Town to town, up and down the dial

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2008 3:30 pm

I just got home from my trip to the state that’s round at both ends and HI in the middle. I spent a quick 36 hours in Cincinnati, Ohio, giving my Bad Astronomy talk at the venerable Cincinnati Observatory.

Cincinnati Observatory 11-inch telescopeVenerable indeed; the 11″ refractor there is literally the oldest professional telescope in the country! John Quincy Adams (!) helped establish the observatory, in fact, so it’s loaded with cool artifacts. In general, history isn’t a passion of mine, but there’s something cool about old’ scopes. It’s hard to imagine any other scientific instrument in any other field that can still produce good quality data after more than 100 years.

I’ve had the pleasure of using many old ‘scopes, including the 26″ Clark refractor at my alma mater, the University of Virginia. The 11″ at CO was of the same kind; old but still usable, a respectable machine. And the tube is made of wood! That’s a new one to me.

I was there for the annual Scope Out festival and star party. I’m not sure how many people showed up all in all, but over the day I’m sure it was several hundred. The 11″ was pointed at the Sun, using a Mylar filter over the lens and a narrow-band filter over the eyepiece– the latter lets through a tiny sliver of the spectrum centered on the red light emitted by hydrogen, so you can really see prominences and granulation in the Sun’s surface (caused by vast convection cells of hot gas). That was very cool.

Later, I gave my talk — though it was a near thing; I was feeling pretty ill there for a while. The last time I felt like this, I canceled a talk so I could enjoy the effects of either food poisoning or a norovirus (I never did figure out which). This time, on a hunch (and hoping it wasn’t a repeat of the last time) I suspected sinus issues, so I took a decongestant, and in fact that was the problem. Feeling better, I did my talk, which was fun! It was outside, under a big tent, another first for me. I don’t usually have to shoo insects off the projection screen — though at least there were no cicadas, despite the buzz of them everywhere.

After that, we observed Jupiter and the Moon, which were quite beautiful. That’s always a highlight for me.; star parties are among my favorite venues, because it means star gazing at night. Sadly, I was too tired to stay long, so they took me back to my hotel and I collapsed into sleep (well, eventually, actually: stupid decongestant kept me up even though I was wiped).

But really the best part of these festivals is the people. I met a lot of great folks (some pix are on Matthew Fullhart’s Facebook page), from the attendees to the amateur astronomers who love astronomy and wouldn’t mind talking about it at length at any time of day or not. They are tireless promoters of science and astronomy, talking to kids, teens, adults, and seniors alike, treating them all nicely and respectfully while also corraling them to the eyepiece. It’s an art.

My thanks to Dean Regas at CO and everyone else who treated me so nicely, and especially whoever it was who told me to try Graeter’s ice cream. Yum.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind

Comments (30)

  1. I remember visiting this observatory as a kid who lived in Dayton, Ohio (just a fart away from Cinci). Now I live in NYC, so my “night sky” is an orange afterglow *sigh*
    You hit a couple things that I really miss, in addition to the observatory: 1) cicadas and 2) Graeters ice cream. Oh man, is it good…

  2. TravisM

    Again, thanks, ejnoyed meeting you and hope to it again when my time is also not so short!

    Thanks Phil!

  3. TheElkMechanic

    Great, now I have the theme song stuck in my head! I’ll have to console myself with fond memories of Jan Smithers…

  4. hale_bopp

    I’ll see your telescope and up it…there was a special event on Kitt Peak Saturday night and I got to look through (with an eyepiece that is) the 2.3 meter Bok telescope and the 3.5 meter WIYN telescope! Wow!

    As for the classic old scopes, I got to look through the Yerkes 40 inch a few years ago. Also a fantastic experience.

  5. Miranda

    Could you explain the atom while you’re at it? :)

  6. DenverAstro

    Don’t forget Phil, right here in Denver we have the 100+ year old 20 inch Alvin-Clark telescope at the Chamberlain Observatory near Denver University. The Denver Astronomical Society maintains the facility and has an open house there every month. From Boulder, its about a 30 minute drive. And I know the folks there would love to meet you and show you around.
    The next event is Oct 4th and also happens to be Colorado Astronomy Day. Hopefully the weather will cooperate.
    Bring the family, have a picnic, make a day of it. :)

    D7M

  7. Pierre

    “I’m living on the air in Cincinnati /
    Cincinnati . W K R P.”

    Am I the only one who understood what your post title meant? Why do I feel so OLD? :-)

    BTW, it’s only a few years ago that I realized that the last three letters of the fictional radio
    station’s call sign’s meant ‘crap’… which is what the station was playing until
    the crew of the show decided to change its style.

  8. IVAN3MAN

    Dave Mosher:

    Now I live in NYC, so my “night sky” is an orange afterglow *sigh*

    I have the same problem here in London, UK — Aurora Londiniumlis.

  9. I think that would be “Aurora Londiniorum”

    I’ve seen a perfectly light-pollution-free sky for the first time 3 weeks ago when camping out in the badlands. OMFG, it was amazing. I’m not used to it, having been a city dweller most of my life.

  10. John Kerr

    Ahh I wish I could have gone. Next time you’re coming to Ohio you should announce it more in advance! :D

  11. Blu-Ray-Ven

    round on the ends and hi in the middle O-HI-O

  12. Clark refractors are so beautiful.

    @#1, Graeters is amazing! My boyfriend lived in Columbus for two years, and he’d take me there when I visited, or bring back a whole cooler full of ice cream.

  13. Come to the panhandle of Florida! PLEASE! We need the likes of you here. And there’s some really nice beaches here too.

  14. For those of you who like old scopes and also big refractors that 26″ Clark Phil referred to is open to the public on the 1st and 3rd Fridays of each month, year around. On the 2nd & 4th Fridays we at CAS (Charlottesville Astronomical Society, not the CAS that Phil was visiting: Cincinnati Astronomical Society) operate the Clark for Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, school groups and such. If there are any astronomers passing through on any clear Friday night, go on up and see what’s happening! We don’t chase members of the public away on group nights. I’ve seen Triton through it, and a double shadow pass on Jupiter. Saturn is stunning, as you might expect!
    Rich in Charlottesville

  15. Steve Morrison

    Well, it’s a good thing you’re no longer in Cincinnati – along with much of the Midwest, we were hit by a violent windstorm Sunday afternoon, and trees are down and power lines out all over the city. My power was restored several hours ago, and I’m catching up on your blog among other things. (And yes, all the Graeter’s products in my freezer were melted) :>(

  16. Mike M.

    Uh, Phil, what the hell is this thing???

    http://www.skyandtelescope.com/community/skyblog/newsblog/28244844.html?pageSize=0

    Sorry to be OT but this freaks me out.

  17. It was great to meet you, Phil. My wife and I caught you just as you were leaving. We also met some really great people at the Scope Out and learned some stuff. The Cincinnati Observatory is a great resource that I have failed to take advantage of.

  18. Rob

    I’d go for Aurora Londinii.

    Not so much light pollution where I’m at, but high humidity (we call 70% dry) and thus very poor seeing.

  19. I’m an amateur astronomer living in Cinti. I was there on Saturday with Chet and Robin, also both amateur astronomers and inveterate skeptics like me. When Chet asked if I knew what you (Phil) looked like, I said sure (I had only seen your photos). Just a few moments later, I spotted you at the entrance to the main building. We both had the distinct pleasure of meeting you and shaking your hand. I forgot to remind you (as if you needed it) to keep on doing what you’re doing. Also, a belated congrats on your appt. to the JREF! Cheers!

  20. Sarcastro

    Am I the only one who understood what your post title meant?

    With God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly you are not the only one.

    Old ‘scopes are teh hawtness! The best observatory near me is Cordell-Lorenz at the University of the South. Not the best because of equipment, but because it’s in the middle of nowhere. Anyways, they’ve got a really cool 6″ Alvin Clark refractor from 1897. Very Jules Verne.

  21. David Sharp

    It was a pleasure meeting you Saturday at Scope-Out. I’m kind of surprised you didn’t mention the CO’s “new” telescope, the 1904 Alvan Clark & Sons 16″ refractor: http://www.cincinnatiobservatory.org/pgalvan.html

    It looks like you got out of here just in time; the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through here Sunday afternoon with 74mph winds, leaving 90% of the area in the dark. It’s a shame the moon is nearly full – we might have been gotten a treat with dark skies and the milky way in the city…

    All the Graeter’s in my freezer is melted now, and I’m still waiting for my power to be restored.

    98% Chimp

  22. Wow, that brings back memories of our visit to the CO some years ago (too long ago!).

    Glad you had a great time Phil, but did you get a five-way chili???? Or did you just limit yourself to ice cream?
    ;)

  23. Donnie B.

    No, no, no, Pierre! ‘KRP meant “carp”, not “crap”. Don’t you remember the costume? ;-)

  24. Gary Ansorge

    A small addendum, Phil. Here’s a link to the GOCE satellite, a really cool gravity mapping sat.

    http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1513658585/bctid1740023527

    GAry 7

  25. Rob Says:
    I’d go for Aurora Londinii.

  26. Rob Says:
    I’d go for Aurora Londinii.

    d’oh, no idea why I thought aurora would be plural, hehe

  27. Don Snow

    Great article and wonderful photo. They just don’t make anything, like they used to. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes its empty progress for progress’ sake. In astronomy, it’s progress. Like you, it really tickles me pink that the old ‘scope still works just fine. One of the things I love about astronomy, is we keep the old along with add the new.

    At my age, I get nervous in a society where the old is thrown out and replaced by something, just because it’s new. Like, carburators replaced by fuel injection. It never cost $200.00 to adjust a carburator’s air:fuel ratio, but try to replace a fuel injector’s air mass sensor or fuel sensor for less than that.

    Anyway, I’ve returned and looked at the photo on this thread about three times, now.

    Thanks.

  28. JennyW

    Let us know if you ever want to come to Arizona! The Prescott Astronomy Club has monthly meetings, frequent star parties, etc. Though they’re probably smaller than the one you went to in Ohio.

  29. DGKnipfer

    AAAAAAAAAAaarrrrrrrrgggggggggggg!!!!!!! I live just an hour from Cinci!!!! My son and I would have loved to hear your lecture, BA! I would have even braved the 70 MPH winds for your show.

  30. Charlie in Dayton

    A great evening was had by all, even if the weather report faked us out…Most were expecting solid cloud, so we didn’t bring our stuff…silly us…
    Got to see Jupiter at 200x through a fairly steady sky…cheeze’n'crackers, that thing’s got lotsa cloud bands!
    And of course, there was much cussin’ and discussin’ this that and the other…
    That was after the BA’s talk (I wonder if Phil would ever ask Bruce Willis for an autograph…).
    Wonder of wonders, the BA recognized my fuzzy little face from years gone by (insert fanboi squeel here)…
    The next day, though, Ike came thru…it’s Thursday night, and the mid-block streetlight and high-voltage LIVE feedline are STILL laying in the middle of the street…
    Such is the life of The Midwestern Stargazer…

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