Center for Astrophysics
| Harvard & Smithsonian

The stars might look a bit brighter from the rooftop of the Center for Astrophysics (CfA) one of the premier astrophysics institutions in the world. It's worth checking out for both the history and recent science (like the Event Horizon Telescope's recent black hole image).

Grounds are open to the public year round, but at this point it's probably still best to catch an actual event. Here's a handy link to the CfA Public Events Calendar.

Our cycling map for this ride is actually a collection of six different route options from lots of different Boston suburbs. These routes show off the rapidly improving network of bike paths in the area. If you're a reader living outside of Boston/Camberville, we encourage you to try out one of these out. Grounds at the CfA are open to the public, and the center regular hosts rooftop observatory nights, as well as occasional exhibitions inside an old telescope dome.

Rooftop of 60 Garden street hosts 3 telescope domes

Inside one of the telescope domes

Ride Summary

IMPORTANT: In RWGPS interface below, make sure to scroll/click through the different routes listed just underneath map view. Once clicked, each route is then colorcoded to distinguish offroad path (blue), calmer bicycle lanes (green), and smaller 'red-zones'.

  • Stats
    • Distance1mi min.
    • % Bike PathChoose your own adventure!
    • ModificationsRed Line to Porter Sq. or Harvard Sq.
    • Sceneryquiet, tree-filled city streets
    • Real Science Labs?Labs in building
    • Real Instruments?Telescope (no longer used for science)
    • Grounds Access?public (with exhibits & lectures)
Public Transit: (or choose 100% by bike!)
Optional: Red Line to Porter Sq or Harvard Sq
BRIEF HISTORY

The Center for Astrophysics (CfA) was founded in 1973 as a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution (YES, the same institution that runs the museums you know in NY/DC!) and Harvard University. the organization now represents around 800 scientists, engineers, support staff, as well as graduate students and professors, who together build instruments and study unusual phenomena in our universe. Here is some more history from the Smithsonian Archive if that's your thing. I also love this summary of the history of arts and crafts at the CfA!

RIDE OVERVIEW

This unique ride entry features many possible routes from the various Boston suburbs. These routes show off some of the best new infrastructure for bikes available in the immediate area. So, consider it a choose-your-own adventure. One way or another, there's a good chance you'll enjoy the new Garden Street protected bike lanes as you get close.

Garden Street's beautiful new protected bike lanes were installed in late 2022, and take you right to the CfA's entrance. Incredibly, this major infrastructure improvement continues to be a source of controversy to a small minority of residents even as recently as late 2023. You can help by voting in City Council members who support bike lanes, and by signing up for the Cambridge Bike Safety mailing list!

Garden Street's new bike lanes were installed in late 2022

If you're coming from east of the CfA, you will also likely experience the new Hampshire Street protected bike lanes, which were installed in late summer '23 and are a huge win for the city! This safety improvement project ends at Inman Square, where you can merge onto the Cambridge Street protected bike lanes that take you to Harvard Square.

Hampshire Street's new bike lanes were installed in late 2023, and connect with Cambridge Street's bike lanes.
Or maybe, you'll take the Watertown-Cambridge Greenway (completed Summer, 2022), or the Somerville Community Path(completed Summer, 2023). My point is that there has been tremendous progress in bicycle infrastruture in the greater Camberville area over the past several years. maybe some cool telescopes and astrophysics things will be your motivation to go check out some of the projects.
Photo Gallery: The Science

First things first, the CfA grounds are open to the public, and you are welcome to roam / hang out.

CfA grounds are open to public

There are occasionally observatory and lecture events for the public. Once again, here's a handy link to these events CfA Public Events Calendar. In particular, the CfA often has a good showing at the Cambridge Science Festival every September.

Alas, everything else is typically closed off. I see great opportunity for the CfA to blend more deeply with the city of Cambridge, and into the Smithsonian Institute at large. With new leadership as of '22 or so, it's possible that CfA opportunities will continue to grow.

To give you a hint of what else is behind the doors: the Harvard Plate Stackscatalogs some of the oldest astronomical images ever taken, using an old form of photography in which light sensitive chemicals are spread on glass, exposed to light from a telescope, and then developed (one is below.) They're primarily important as historical artifacts. Occasionally, scientists also use these images as references for the locations of objects in the sky several hundred years ago.

Old image of Small Magelenic Cloud, part of CfA Plate Stacks collection

You've made it to the end of this post, so I'll end by revealing a secret of sorts. Tucked away in a nondescript office building at Cambridge Discovery Park near Alewife, the CfA has a very large engineering facility where world class telescope parts are designed, manufactured, and shipped around the world. For example, below you see one of the largest CfA facilities, and an optical testbed for G-CLEF, an instrument which will eventually use the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile to search for Earth-like exoplanets.

There is sadly no public access to this site, but you really deserve to see it, and with enough demonstrated interest, maybe we can inspire change. In fact, as I'm now a postdoctoral fellow at the CfA, if you've read until this point and email me with a request to visit something specific, I'll see what I can do.

World-class telescope parts are manufactured near Alewife
G-CLEF will look for Earth-like planets using the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile