a truly special place. When you arrive, you are away from the hustle and bustle of the city - you are brought back to nature in so many ways. The wooded grounds allow you to take in the flora and fauna that we often miss out on, and then you get to experience some of the wonders of the universe inside the facility as you see the various exhibits and views through the telescopes. To me, it is also a special place because astronomy has been a part of Vanderbilt University since its founding. To actually get to look through the telescopes that great astronomers like Carl Seyfert used to help us learn about the universe is a real honor in my book. Dyer Observatory was funded largely through public donations, so our mission today is outreach to Vanderbilt community and the public in general. When someone comes here, we make every effort to make sure that we make a positive impact on them that they will remember for years to come. I’d have to say that we have been successful in doing that at every event we hold.
A short statement about my position:
I am the outreach astronomer for Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory. A good deal of my time is spent engaging the community in astronomy through our monthly public events (Telescope Nights, Open Houses, lectures, concerts), leading our summer science camps and field trip groups, going out into the community and delivering science content to outside groups, businesses and area schools, and developing materials for distribution in-house and online. As part of the public event preparation I also coordinate, train, and work with our volunteers. I help develop and maintain many of the exhibits at the observatory, some of which are one-of-a-kind, and oversee maintenance and preservation of the observatory’s astronomical equipment. In addition to working with other members of my department, I work to help maintain ties with members of other departments, especially Vanderbilt’s physics and astronomy department. This year I am also very fortunate to be part of the Vanderbilt Leadership Academy representing Government & Community Relations.
2019 marks the seventeenth year of space science summer camps at Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory. During that time, more than one thousand students have experienced our highly interactive program and left with a deeper appreciation of the universe and their place in it.
The original visionary for a modern observatory in Nashville was Vanderbilt astronomer Dr. Carl Keenan Seyfert, who envisioned a facility that would be used for both research and community outreach. From its dedication in 1953 through 2003, Dyer was managed by Vanderbilt’s Physics and Astronomy Department, which used the observatory for complex photometry projects including the study of variable stars and determining the length of Pluto’s day. With the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of giant ground-based observatories in the 1990s, Dyer’s manually-operated 24-inch mirror telescope ceased to be used for research for it was no match for those marvelous machines.
What should be done with an aging observatory of diminishing scientific usefulness? Older university observatories all over the country were facing dire fates including being mothballed, sold, or torn down. In 2002 a plan was hatched for Vanderbilt’s Dyer Observatory in order to change its mission from primarily one of research to community outreach. At that time it was transferred to the Division of Public Affairs, while maintaining an ongoing connection to the expertise in the Astronomy Department.
In 2003, a bold outreach effort was launched as the result of Vanderbilt receiving Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) research grants. Because this funding required an educational component, the concept of student science summer camps and teacher workshops began to take shape.
Over the years, Dyer’s camp curriculum and technology has evolved with the times. One perennial activity challenges students to design a Mars egg lander. In earlier years, students would drop their designs off the Dyer rooftop viewing area. But today, a drone with a remote robotic carriage dramatically ascends high above the observatory with each student-designed capsule. At a predetermined altitude the carriage releases its cargo. If all goes well and the chutes deploy, the eggonaut survives; if not, it’s back to the drawing board.
The space science summer camp curriculum utilizes a variety of alternating exercises from year-to-year. Activities include: building and demonstrating how telescopes work, programming rovers, a cryogenics lab, rocket design and launches, astronaut entry capsule design, building Hubble Space Telescope models, tours of the Saturn V rocket in Huntsville at the US Space and Rocket Center, comet creation, and exploring the essentials of light and the visible spectrum. Many of the students’ parents tell us that we should have this available for adults!
In designing the camps, we realized that there were opportunities beyond those few weeks to connect with and engage students. Some of our students go on to become Dyer docents and bring a special energy to public night activities as interpretive specialists. These docents not only benefit Dyer, but also benefit themselves by developing helpful life experience such as: honing their presentation skills with explanations of complex subjects, practicing relating to others at different levels of understanding, and how to speak in public. Many former campers have also gone on to become counselors and teachers at our camps. In that capacity, they are learning to be teachers, how to interact with younger students, the challenges of operating a camp, and so much more.
Along with science space camps, Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory has several events and public offerings: Bluebird on the Mountain concert series, Opera on the Mountain, monthly open house public telescope night, Meet the Astronomer series, monthly open house day, teacher workshops, field trip tours, rentals, etc. Our event calendar can be found HERE.