Timelapse photo of Whitin Observatory.
Two-hour exposure of the night sky with the Whitin Observatory in the foreground.
Image credit: Grace Wilson Jackson ’22

A Stellar Merger: Wellesley’s New Department of Physics and Astronomy

E.B. Bartels ’10
June 8, 2023

At Wellesley, astronomy and physics were housed in the same department from the College’s founding in 1875 until the opening of Whitin Observatory in 1901. This summer, after 122 years apart, they will reunite to become Wellesley’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. 

Wesley Andrés Watters, associate professor of astronomy and chair of the astronomy department, and James Battat, associate professor of physics and chair of the physics department, shared in an email this spring that by combining the departments, “we will be in a strong position to create a strengthened community for our growing numbers of students and to develop a more vibrant environment that supports the work of our faculty and staff.” 

The move makes practical sense for a number of reasons, the professors say. The reconfigured department will allow for more resources and faculty members to support a larger and more diverse group of majors. The number of astronomy and astrophysics majors has increased dramatically from two to three per graduating class early in the last decade to 10 each in the classes of 2022 and 2023, which is in line with national trends. The College also averages about 18 physics majors per year, which according to the American Institute of Physics’ Statistical Research Center, makes it the leader among U.S. liberal arts colleges in conferring bachelor’s degrees in physics to women; when compared with all U.S. colleges and universities, Wellesley is tied for sixth place and is the only liberal arts college in the top 10. 

Junior astronomy and physics faculty, which this fall will include three new tenure-track professors—Zachariah Addison, Samantha Lewis, and Lamiya Mowla ’13 (who majored in astrophysics at Wellesley)—will also benefit. “The merged department will provide a larger and more diverse community to support and nurture their work throughout their years as junior faculty,” wrote Watters and Battat.

“This is something the two departments have been talking about for a long time,” says Kim McLeod, Louise Sherwood McDowell and Sarah Frances Whiting Professor of Astrophysics and director of the Whitin Observatory. McLeod is excited to have “more heads around the table” to better serve astronomy, astrophysics, and physics majors, and she says that alums have also expressed their enthusiasm for the merger. 

To ensure the continued success of Wellesley’s beloved astronomy program, Watters and Battat said the department “will continue to have a staff member responsible for supporting the telescopes, facility, and public outreach activities. At the same time we expect that the observatory spaces will open up new possibilities for our community in the new combined department.”