When Chris Vyhnal first arrived at Thacher in 2004 as a science teacher, the school had no formal astronomy program, and Vyhnal had no plans to start one. The once and future Thacher Observatory had long since lost its telescope and been repurposed as faculty housing. Vyhnal had a personal interest in astronomy, but his training was in geology with a doctorate in geochemistry, and he had enough on his plate teaching chemistry classes, along with other duties.
But within a year or two, he became the chair of the Science Department, and his perspective shifted. After the sun went down, when the campus basked in starlight, Vyhnal would think about that dome and its possibilities. Thacher had dark skies at night, and it had an observatory. Shouldn’t it have some sort of astronomy program too?
“It just struck me as a golden opportunity,” Vyhnal says.
Why was an observatory there in the first place? The answer comes down to one word: Sputnik. The empty dome on the hill was a relic of the space race that was touched off when the Soviet Union stunned the world in 1957 by sending the first manmade satellite into orbit. Fearing that the U.S. was falling behind the Soviets in science and technology, Washington boosted federal support for science education. The beneficiaries included the Summer Science Program, a brainchild of Newton Chase, Thacher’s headmaster at the time.
Beginning in 1959, select groups of high school students from across the country would spend their summers at Thacher, where the program’s instructors and lecturers included the illustrious UCLA astronomer George Abell and the legendary Caltech physicist (and Nobel laureate) Richard Feynman. The idea was to encourage high-achieving students to pursue careers in science and engineering. The Summer Science Program was a collaborative effort involving Thacher and several Southern California colleges and universities. UCLA built the observatory in 1965, and Caltech contributed the telescope.
But the program moved to the Happy Valley School (now the Besant Hill School) after 1999, and later to Westmont College near Santa Barbara. (It’s currently hosted by the University of Colorado at Boulder). The telescope moved on too, leaving Thacher with an empty dome. Chris Vyhnal had an epiphany: Why not reclaim it for astronomy?
He starting collaborating with a friend at Caltech, but the logistical challenges involved in shuttling people between Ojai and Pasadena proved too difficult to overcome.
“What we really need is something we could do on campus,” he says. “I started offering elective classes in astronomy in the 2009-10 school year, and eventually worked it up to a three-trimester sequence – planetary, stellar, galactic.”
Then, in the fall of 2010, an anonymous donor gave the school an old Meade 16-inch reflecting telescope, and the Thacher Observatory was reborn.
That was a gratifying development, but Vyhnal knew that the observatory could support a much more ambitious program if it had better equipment, and better connections to Caltech and other universities.
“Around that time,” he says, “I met Jon Swift.”
The Unlikely Astronomer
“I‘ve always been intrigued by the night sky,” Jonathan Swift says. “There’s something super profound that I felt compelled to get to the bottom of.”
Swift’s current Thacher students would not be surprised to learn that he built a telescope while in high school. They might, however, be surprised to learn that he was an unmotivated student who gave no thought to going to college. Growing up on the coast near San Diego, he was much more interested in music and competitive surfing. After graduation, he ended up at Mira Costa Community College, where he encountered some inspiring teachers who finally got him hooked on academics – first philosophy, then physics.
“That’s when I actually started reading,” he says.
He transferred to UCLA and received his B.S. in physics in 1996, but he was not yet committed to an academic career. He retreated to a trailer at the southern tip of Baja California to surf and write songs and contemplate his future. An answer came to him in the winter of 1997 when Comet Hale Bopp made its celebrated appearance in the night sky, re-awakening Swift’s interest in getting to the bottom of the mystery that is the universe.
Soon he was back in school, pursuing a doctorate in astrophysics at U.C. Berkeley. But he also continued surfing and making music, which led to an invitation from the filmmaker Chris Malloy to go to Australia. That’s where Malloy was shooting Shelter (view trailer below), a movie about surfing. Swift can be seen riding his board in one scene, and two of his songs ended up on the soundtrack.
So it went for several years, as Swift toggled back and forth between astronomy on one hand and music and surfing on the other. After collecting his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 2006, he landed in Hawaii as a postdoctoral fellow, peering at the heavens through a telescope atop Mauna Kea. He also continued surfing and writing music for surfing-related films, which helped establish him as a recording artist. That success led him to toggle back to music and head back to the mainland – and eventually, in 2010, to the Ojai Valley, the home of his producer, Jesse Siebenberg of Brotheryn Studios, and of other friends. Swift loved living in Ojai, and his music career was showing promise. The downside was that his career as an academic astronomer was now on the back burner.
“It bothered me that I could never really reconcile those worlds,” he says.
Those worlds finally began to align on the evening of Nov. 6, 2010, when Swift was playing a set at The Farmer and The Cook restaurant in Meiners Oaks. Among his listeners that night was Thacher’s longtime woodworking teacher John Bueti, whose daughter Grace (who graduated from Thacher in 2004) was engaged to Swift’s friend Dan Malloy (brother of Chris). When Bueti learned that Swift had a background in astronomy, he told him about Thacher’s dome and its recently acquired telescope. That piqued Swift’s curiosity.
“I went to Thacher and saw the Observatory and thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ ” Swift says.
That’s when he crossed paths with Chris Vyhnal. The two of them hit it off, and Swift began helping Vyhnal with the school’s astronomy program, just for fun.
“He was a guest lecturer for my class once or twice,” Vyhnal recalls. “We did some work characterizing the telescope together and trying to conduct a polar alignment on it. He helped me compile some information for a grant I wrote to try and obtain some funding for the observatory, which was ultimately unsuccessful. I think that was when the seed was planted in Jon’s mind that there was a potentially interesting opportunity for him to do some meaningful work here.”
In 2011, another unexpected opportunity came Swift’s way, courtesy of an old graduate-school friend from Berkeley – John Johnson, then at Caltech as an assistant professor of planetary astronomy. Johnson offered Swift a job managing Caltech’s MINERVA Program, which used small, land-based telescopes to identify planets in other solar systems. (MINERVA researchers also sought to determine which of these so-called exoplanets might be similar enough to Earth to support life.)
And so Jon Swift once again changed his career path, toggling from music back to astronomy. He moved his family to Pasadena in January 2012 to take up his new duties at Caltech. But he maintained his Thacher connection, periodically returning to the campus to participate in astronomy-related events. It was on one such occasion in the spring of 2012 that Swift encountered Erich Herzig CdeP 2014, who sought a deeper immersion in astronomy than Thacher’s program could provide.
“This tall, lanky kid walks up to me and says, ‘Hi, Dr. Swift, I want to work with you,’ ” Swift says.
Herzig ended up working with Swift at Caltech that summer on Project MINERVA.
“That kind of paved the way for Justin,” Swift says.
That would be Justin Myles CdP 2013. Myles met Swift in the spring of his senior year, when Swift was back at Thacher briefly as an Anacapa Scholar.
“He gave a guest lecture and hands-on workshop in my calculus class, and I remember being impressed with his teaching,” Myles says. “I wasn’t the only one – after his science talk on exoplanets there was unanimous consensus on campus that his talk was among the best we had seen in recent years.”
Myles went on to Yale as a physics major, but kept in touch with Swift and inquired about summer research opportunities at Caltech.
“I ended up spending the summer [of 2014] working with him on Project MINERVA, where I learned more than I could have imagined about science, data, astronomical observation, and Python programming,” Myles says. “I also remember fondly our imaginative discussions about the cosmos during late-night observations, and learning about how academia functions.”
By this point, Johnson had moved from Caltech to Harvard, and there was a possibility that Swift might be invited to follow him there. But the position in question would not have been a permanent one, and in any case Swift generally is allergic to big cities. He wanted to raise his children in a place like the Ojai Valley. But he was not eager to toggle away from astronomy again – not when he was doing such interesting work with Project MINERVA.
But a new era was at hand, a digital epoch in which researchers could access data – say, from NASA’s Kepler project – from remote locations, such as for instance The Thacher School. Swift had his own epiphany: He could teach at Thacher and also do serious research here, and live in the Ojai Valley and make music with his friends, and even break out his surfboard from time to time. No more toggling back and forth between astronomy, music and surfing: He could have it all. He ran his idea past Chris Vyhnal.
“He said, ‘You know, I think I’d really like to come here,’ “ Vyhnal says. “I was blown away. I couldn’t believe our good fortune. He’s just a tremendous, tremendous resource.”
Soon it was official: Jon Swift was leaving Caltech and coming to Thacher as a math and science teacher, and as the director of the Thacher Observatory.
The Gravitational Pull of Astronomy
Swift started teaching at Thacher in December 2014, and quickly made his presence felt. He launched the Astronomy Club, which immediately attracted 80 students and 20 interested faculty members. He also began bringing outside astronomers to campus and talk about their research. Around the same time, a paper he co-authored for the Astrophysical Journal made international news by identifying five Earth-sized exoplanets that are billions of years older than our home planet.
Meanwhile, NASA approved a grant for a program Swift had proposed a year earlier in collaboration with John Johnson and Philip Muirhead of Boston University, a campaign to observe low-mass eclipsing binary stars. (Muirhead is the principal investigator.) That created the opportunity for Thacher’s Douglas Klink ’16 to participate in the program as a researcher for his Independent Project during the current school year.
Having a recognized academic researcher like Swift on the faculty helps inspire his students to look skyward and make their own contributions.
“I’ve always thought astronomy was fascinating,” says Natalie Osuna ’17, “but it was not until last year, when I started learning about recent research (i.e. exoplanet discoveries from Kepler) from Dr. Swift [and realized that] astronomy is still a field people are still very much actively researching, that my interest was truly sparked.”
This video was shot using an all-sky camera set up at the observatory the with assistance of students like Natalie Osuna (pictured above with Dr. Swift).
Swift and Vyhnal have big plans for the Observatory. In the Fall of 2016 they completed a major milestone: a total overhaul of the facility, including the installation of a brand new PlaneWave CDK-700 telescope (the same model Swift spent months researching before selecting it for use in the MINERVA project) and a dome that’s capable of being fully robotized. “The new dome, telescope and camera equipment will allow us to continue research in my areas of expertise (mostly stars and exoplanets) right here from Thacher,” Swift says. “I’ll be able to mentor students and faculty into involvement with that research, giving them a college (or in some cases graduate) level experience with science and technology.”
The newly transformed Observatory was officially unveiled during a “First Light” event near the beginning of the new year, with faculty, students, donors, research partners, and members of the scientific and education communities gathered to celebrate the achievement. Together the attendees watched as the evening light waned over the Ojai Valley and the stars began to emerge, one by one.
Beyond the bounds of campus, this state-of-the-art, research-grade facility will also create opportunities for Swift to offer the Thacher Observatory to his collaborators at far-flung universities, especially those based in big cities where the night sky is not dark enough for stargazing purposes.
This burgeoning program is unique among American high schools, Vyhnal says, and has the potential to become “the envy of a lot of small colleges in this country.”
From his vantage point at Yale, Justin Myles agrees: “I’m very optimistic about the influence of the Thacher Observatory. From what I know of Jon’s plans, it will have the best astronomy and data analysis curriculum at any high school in the country.”
A substantial amount of funding has been secured to create a facility and a program that will institutionalize the ad hoc process by which Jon Swift has helped to smooth the paths of Myles, Herzig, and Klink. And not a moment too soon, given the rare opportunity available starting in 2017.
“Now is the perfect time for Thacher to create a respectable astronomical facility that will produce real scientific results involving student participation,” Swift says. “There is a space telescope launching in 2017 called TESS that will find effectively all the eclipsing binaries and exoplanets that we will ever be able to observe from Thacher. “
With the new telescope in place, he notes, “I plan to involve Thacher in the wave of follow-up observations that will inevitably follow the TESS discoveries, and start to build a legacy of science, as these are my areas of expertise. If we had missed that bandwagon, creating a productive, vibrant astronomy program here would have been much more difficult, even if we got the equipment down the road.”
Natalie Osuna is proud to be among the current cohort of Thacher astronomy enthusiasts who are laying the groundwork to make this dream a reality.
“I am ecstatic about the possibilities for both current and future students,” she says. “How awesome is it that students will be doing follow-up research for cutting-edge observatories?”
Indeed, Swift has already secured a NASA-funded grant to continue his study of eclipsing binaries and transiting exoplanets right here at Thacher. He’ll be collaborating with colleagues at Harvard and Boston University and involving his students wherever possible.
For Swift, the point is not just to burnish his students’ resumes with a glittering astronomy credential. He hopes the new facility will help open their eyes to the infinite mysteries of the night sky, and inspire them to start exploring the universe.
“What I hope to share is what I experienced in some small way in Mexico,” he says, referring to the time he was staying in that trailer in Baja California, and Comet Hale Bopp came along to rock his world. He hopes some Thacher students who gaze at the night sky “will have that same wonder and inspiration – ‘What is all this?’ – and have the ability to walk into the Observatory and take a look.”