Finding yourself wearing giant inflatable reindeer antlers is bizarre. If you happen to be in front of students and professors in your major (who you hope respect you as a researcher and person), then it’s also embarrassing. But you’re with forty other people in the 52 Hillhouse Avenue astronomy department lounge, a.k.a. the “astro lounge,” and it’s the Yale Astronomy Department’s holiday party. The game of the hour? Reindeer ring toss. And you’re the reindeer, so strap on those antlers!
Usually the astro lounge isn’t so carnival-like, much to the relief of anyone doing their physics homework there. It’s more like the “restaurant at the end of the universe” in the Douglas Adams sci-fi book of the same name: a beautiful little refuge from chaos, floating on a tiny rock in space. The lounge is partially wood-paneled, carpeted, lined with couches and reddish wooden tables, and always stocked with coffee pods and tea bags. You could fit all 32 registered astronomy undergraduates into the lounge, with room to spare for a couple of graduate students discussing galaxy morphology.
52 Hillhouse was originally built in 1848 as a private home for Yale agricultural chemistry professor John Pitkin Norton. I wonder what Norton would think about the Darth-Vader-themed Mr. Potato Head that guards the top of the coffee machine, or the horror movie posters on the walls, edited to feature names and photos of Yale astronomy professors (“FRANKENBOSCH: AND HIS TERRIBLE MONSTER, THE BASILISK”).
The astro lounge feels cozily warm in my mind, so it’s funny that the room is perpetually fifty degrees. Even in my second year as a regular visitor to the lounge, I still haven’t figured out the thermostat, so I just make it work with my winter coat and instant hot chocolate.
Each day, I get to be in the astro lounge between my morning astronomy classes and lunch. My signature spot is at the tables near the window (the downside is this is the coldest part of the lounge). If I need something more forgiving than those wooden chairs, I’ll sit in the armchairs near the (non-functional but very pretty) fireplace. Or if I’ve really had a day, and I need to drink some tea and relax, I’ll sit/slouch/sleep on the couch near the array of astronomy and physics magazines that line the coffee table.
The astro lounge is where you go for insider info on all things astronomy, like whose classes to avoid, what research groups to get into, or which scholarships to apply for (the current advice is to apply to the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium, featured on a large colorful poster in the lounge). The astro lounge is where my friend Annie told me about the Maria Mitchell Observatory’s research program, where I spent this past summer creating a whole new method to find recoiling AGNs, which are supermassive black holes that have been launched out of the centers of their galaxies. If Annie hadn’t told me about Maria Mitchell, I wouldn’t be writing my first research paper right now.
I don’t know everyone who walks into the astro lounge—there’s often a postdoc or grad student I haven’t met popping in to grab a coffee before heading back upstairs to their office—but no one feels like a stranger. I think it’s because we all study astronomy. We share a sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, and we know we’re lucky to wake up every day and explore a tiny new corner of it. When we look at M87*, a black hole bigger than our entire solar system, we recognize how delicate Earth is.
Perhaps that’s why the department is so kind—we see the beauty of space and the uniqueness of humanity. But I’m not claiming that being a Yale astronomy major is perfect—we still argue and spread gossip and share intense dislikes. Last year, an older student in the department was complaining about an advanced astronomy course with me and some other younger students. As soon as we started agreeing with him, the professor of that class walked right into the lounge.
I’ve also neglected to mention that I’m not actually an astronomy major—I’m doing the B.S. version of astronomy, the astrophysics major, which means I’m still part of the astronomy department but I have to spend much more time in physics classes than I want to. If you catch me in tears somewhere on campus, it’s probably because of electricity and magnetism, or the concept of infinite dimensions, or because ohhh God there’s so much I don’t understand, what do I do?
I never need to explain these things to the other people in the astro lounge—they already understand. Complaining there is cathartic, and sometimes Sally or Jay will be around to help me with my problems.
Jay is the senior who knows how nearly everything works, from complicated fluid dynamics to the minds of other astronomers. None of his advice has steered me wrong so far. Sally is an ever-present fixture in the astro lounge, and will likely haunt 52 Hillhouse forever. “After I graduate in May,” she says, “you’ll have to tell the freshmen, ‘you can’t sit there, that’s where Sally’s spirit lives!’” She’s even in the astro lounge on weekends, when I’ll sometimes drop by to study and then stay to hear about her latest research troubles. When we’re having a difficult time we tend to end up there, because if all else breaks, there’s always the astro lounge. Someone there will make you feel better.
There is one perfect picture of me from the 2021 astro lounge holiday party: I’m smiling at the camera, giant inflatable reindeer antlers sitting proudly on my head, and there’s an inflatable ring (tossed by Sally, off-camera) frozen perfectly in mid-air, right about to fall onto my antlers. If you could step inside the photo and look around, you’d see thirty other grads and undergrads smiling in ugly sweaters.
We had another holiday party in the astro lounge this year—the final time our wood-paneled room will house any space-themed Christmas sweaters. After this academic year, the astronomy department will move to the newly renovated Kline Tower, a dull brown building that looks like tall stacks of dirty pennies. I’ve heard that there will be a new astro common space in Kline, but it can’t compare to our astro lounge. Soon there will be entire graduating classes that have never experienced the community of 52 Hillhouse, and our peaceful floating rock will be destroyed by the end of the universe.