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Dr. April Burch
An image of Horsehead Nebula captured by student Wilson Zheng '20

An image of the Horsehead Nebula captured by Wilson Zheng '21 on March 27, 2020, from Berkshire School's Dixon Observatory. The interstellar cloud is approximately 1,375 light years from Earth and is a part of the constellation Orion.

In the age of physical and social distancing, like so many of you, I’ve had a considerable amount of time to think about how humans remain connected to the people and places that we hold so dear. In thinking more about maintaining one’s sense of place, I’ve seen many creative solutions emerge from the current crisis—ranging from virtual tours of the world’s most treasured museums, to ZOOM family dinners, to Facebook Live sessions with famous musicians around the world. It has all made this scary and uncertain time a little better and kept us all connected in ways we never imagined.

On a recent ZOOM class check-in with my Advanced Math/Science Research (AMSR) students, I learned that, while quarantined for three weeks alone in a hotel room in China, Wilson Zheng ’21 had been doing what he could to stay busy, stay positive, and stay connected to Berkshire. Before I tell you more, let me set the stage for Wilson’s year in AMSR.

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Wilson has spent this year following his passion for astronomy. In the fall, he attended a local introductory astronomy seminar series taught by astrophysicist Dr. James C White, II, executive director at BART (Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School). This seminar series was offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), a “vibrant member-led organization that provides exciting educational, social and volunteer opportunities designed especially by and for people over fifty years old.” When enrolling Wilson in this seminar series, I didn’t tell him about OLLI’s mission or who/what to expect. It didn’t take long to for Wilson to notice that he was the youngest participant, by decades, but he just rolled with it. During the experience, Wilson became acquainted with Dr. White, and after the seminar series concluded, Dr. White agreed to help Wilson expand his understanding around the math and physics behind mass determination of stars.

Over the winter, Wilson worked closely with Liam O’Brian, a local expert who has worked with Berkshire for years to keep the Dixon Observatory updated and operational, to learn how to use the observatory himself. This was one of Wilson’s main goals for his AMSR experience.

Located on the southeastern corner of Stewart Pitch, the Dixon Observatory was designed and gifted by longtime Berkshire faculty member Tom Dixon and his wife, Cynthia, in 2000. The unique facility houses state-of-the-art equipment that gives students and teachers the opportunity to make detailed observations of both bodies within the solar system as well as deep space objects.

Wilson Zheng '21 observed the Horsehead Nebula from Berkshire's Dixon Observatory while quarantined in a hotel room in his native China. He learned how to use the observatory while studying in the School's Advanced Math/Science Research Program.

After returning to China during Berkshire’s spring break recess, Wilson spent three weeks, including his 18th birthday, in isolation, in a hotel room before returning to his family home in Shanghai. While in isolation, Wilson made the very most of this time. He decided to “remote in” to the Dixon Observatory to continue his investigations. He collected many images during his quarantine including nebulae, galaxies, and quasars. To celebrate his birthday on March 27th, Wilson directed the telescope to the night skies to the Horsehead Nebula, significant because Wilson’s Chinese zodiac is a horse. The Horsehead Nebula is a hydrogen-rich nebula located in the constellation Orion. What he captured is beautiful and poignant; shareworthy indeed.

At the end of the day, astronomy provides all humans a fundamental sense of scale and place. Essentially, it provides us with a shared experience no matter how far we travel away from the Mountain. Keep in touch, Bears, and when you look at the skies at night, be sure to say a little wish for us to be together again soon. And, happy birthday Wilson. Keep working!

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