Happy Birthday, AAAA!

The first meeting of the Ames Area Amateur Astronomers (AAAA) took place 40 years ago today: Saturday, June 2, 1979. Central Junior High Earth Science teacher Jack Troeger and Welch Junior High Earth Science Teacher Ron Bredeson held the first meeting in Jack’s classroom in the building that is now the Ames City Hall. This was a great start to a great astronomy club. Here’s to the next 40 years!

And, we just passed another important milestone in AAAA history. The grand opening of the original McFarland Park Observatory took place 35 years ago on Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, 1984. Back then, the pavement ended at the intersection of Dayton Rd. & County Road E-29, northeast of Ames, Iowa, and it was gravel the rest of the way.

The first McFarland Park Observatory with its second telescope, a 12.5-inch Newtonian & Cassegrain telescope. The first telescope was a 13.1-inch Coulter Odyssey Dobsonian.
Observatory manager Jim Doggett and AAAA president David Oesper inside the original McFarland Park Observatory. Lower right photo is Julie Oesper and Katie Dilks watching the spectacular aurora borealis display the evening of November 8, 1991.

The AAAA purchased a backyard-observatory silo-top dome from Glen Hankins in Nevada on Saturday, September 27, 1980, and then-Ranger (and later Story County Conservation Director) Steve Lekwa of McFarland Park was instrumental in allowing the AAAA to build its observatory at its present site at McFarland Park. The much-improved replacement roll-off-roof observatory, named after club members and benefactors Bertrand & Mary Adams, was completed in 2000. The only part of the original observatory structure that remains is the telescope pier!

Stevens Point

I visited Stevens Point, Wisconsin for the first time over the Memorial Day weekend and, I have to say, this community of 26,000 is impressive. A great place to stay while you’re there is the Baymont Inn & Suites at 247 Division St. N. It is a short and pleasant walk to the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point campus, the Schmeeckle Reserve (wow!), and the Green Circle Trail. Michele’s Restaurant is only a few blocks down the street. Great food!

I miss living in a college town. It is energizing to interact on a daily basis with well educated, intellectually curious, and cosmopolitan people who are passionate about their work. I lived in Ames, Iowa—where Iowa State University is located—for nearly 30 years, and I feel more at home in Stevens Point, a smaller community, than I do now in Ames. I think Stevens Point is the nicest community I have visited since leaving Ames in 2005. Definitely would be willing to live there someday. UW-Stevens Point even has a physics & astronomy department, an observatory, and a planetarium. Perhaps I could help out in retirement.

Some towns have a lot going for them even without a college or university—around here, Mineral Point and Spring Green come to mind. Some towns are at somewhat of a disadvantage because they have a name that is not particularly attractive. For example, Dodgeville, where I currently live and work, has a moniker that isn’t all that inviting. But there is no place so nice to live as a college town—for people like me, at least.

My primary civic interests are in gradually developing a well planned network of paved, off-road bike paths, walking trails through natural areas, a center for continuing education, a community astronomical observatory, and a comprehensive and well-enforced outdoor lighting ordinance to restore, preserve, and protect our nighttime environment and view of the night sky. Living in a community like Dodgeville, I don’t get the sense that there is enough interest or political will to make any of these things happen. I can’t do it alone.

Science News

Some people are molded by their admirations, others by their hostilities. – Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)

I have many admirations, and one of them is for a bi-weekly magazine called Science News.  My first introduction to this amazing publication was in 1973, when a friend of my recently-divorced mother, Frank Gillotti, started giving me his copies after he was finished reading them.  I was a sophomore at Hoover High School in Des Moines then, and by my senior year I was a subscriber for life.

Science News has been around a long time.  It started way back in 1922 as Science News-Letter, and remained that until 1966, when it became Science News.  Today, Science News has an international circulation of about 94,000—alarmingly, down quite a bit (like most magazines) from its peak circulation of nearly 250,000 in the late 1980s.  Unlike most magazines these days, Science News is not saturated with advertising, but is instead chock-full of well-written, accurate, and timely news and feature articles about all areas of science, technology, and mathematics.  Yes, astronomy and space science are covered thoroughly!  And, with each bi-weekly1 issue numbering 32 pages (though, occasionally 40+), it is easy to find the time to read or at least skim it cover-to-cover every two weeks.

In my early years reading Science News, one writer I particularly admired was senior editor / physics editor Dietrick E. Thomsen, whom I was so fortunate to meet at the AAS Meeting in Ames, Iowa in June 1986.  Sadly, he passed away in 1988.  One thing I remember about him besides his always-excellent articles was his passion for passenger trains, and his growing distaste for air travel at the time (and it has only gotten worse).  At that time, I had never ridden on a passenger train, but nowadays I ride Amtrak regularly, and love it!

Another fantastic writer in those days at Science News was space science editor Jonathan Eberhart (1942-2003) whose brilliant and unconventional career was sidelined by multiple sclerosis by 1991.  The AAS Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) has awarded the Jonathan Eberhart Planetary Sciences Journalism Award annually since 2009.  J. Kelly Beatty (Sky & Telescope) was the first recipient (in 2009), and Emily Lakdawalla (The Planetary Society) won the 2011 award.

Science News maintains an excellent web site.  One feature I really like is they provide a complete list of sources and references for their magazine articles.

And, Society for Science & the Public (SSP), the nonprofit corporation that produces Science News, also produces an excellent website for readers ages 9-14, Science News for Students.

Check out these wonderful resources regularly, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to subscribe!

1Science News published weekly through April 12, 2008.  Science News began publishing bi-weekly on May 10, 2008.