Thursday, April 24, 2014

Discovering Your Universe: The World of Public Astronomy

My Astronomy Talk at Valparaiso University

April 4, 2014

In 2008, I was taking classes at Purdue University's North Central campus. For the spring semester, I took an introductory astronomy class. I was just beginning to watch the night sky on my own, and it seemed like the perfect time to take the class. It was great learning the science of astronomy at the same time I was learning my way around the sky. Our first class observation was cancelled due to weather. Since a visual observation was required for the class, and because it gave me projects to work on to learn the sky, I started doing some of the alternate observing projects, just in case our second observation session was also cancelled. One of those alternate observations was to attend an observatory open house at Valparaiso University.

On April 4, 2008, I made my first visit to Valparaiso University's observatory for an open house. I saw Saturn, the Orion Nebula, Mars, and globular cluster M3 for the first time in a big telescope. I've been back for observatory open houses when I can ever since.

In 2009, the astronomical community celebrated 400 years of telescopic astronomy with the International Year of Astronomy. The Valpo University physics & astronomy department incorporated the spirit of IYA's emphasis on public outreach by having public lectures before each observatory open house. They were enjoyed so much by the public, faculty, and students that the department continued holding public talks before observatory open houses, though scaled back to only one or two talks per semester. Professors Dr. Bruce Hrivnak and Dr. Todd Hillwig have given some of the talks, and hosted visiting lecturers from other universities and institutions. I've attended quite a few of these talks, though not all of them, unfortunately.

Earlier this year, Calumet Astronomical Society contacted Valpo University's Dr. Bruce Hrivnak about speaking at one of our monthly meetings. He graciously agreed, but also asked if some of our CAS members could give a talk about amateur and public astronomy before their observatory open house on April 4. I was asked soon after to participate in the talk. I couldn't resist.

I had about five weeks to create a presentation, and worked on it in most of my free time. I worked on it almost right up until the moment of presentation. I had no chance to rehearse the talk, but being focused on my own experiences in astronomy, I was familiar enough with the material that practice wasn't absolutely necessary.

On April 4, 2014, exactly six years after my first visit to V.U's observatory, I had dinner with Dr. Hrivnak and his wife Lucy before the presentation. During dinner, we discussed our different paths to astronomy, and our different methods of observing the sky. Though I only understand the basics, I'm fascinated by the work of astrophysicists. Never before have I such an opportunity to ask questions of an astrophysicist, or had one ask so many questions of me. It was both flattering and humbling.

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Richard Loslo of Calumet Astronomical Society was also speaking, though for some reason, his name wasn't included on the promotional flyer. I had no idea what Richard was going to talk about, and he had no idea what I was going to talk about, but as I watched his presentation, I knew that it would complement mine well. I finalized my PowerPoint slides on my lunch break at work earlier in the day, and had not rehearsed at all. I really didn't know how long my talk was going to be. Between the two of us we had fifty minutes. I nervously checked my watch while Richard was speaking, wondering if I would have enough time for my presentation. Through dumb luck, our timing was perfect.

My friend Chris from my atheist social group had offered to record the presentation, and did a great job producing this video of the talk. Eleven members of the atheist group came to support me, Steve from CAS, and my friend Jayde who teaches STEM on mock space missions at the Challenger Learning Center in Hammond. Jayde captured the picture below.

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I hope you enjoy the video. Thanks to Chris for donating his time and equipment. Thanks to Dr. Hrivnak for inviting Calumet Astronomical Society to speak at their astronomy open house, and thanks to all my friends who came out to see our presentation. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy night, so there was no observing afterward.

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