Happy Independence Day, and greetings from Chicago, where we’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of amateur astronomy in the United States and the first day of the annual convention of the Astronomical League.
It’s pretty likely that people who do not have Ph.D. degrees in astronomy have been participating in the hobby for more than 150 years. But the Chicago Astronomical Society, a co-host of this event, was founded in 1862 and is still going strong as the oldest such organization in the Western Hemisphere.
Michael E. Bakich, a senior editor of Astronomy magazine, opened the day’s talks with a retrospective of the last century and a half in amateur astronomy. Bakich touched on a number of milestones of that time, notably the birth of John Dobson in 1915, and his creation, in 1967, of the Newtonian reflector mount that bears his name.
“Amateur astronomy really hasn’t been the same since,” Bakich said of the invention of the Dobsonian mount, a telescope that’s easy to use and easy for an amateur to build.
Three key developments occurred in 1980: The release of the Coulter Odyssey I telescope, a 13.1-inch Dobsonian scope that sold for just $400 (a 17.5-inch went for $600), and that Bakich said was the first commercially available Dob; the debut of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series on PBS; and the first sales of the TeleVue 13mm Nagler, which Bakich called “the eyepiece that changed observing.” It offers both sharp images and a large apparent field of view.
Bakich noted that four transits of Venus happened during this time, though the one last month will be the last until 2117.
“The last 150 years have been a blast,” he said. “Here’s to the next 150!”
Mike Simmons, president of Astronomers Without Borders, also spoke in the morning session. The motto of the organization is “One People, One Sky” and Simmons explained the efforts to get past geopolitical differences and find common ground through astronomy.
“We’re all looking at the same thing everywhere,” Simmons said, making frequent references to trips to what he feels is a most misunderstood country: Iran.
“Iran is the most pro-American country I’ve ever been to, and I travel a lot,” Simmons said. “Whatever ideas you get from the news… you can’t trust the sound bites.”
He added that the people of Iran are typically delighted to be in contact with Americans.
“They love everything about America except what goes on between our governments,” he said.
Jan van Muijlwijk and Daniela De Paulis talked about their artistic endeavor, Moonbounce. It’s an interesting concept in which images are converted to sound, which is broadcast and bounced off the Moon. The return signal is caught on the rebound and then converted back into an image using the same software. The distortion of the image, resulting from the imperfect return of the data, is sort of the Moon’s take on the original.
Dr. Hasan Padamsee, a playwright and physicist from Cornell, closed out the morning’s lecture sessions with a talk about Edwin Hubble and various others involved in the physics of 100 years ago. We’re fortunate to be headed out Thursday to see Padamsee’s play about Hubble and Einstein, “Creation’s Birthday,” out at Fermilab. I expect we’ll also get some first-hand dope on the Higgs boson.
Astronomical League conventioneers mull about outside the Adler Planetarium in Chicago during a field trip July 4. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.
Our afternoon consisted of a fabulous roadtrip to the Chicago lakeshore to visit a pair of great institutions: The Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium.
At Field we had special presentations from Adler’s Mark Hammergren about asteroids and meteorites and from Field’s Philipp Heck about cosmic dust. Seattle Astronomy asked Hammergren about Seattle-area company Planetary Resources and its plan to mine asteroids for natural resources. Hammergren gave a mixed opinion. He called the notion of getting precious metals from asteroids a “red herring.”
“They’re not present in meteorites in high enough concentrations that would make it economically viable.” he said. “In the present day you’d be far better off looking at recycling materials. Concentrations of precious metals are much higher in today’s dumps.”
Hammergren did allow that space miners could find water and turn it into rocket fuel and other resources needed for future space exploration, but even with that was somewhat dubious.
“We don’t have enough infrastructure in space to justify that kind of investment,” he said. “The only thing that makes any kind of sense, economically speaking, is that if we move, in the next few decades, toward the mass colonization of space. Maybe that’s what they’re going for. You’ve got some eccentric billionaires who are trying to live the childhood dream. This is one way to jump start the colonization of our solar system.”
Also at Adler we were treated to the work of Jeff Talman, who has converted acoustic resonances of stars into musical compositions that are fascinating. It was great to see the spectacular imagery in Adler’s Grainger Sky Theater; the auditorium was closed for renovations when I last visited the Adler in 2010.
Friday’s agenda includes a trip to Fermilab for a tour and the “Creation’s Birthday” play, and then a tall ship sail on Lake Michigan for a cruise and a look at navigation by starlight.
Until then, I sign off from the Windy City.