Astronomy


My parents told me that, as a toddler, I pointed to objects in the sky while uttering incoherent baby-talk. I suppose this means my interest in astronomy literally dates back right to the crib!

In 1958, when I was five years old, my parents took me to hear a lecture by Willy Ley, a prominent space scientist. Ley's talk on astronomy and space science was geared toward children. I was utterly enthralled. I had already learned to read so I could find out more about dinosaurs (another early interest of mine), so I checked out all the books on astronomy I could from the local library. Most were beyond me, of course. That didn't prevent me from grabbing the nearest adult and asking the meaning of difficult passages.

Shortly thereafter my parents bought me a small 4 1/2" reflector telescope. I spent hours outside watching the moon, planets, stars, and other celestial phenomena. One of my aunts gave me a "Spitz Junior" planetarium as a birthday present. I used to put together little lectures on astronomy using my planetarium for all the other kids in the neighborhood and for my classes at school.

I attended Catholic grade schools during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Science did not receive the same degree of attention as mathematics, reading, writing, and religion, but science wasn't ignored either. Sister Agnes Calmeyn, Sister Hermandine, Sister Bernard, and Sister Marie Christine all encouraged my interest in science. These dear women exhibited great patience in dealing with me. Apparently I spent most of my early years in grade school day-dreaming about astronomy and dinosaurs. Years later these Sisters told me they would sometimes call upon to answer a question in math or history or some other subject. Instead of answering the question, I'd deliver a lecture on the latest dinosaur or rocket launch I'd heard about.

In the sixth grade, I enrolled in a program called the "Astro-Science Workshop." Classes were held each Saturday morning during the school year at the Adler Planetarium in downtown Chicago. J. Allen Hynek (yes, Mr. UFO) and the inimitable Letitia Lestina directed the program. Only three of the students (including myself) were in grade school. The others were all high school juniors and seniors. We three youngsters attended all the lectures and field trips, but we did not undertake the lab work which required mathematical training we did not possess. The Astro-Science Workshop enabled me to meet many of the leading midwestern astronomers as well as international scientists like Bart Bok.

I also had the opportunity to handle some of the instruments in the Planetarium's collection which were not on display for lack of room. I also was given access to the Planetarium's library of rare books. I found it awe-inspiring to handle instruments and books on astronomy which were centuries old. I felt a kinship with the sky-watchers of earlier times who had fashioned the instruments and written the books.

Later on, a few alumni from the Astro-Science Workshop joined Letitia Lestina in producing an annual Christmas Lecture at the Chicago campus of Northwestern University. These lectures were modelled on the famous Christmas Lectures at Cambridge University in England. The alumni group continued to present these lectures until Miss Lestina's death. The lectures allowed high school students, college students, and the general public to listen to and interact with outstanding scientists and educators in a relatively intimate setting. Guest lecturers over the years included Sir John Eccles, George Beadle, Charles Huggins, Philip Morrison, Vernon Mountcastle, Peter Oxnard, and many others. I was particularly impressed by Eccles with whom I had the pleasure of lunching one afternoon. He demonstrated that one could be both a good scientist and a good Christian without compromising either (Eccles was Catholic, as am I).

I entered a number of science fairs in grade school. All of my projects concerned astronomy except for my very first in fourth grade, which concerned sea shells. I usually did fairly well. As a seventh grader I reached the Illinois state science fair and received a first prize.

During my senior year in high school, I once again enrolled in the Astro-Science Workshop. This time I was a full participant. Fellow IT staff member Albert Lunde also enrolled that same year. As far as I know, I was the only person who ever attended the Astro-Science Workshop twice. I used my newly-acquired computer programming skills to solve some of the more difficult homework problems.

I applied what I had learned about celestial mechanics by authoring the first version of an n-body orbital simulator which I called "orbits." I also wrote a primitive program to model stellar interiors. I entered this combination of programs into my school's science fair as a senior. This was the first science fair I had entered since the seventh grade. I reached the district level where I was placed in the "computer" category. Unfortunately, the judge for this category was openly hostile to those of us who used computers to do any scientific modelling. He was only interested in business applications. As a result, the winner turned out to be someone who had written a program to compute income taxes! Other losers that year in the computer category included Albert Lunde, whose wonderful program to play checkers demonstrated considerable mathematical sophistication as well as programming skill; and a fellow who had built his own computer from scratch, which demonstrated considerable ingenuity and engineering skill.

My sense of justice was restored when I found out that Mr. Income Tax received the lowest possible grade at the Chicago City science fair. None of the judges at the City fair could figure out why his project had been sent on from the district level.

This blow to my self-esteem did not lessen my interested in either astronomy or computers. I seriously thought about majoring in astronomy in college. I ended up being seduced by mathematics and computers instead. During my college years, I rewrote "orbits" in PL/1 and added some major improvements. I discontinued work on "orbits" after I was graduated in 1974. By that time I was much more interested in broader applications of numerical analysis, and especially statistical computing. I spent most of my time in graduate school and professional life working in the area of statistical computing up until 1990.

I remain interested in all aspects of astronomy and space science. I am particularly intrigued by the idea that astronomically induced catastrophism may have played an important role in the rise and development of human civilization. You'll find lots of other links to resources about impact events on my catastrophism page.


Atmospheric Phenomena

Comets, Asteroids, and Meteors

Commercial Vendors (astronomical equipment, etc.)

General

History of Astronomy

NASA

Observatories

Online Databases

Photography

Planetaria

Publications

Societies and Clubs

Software for Astronomy

Space Travel and Artificial Satellites

Telescope Making

University Departments, Research Institute, Classes, Course Notes

USENET Newsgroups


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Last modified by pib on March 21, 2000.