[extropy-chat] Touched by Astronomy

Amara Graps amara at amara.com
Fri Apr 2 19:51:00 UTC 2004

I wrote this story this evening.. before heading home for the
weekend. I hope you enjoy it!


I think that anyone who is touched by astronomy is already a little
bit 'touched'. Not off the deep-end touched, but crazy enough to
pass over obstacles that might stop other people.

I had scheduled an astronomy trip to a nearby amateur astronomy
club's observatory about one month ago. No problems with the
weather, no problems with the telescope, the university could rent a
van with a driver, most of the class raised their hands jumping
at the chance to go. 'All Systems Go' for my first field trip as the
new astronomy professor

On the scheduled day of the field trip the weather was a disaster,
and I had to make a decision. Can the school bus be cancelled and
rescheduled? Can I find the phone number of the Italian person who
is running the telescope that night, and see if the telescope will
be available the following week? And how can I have a conversation
in Italian with my poor language speaking skills? While phoning and
writing email, with my Italian dictionary in front of front of me
("let's see.. I want to cancel the bus this evening.. vorrei
annullare l'autobus stasera... but reschedule for next week... damn
how do I say 'reschedule'...) by 10:30am I have a massive headache.
Meanwhile the director of the amateur astronomy observatory is
trying _to reach me_, finally he succeeds, to say that "the
telescope is broken..", and, "by-the-way, the weather is bad", he

So we wait a week. I lose a few students who thought we were going
to have a field trip, when, instead, I gave my lecture at the usual
time. Sorry about that! The remaining students (yes, indeed!) still
wanted to go the following week.

On the morning of the newly-scheduled field trip day, I wake up to a
beautiful day. No problem with the weather. However an email waiting
for me at work: "Ancora problemi per la visita all'Osservatorio F.
Fuligni !" more words, "La nuova strumentazione, infatti, ci sta
dando dei problemi e dobbiamo metterla a punto." I get out my
dictionary... "Desolato" he says. I make some phone calls. I learn
that the telescope is being refitted with a new mount that isn't
finished yet... "But can my students *see* the telescope, even
inside the dome? Is there astronomy posters to look at, a place
where I could talk and explain some astronomy topics..."  That is
something.... "Oh yes!" Now I have the president of the Italian
Amateur Astronomy Association, Emilio, who is jumping in to help. He
lives nearby and he has a portable telescope (Celestron 8
Cassegrain). He offers to set up his portable  on the lawn of the
observatory ground, so at least the students can see something.
"Bene!" We arrange a meeting in the central square in Frascati, so
he can guide the bus driver up the mountain to the observatory.

Approximately one hour later, I watched the sky filled with clouds.

OK, what to do? It is already noon, too late to cancel the school
bus. I arrive at the university and discover that the president was
trying to reach me, the bus is _already here_. (1/2 hour early...
*who* gave the bus that wrong time?). I begin to gather up my

Where did they go? One has a friend visiting from out of town, so he
has to leave. Another one needs to use the library that night to
finish a term paper, so off she goes. Another student can't make it
because relatives are in town... And so on. By the end of this, my
field trip students number... SIX hardy souls, who frankly are just
tired of seeing the walls of the university, and really want to
*go*, it doesn't matter where. Oh, and also the president of the
university who is would *really like* to see something through a

We arrive at the bus, with the driver awaiting impatiently. Ahem.
*Bus* is a rather poor description for our field-trip vehicle. It
was in reality an air-conditioned, with-televisions, long-distance,
tour company vehicle for 40 passengers. You know, the kind of
vehicle in which you travel across countries. This was the vehicle
with which we were to travel up some mountain roads.

"Rocca di Papa ?!", the bus driver almost yells. Why didn't he know
the trip destination? My letters were very clear. Now he is sure
that the bus cannot make it through the narrow streets of Rocca di
Papa. I dial Emilio, so that he can discuss the situation with the
bus driver.

"Don't worry don't worry". Emilio assures the driver that there is
just one sharp turn, the bus can make it. We can park it at the end
where the bus can easily turn around. "But, Amara, the sky is
completely filled with clouds! Are you sure you want to come here?"
Now he trying _to convince me_ that it's not very practical to bring a
group of students there, if the sky if cloudy. Now I have to take a
poll of the class if they *really* want to go, since I have a
nervous bus driver and a practical amateur astronomer placing
weights on the other side of the balance.

The students seem to be as tired as me, more hardy than me, probably.
"Let's JUST GO", they say. "Andiamo" to the bus driver and Emilio.
So off we go to a cloud-filled mountain.

The "Ring Road" surrounding Rome is a charming highway to drive at rush
hour time, especially when there is a vehicle on fire at the side of
the road. We manage to pass that, and we exit safely to the
Tuscolana Road which leads to our meeting point with Emilio. He's
ready and waiting, still in his elegant gray suit and tie, fresh
from his mutinational corporation day job. He hops into his little
green car, flips on the emergency blinkers, and proceeds to lead us
to our telescopic destination.

Now picture, if you can, a little green car with blinkers leading
a big tour bus with air conditioning and TVs up a little mountain
road. It's like the tug boat leading the barge, or perhaps a mouse
with a light leading the elephant. Well that's us, and quite a sight
on the Monday night mountain road.

Halfway up the mountain, we slow the bus, while Emilio makes a car
switch. His portable telescope is in the back seat of his other car,
which is parked by a family member at the side of the mountain road.
In less than 20 seconds, Emilio gives the green car to his son, now
he's got the gray car with the 'scope. He flips on the emergency
blinkers and onward up the mountain road. This is one classy Italian.

Twenty minutes later we arrive at the dirt parking lot, where a 200
meter long foot path leads to the observatory. We look up... patches of
clear sky! Now Emilio switches into astronomy instructor mode,
showing us the big telescope with the broken mount, leading us to
the public display area where the posters are located, and he
proceeds to set up his portable telescope on the lawn.

For the next hour, clouds raced across the sky, leaving big holes in
*just the right places*: around the Moon, around Saturn, around
Jupiter, around Orion, and Ursa Major. We saw craters on the Moon,
at the best place on the terminator where the contrast between night
and day is highest. We saw the bands on Jupiter and the four
Galilean satellites. We saw miniature Saturn with it's rings wide
open. We saw Mizar and the double stars in the handle of the Big

During that hour, the most frequent words I heard from the students
were: "This is SO COOL." Other words: "I want to spend ALL OF MY
TIME looking through a telescope." "This is SO MUCH BETTER
than pictures in a textbook." I would be lying if I didn't admit
that I was smiling from ear-to-ear. I didn't expect such a response
from them.

So you see, my students are touched by astronomy too. If you can do
anything to demonstrate with real life examples how cool the world
is around you to someone else, I say: 'Go for it'. Even on a cloudy
night in a foreign country when it looked like it would be a
disaster. You just never know....


Amara Graps, PhD          email: amara at amara.com
Computational Physics     vita:  ftp://ftp.amara.com/pub/resume.txt
Multiplex Answers         URL:   http://www.amara.com/
"It seems like once people grow up, they have no idea what's cool."

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