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Hayden Planetarium and Me

October 17, 2008 Leave a comment

Earlier today, upset by John McCain’s continued mockery of the “overhead projector” at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, I wrote about how McCain’s lack of appreciation of planetariums is at odds with his avowed interest in providing “opportunities from elementary school on for students to explore the sciences.” The role a planetarium can play in exciting a child’s imagination is not abstract to me. I experienced it directly growing up in New York, thanks to the Hayden Planetarium, a part of the American Museum of Natural History.

I fell in love with the skies early on. When I was 4 or 5, to feed my interest, my mother would read astronomy books to me. I can now name only a bare handful of constellations, but back then I could name them the way some young kids can name dinosaurs. And nothing was more exciting than a trip into Manhattan to see the current planetarium show, look at the exhibits, and wander through the gift shop. My memory of all this is faint, but I remember the awe with which I looked upon the Zeiss (“overhead”) projector, able to project the skies of any season onto the dome. And I remember the large meteorite on display in the exhibit space. It must have been the 15 1/2 ton Willamette Meteorite.

Willamette Meteorite, American Museum of Natural History

Willamette Meteorite, American Museum of Natural History

I also recall that on one visit, the lady in the gift shop was surprised by all the astronomy I knew. I was probably talking non-stop to my mother about various astronomical facts.

My love for astronomy didn’t last. I liked math too, and when I got the Golden Book of Mathematics at 8, that pretty much did it. Astronomy was pushed to second place. Or maybe lower — I had to make room for baseball too. Still, I pursued astronomy on the side for many more years. I got a 6″ reflector telescope from the Edmund Scientific catalogue when I was in junior high school, and a beautiful Questar telescope in August 1967, before starting 11th grade. I collaborated with a friend in Chemistry class that following year on trying to get spectra of sky objects with my Questar and his Nikon. We even took our images to Hayden Planetarium to discuss with one of the staff scientists, who gave us the bad news that there wasn’t much there. Our attempt to run the light gathered by the telescope through a little spectrosope I got from Edmund’s and then onto the film in the camera had basically failed. Then, in the summer of 1968, I studied astronomy at the Summer Science Program in Ojai, California. (The program still exists and is still awesome. We attended a 50th anniversary reunion in July.) And in the summer of 1969, before going off to college, I attended another summer program in astronomy. At the Hayden Planetarium! I commuted to the city with my father each morning and took the subway up to the museum. Some days, I’d walk down to 72nd St. and have lunch with my grandmother. She would have been 76 then, and a great cook.

Well, that was pretty much it for astronomy for a few decades. I would still use my telescope on occasion. And in grad school I started reading some astronomy books for fun. But I never studied it again. Yet, astronomy returned to my life unexpectedly 5 years ago when I became a member of the board of the Astrophysical Research Consortium, the entity that manages the Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico on behalf of a group of universities. I’ve traded in my 3.5 inch Questar for a 3.5 meter telescope and the 2.5 meter telescope of Sloan Digital Sky Survey fame. Pretty cool.

We visited the observatory in April and took some pictures. Here’s a look into the primary mirror of the 3.5 meter telescope.

Primary Mirror, 3.5m Telescope, Apache Point Observatory

Primary Mirror, 3.5m Telescope, Apache Point Observatory

And here’s where the 2.5 meter Sloan survey telescope lives. The building slides on tracks to expose the telescope to the sky.

Housing, 2.5m Sloan Telescope, Apache Point Observatory

Housing, 2.5m Sloan Telescope, Apache Point Observatory

And there’s a heck of a good view from the observatory down to the white sands of the Tularosa Basin.

Tularosa Basin, New Mexico, from Apache Point Observatory

Tularosa Basin, New Mexico, from Apache Point Observatory

All of this is part of my life thanks to that overhead projector in the Hayden Planetarium.

Categories: Education, Science