A young Bob Olsen with his father, Joseph, circa 1955.
Professor of Chemistry Bob Olsen's restrained and scholarly voice surges with enthusiasm when he points to a photograph of a solar eclipse that vies for space on a bulletin board cluttered with his many interests. It's easy to imagine him as a teenager in Superior, Wisconsin, in the 1960s, scanning the winter sky for hours in subzero temperatures with his homemade telescope, bundled and bending over a notebook as he sketches the positions of Jupiter's moons.
"You get used to the cold when you live in Superior, and I looked forward to those crisp, clear nights when the Orion Nebula, Crab Nebula, and so much neat stuff is visible," Olsen explains. "I'd haul that thing out in the snow, put a paper sack over the security light next door, and find as many nebulae, galaxies and star clusters as I could."
Stargazing years before today's computer-driven "go-to" scopes were available to backyard astronomers, the high-school sophomore learned to navigate the night sky.
"You had to know the constellations, how to use the star atlas, and you had to know how to view the object,” Olsen says, describing "averted vision"--a method by which you can see a celestial object more clearly by looking slightly away from it. Olsen learned these skills on his own, but he inherited a fascination with the stars, his interest in the sciences, and even his burning desire to "know everything I can" as tangibly as he received that telescope his father, Joseph, built for him.
"He died when I was 11, and I have no real distinct memories of him. But I remember the things he told me about. He was responsible for my learning this stuff, and I share so many of his interests."
Joseph Olsen wasn't a scientist, or even a college graduate. The son of a construction worker, he was an adept draftsman in high school with impeccable penmanship, an elegant line, and an interest in the sciences and architecture. He enrolled at a Chicago technical school but returned home when the Great Depression hit and his parents' health failed. He became a postal clerk, working his way up to branch supervisor, but he remained captivated by the sciences. When he saw them light a spark in his son, he became his teacher.
Bob remembers being intrigued by the drafting table and T-square his father kept in the basement along with shelves of books about astronomy and physics. He recalls the time his father drove to the hardware store to buy a bell, battery, and lights, just to show him how circuits worked. Later, his father noticed Bob reading his astronomy books and ordered the parts for a 4 1/2-inch Newtonian reflector telescope for him from Edmund Optics (now Edmund Scientific).
"He was doing the sort of thing you wish parents would do when their kids have an interest in something--finding a way to sort of nudge them along," Olsen says. He remembers the black shellacked cardboard tube for the scope drying on a clothesline in his basement.
But father and son never used the telescope together. Joe Olsen died of a heart attack at the age of 51.
Grieving his loss while his mother worked and finances were tight, the boy found little of interest in the stars. Four years passed before he walked down to the basement and carried the telescope into the backyard.
"I don't remember why I did it--I didn't even have a mount for the thing," Olsen says. "I set it in my lap and tried to see something, anything. I aimed it toward the moon and caught a glimpse of the lunar disk whipping through the field of view, getting just a hint that there were all these craters you could see. As soon as I'd saved up enough money I sent to Edmund's for a tripod with an equatorial mount."
Olsen spent hours studying the night sky, but astronomy remained an avocation. It was during his years at the University of Wisconsin-Superior that he found his vocation.
"There's always a point in organic chemistry when the class begins to get really tough,” Olsen recalls. "I took that test and scored a 94 when the others were scoring in the 70s. My professor, Doc Horton, put his arm around me and said, ‘You can do this work. You should consider this.' That was all the motivation I needed."
The chemist graduated magna cum laude, earned his PhD at the University of Iowa, and has enjoyed a distinguished career as a scientist and teacher here at Wabash. He's carried his passion for exploring the cosmos into classrooms at Wabash and Crawfordsville schools, and his astrophotography includes stunning shots of the Orion Nebula, the sun, and a solar eclipse. He was photographing the return of Halley's Comet in 1986 when he felt his father's death most poignantly.
He was in the darkroom working with a negative when he recalled Joseph Olsen's passion for astronomy and photography—how thrilled he would have been to see this comet that had last returned before he was born. Olsen had to sit down, overwhelmed by grief.
"Sometimes I wonder if I'm trying to resurrect the father I lost when I was young by doing the things I'm doing now," he says.
But the scientist realizes that a sense of loss is no requirement for a child's interests paralleling those of his parents. He has only to look at his daughter's life to confirm that. Raised by two chemists (Julie Olsen is a Wabash biochemistry research assistant and Assistant Dean of the College), Greta was steeped in her parents' scientific pursuits. Some took--others didn't.
"I can remember dragging her out to the telescope whenever I found something I thought she should see," Olsen says, chuckling. "Usually she'd humor me with the obligatory ‘yeah, that's neat' and then run back into the house--especially when it was cold out."
But Greta has become a chemist. This year she's teaching organic chemistry at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi and using the same book her father will be using as he instructs Wabash students in organic chemistry this semester.
"At Christmas, Julie, Greta, and I had a lot of fun talking about the course, exchanging views on how to teach it," Olsen says. "We must have talked for a couple of hours--a great time!"
When I mention that Joseph Olsen would no doubt enjoy such a conversation, his son agrees.
"The death of my father is an event I still haven't got a good handle on. But I do think he'd be pleased with what I do, and I do believe he'd be proud of what his granddaughter does."