Monday, January 31, 2011

Wide Awake in Texas by Deirdre Kelleghan

As I flew over Pennsylvania the pathways among the green hills and valleys looked like someone had sprayed them on with silly string, such was their random pattern, from my birds eye view.

The green fields soon gave way to the scorched dry plains of Texas, the ground below reminded me of those little watercolour blocks from my painting sets as a child. The colour and even the smell of Burnt Sienna came back to me. Texas is in a drought situation, there has been no rain for months, the cotton was scorched by the sun, in the barren Raw Umber fields of earth.

The water table had dropped, wells ran dry, and farmers were resorting to selling off cattle as they have little water for them. Cotton farmers have insurance on their crops but that would hardly make up for the loss.

The standard temperature for where I was staying had been consistent at 100 – 105 F for months, buildings were according to many Texans, overcooled. Air-conditioning was a very necessary and welcome tool in the effort to keep the population chilled.

The Astronomical League Convention was held at The University of Texas at Arlington.

The campus was huge and seemed very new. The many trees planted around the grounds were home to a population of grey squirrels that seem to be charging about everywhere I looked.

The welcome I received from the members of the Astronomical League was as great as the legendary Irish welcome. I was greeted with hand shakes, smiles, hugs and photographic moments. I felt very much at home right away, in this extension of the global astronomical family.

I was enjoying Kelly Beatty’s talk on the future of astronomy when half way through I was invited to go on a trip into Dallas. Mr Ed Flaspoehler from the Texas Astronomical Society of Dallas kindly drove Joanne Hailey secretary of the Astronomical League and I to an unforgettable tour of The Sixth Floor Museum in Dealy Plaza. This is a permanent exhibition about the life and untimely death of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Downtown Dallas in the museum I stood reading the graphic hand written medical notes about JFK’s physical state when he came into the care of Parkland Memorial Hospital on November 22nd 1963. In the next section of the exhibit the Kennedy moon speech “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” was running on a screen. I did not expect to get emotional about it but I did. I had one of those full circle moments that keep happening with increasing frequency these days.

The Kennedy moon speeches are worth reading, for the spirit of exploration that they inevitably sowed in the minds of many people who were witness, like my self to the Apollo lunar program.

The brand new planetarium in Arlington University in Texas brought back memories of La Géode IMAX Cinema in the City of Science in Paris. In 1989 seated in the Parisian Géode I sailed the high seas on a virtual journey with Christopher Columbus to the Americas.

In America in 2006 in the UTA planetarium I was blasted from my seat to view our planet from space and travel to the edge of our solar system and beyond on a virtual tour that would probably be the closest that I will ever be to the real thing. At one point I was flying under Saturn’s rings just like Cassini, looking up through the rings at this magnificent ball of butterscotch gas.

After a brief sojourn to where stars are born the seated participants went into reverse warp drive, past the gas giants and Mars back to the Arlington campus dome, which was graphically reproducing exactly what was outside the building.

When we recovered from our awesome solar system tour, we were invited by Bob Bonadurer to have a closer look at anything in the virtual night sky. Terry Mann the new President of The Astronomical League requested a trip to Ireland for my benefit. The digital display projected the sky at 53.2000ºN,- 6.1000º W which was of course daytime in Ireland, so the programme showed the sun up but the sky as if it were night, a bit like an eclipse but for longer. Our next treat was the Southern skies from down under a very unique view that I had only previously seen in books.

That evening according to the many seasoned astronomers in attendance, the UTA planetarium show “The Stars at Night are Big and Bright “was the best show of its kind they had ever seen.

A public star party followed and Ed from TAS kindly let me use his Meade LX 90 to do a sketch from the University campus for my collection. I chose to do a quick sketch of Copernicus as it grabbed my attention in the hot Texan evening. Earlier I had picked up some great sketching paper called Rite in the Rain, it has lovely properties and takes pencil very well, and it is resistant to damp. I look forward to using it in the Irish winter where ordinary sketching paper buckles and messes up the work. So yes I bought paper that resists wet in a hot dry climate for a cold damp wet Irish winter.

I did not get to attend every talk over the two days, but the presentations I did attend were very interesting and informative. I found Dr Mike Reynolds presentation on Meteoritics particularly enlightening and humorous. On screen he showed many types of these space travelling rocks from his collection, some of which displayed extraordinary jewel like, but certainly extraterrestrial properties.

After the excellent Star Bar B Que, I was completely wrapped up in Marni Berendsen's very interactive and entertaining talk about the Night Sky Network. She demonstrated the tool kits which very simply explain the answers to very common questions in astronomy. She used a spoon, foam and some sticks to explain why objects are seen upside down in a telescope. An explanation I will forever remember and repeat many times.

She turned many astronomers there into hot Blue Stars, Planets, Extra Solar Planets and Sun’s, in her story of where habitable earth like planets might be, and why they would be in a certain position in relation to earth like suns. Yellow and blue cellophane, small white spheres on sticks and volunteers from the audience provided the visual explanation for this lesson.

These simple methods to explain astronomical ideas to the public are part of The Night Sky Network TookKits. Not available outside of the United States but a pdf download is here on gives full instructions on telescope questions only and the bits and pieces are easily sourced. A keen amateur astronomer provided the link it is a large file (13MB) but it is very useful.

The Awards Banquet in UTA produced one of the best meals I have ever had at one of these events, and the whole convention was well run and well presented. The winners of the Astronomy Day award could not attend, but Kelly Beatty made a point of reading out many of the events carried out by The Iranian Astronomical Society. This included the lights of a large town being turned out for one hour to enable the population to see the night sky free of light pollution a great idea, one to emulate and a high bar set by the Persian astronomers for 2007.

Among many awards given that night I was delighted to receive on behalf of the Irish Astronomical Society an Honourable Mention Award for our Sun Moon and Stars for Chernobyl Astronomy Day Event in Dublin. I would like to see other Irish clubs joining in this global outreach event next year details on

The Texas Astronomical Society of Dallas were the warm hosts of ALCON 2006 I look forward to meeting them all again at some future get together of sky watchers.

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