Road Not Taken

January 8th, 2009

I was thrilled to see the piece on the Ladd Observatory, which took me back to my time on campus in the 1940s ("Look Upward, Angel" September/October).

During my first two years at Brown, I worked for Professor of Astronomy Charles Smiley at the observatory. From childhood on, astronomy had fascinated me, and so I immediately signed up for the introductory course on the subject. My efforts as an eager, hard-working student paid off with an A-plus for the course and part-time work with Professor Smiley. Normally this sinecure would have gone to a male graduate student, but these were the war years, and the slot was available to a lowly Pembroke freshman.

It was a dream job. The key part of my work involved correcting the clocks daily: taking the information, as I recall, from Greenwich, England, making the math adjustments, and passing them along to all of Providence. This was a heady experience, but even headier was learning to operate the ten-inch refracting telescope and sharing the stars with visiting Boy Scout troops and the on-campus ROTC classes.

Dr. Smiley expected me to continue in astronomy by majoring in one of the allied sciences, but, alas, I had little background for that. I had come to Brown conditionally, having graduated from Providence's Central High School with a "business" background followed by several years of work. I had had no courses in chemistry, physics, or mathematics. "You can pick them up easily," Dr. Smiley assured me, giving me far greater credit than I warranted as a potential scientist.

After graduating as an English honors major, I went in a different direction: marriage, home, children, community activities, and, late in life, a happy career, first as a freelance journalist for the New York Times and other publications, and finally, after earning a PhD, in my true calling as a theater critic. Today, at age 87, I still write theater reviews, and though they rarely connect to astronomy, I have dreams of the road not taken, and fantasies of a career in outer space. You've brought that dream back vividly, and more importantly, you've given the venerable Ladd Observatory the tribute it deserves.

Irene Margolis Backalenick '46
Shelton, Conn.

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January/February 2009