I have a thing for telescopes. It was my childhood exposure to them (and a penchant for wandering the bleak chalk quarries of southern England in search of fossils) that doubtless prompted me to pursue the life of a science writer, meteorite hunter, and adventurer.
Telescopes are, for me, a three-pronged recipe for delight. Firstly, they are mechanical and technological wonders. In another life I might have been an engineer, or an optical designer, fascinated as I am by gears, mirrors, prisms, and the arcane details of how machines work and how they are put together. Secondly, vintage telescopes, with their brass tubes and lovingly hand-ground lenses, are a palimpsest of the early days of scientific inquiry. They are elegant time capsules from an era when the disciplines we take for granted today—astronomy, chemistry, physics, geology, botany, and so on—began crawling, painstakingly, into the public consciousness; fighting, sometimes, for their very survival in a world of flat Earths, religious dogma, and narrow thinking. Something about an old telescope whisks my mind back to an imagined “Golden Age of Invention and Discovery,” when adventurers wore pith helmets and carried long-barreled revolvers in brown leather holsters; a time when we first began to realize that our little planet does not exist at the center of the Universe and that we are, almost certainly, not alone in the night. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, it is the telescope-as-tool that allows us Earth-bound humans to peer, entranced, through delicate glass discs into the cosmos.
When, therefore, Steve Arnold, co-host of my television series, Meteorite Men, and I, were invited to appear as the keynote speakers at the 2012 Stellafane telescope and astronomy convention, I jumped at the chance. My friend Geoff Cintron, a noted amateur astronomer and fellow meteorite aficionado, smiled and stated, with considerable gravitas: “Stellafane is a pilgrimage, a right of passage for everyone who is serious about astronomy and telescopes. They all make the trip, at some point in their lives. You’re going to have a great time.”
If I am to be entirely accurate I will admit that Steve and I were, in fact, already booked as keynote speakers for the 2011 Stellafane event, but we had to cancel due to a grueling Meteorite Men Season Three shooting schedule that put us in rural Russia at the precise time we were meant to be appearing atop a windy, tree-shrouded hill in rural Vermont. Some things are worth waiting for, and a visit to Stellafane was one of them.
My girlfriend, Libby, and I flew to Vermont early. A private tour of the Springfield Telescope Makers underground museum of astronomical history, in the company of biographer and telescope expert, Berton Willard, had been arranged for us and I was not about to miss a moment of that. We stayed at the Hartness House, outside of the sleepy town of Springfield, and I described my visit to the museum in last week’s edition of The Logical Lizard, “Looking at the Night Sky Through the Past.” Hartness is one of those grand old bed & breakfasts that looks magnificent on the outside, but is not quite so impressive on the inside. Our little room skulked at the end of a dark corridor, and was as damp as a Welsh sheepdog just returned from November hills. Living in the desert, I forget what aged New England wooden houses are like. Yes, the hot water failed, and yes all of our group reservations were messed up; a pipe got blocked and flooded half of our living quarters, but the scientific history wrapped up in the place, the Steampunk-ish Hartness Turret Telescope ensconced in a bunker across the lawn, the friendliness of the staff, and the marvelous museum tucked away in the basement made it difficult to stay annoyed at minor service failures for more than a few minutes.
On the other side of Precision Valley—once the home to a hub of American commerce and industry—there resides a steep hill known as Stellafane. Every August, stargazers and telescope builders converge upon that hill to camp, cook, drink, swap stories, and set up their prized possessions. And how passionate are some of the members of Springfield Telescope Makers—the club that organizes the Stellafane Convention! When the site they once used for the event was downgraded into a Christmas tree farm, two senior Stellafane members mortgaged their homes (allegedly, without telling their wives) and bought the hill where enthusiasts from all over the country now convene. The rest of the club pitched in and, within ten years, the courageous mortgagers had been paid back in full. That is dedication to your hobby.
This camaraderie, this “anything for the stars” attitude permeates the event on every level. Some travel hundreds, or thousands, of miles with a beloved telescope in tow, in order to pass a weekend with the like-minded. Stellafane exuded, all at once, the feel of an outdoor folk festival, swap meet, comic book con, science fair, engineering festival, and weekend camping trip. In other words, I was as happy as a hummingbird in an orchid blossom.
I first met my friend Patrick Manley through Twitter. Later, we connected in person at the Northeast Astronomy Forum in New York. We share an interest in meteorites, and I always thought of Patrick in that capacity, and as a space program enthusiast. I did not realize that he is also an expert amateur astronomer. Patrick invited me to join him, after our keynote address on the Saturday evening, on a nighttime tour of the heavens, courtesy of him and his pals.
Steve and I presented our talk and slide show to an outdoor audience of about 500 people, at night, under the stars, in a lovely natural amphitheater. I was given a friendly advisory by our friend and events coordinator, Wayne Zuhl, that we should keep our show to under an hour. With dark and clear Vermont skies waiting, astronomers would likely not want to give up too much observing time to hear about space rocks. After about 70 minutes, I asked the seated audience—most of whom I could barely make out in the darkness—if we should stop. “I know you all want to get on with the, you know, stargazing. You can listen to a talk about meteorites almost any time.” My question was greeted by calls of: “Keep going!” and “We want more!” and similar. I really was quite flattered. Half an hour after that, we started wrapping things up and I asked for one final question.
“Who is your favorite Doctor?” a lady called out from the concave hill face.
I immediately shouted back: “Hunter S. Thompson,” which brought a chuckle from some. I quickly followed with: “Oh, do you mean my favorite Dr. Who?” I then proceeded to talk about how much I have always enjoyed Tom Baker in the role, but—in light of more recent events—had to say that Christopher Eccleston is now my favorite Doctor. A fairly detailed discussion ensued, after which Steve described me to the audience, with some amusement, as: “A big science fiction geek,” and that received the biggest round of applause of the entire evening. And there’s my life story in a nutshell: Applauded on a Vermont hilltop, in the middle of the night, for being a sci-fi geek.
Patrick patiently waited around after the talk, while we signed autographs and chatted with attendees. At around 11 pm he guided us on a slow walk up the hillside, where a wide swath had been cleared of trees, allowing for undisturbed celestial views. Almost the entire expanse was covered in telescopes. It was a bit like a cross between Mos Eisley Spaceport and a science museum.
Maintaining your night vision is an important part of astronomical observing, so you don’t see any regular white lights being used—anywhere. Astronomers carry small tinted flashlights that emit a very weak red beam; it’s just enough to get around and adjust a few insturments here and there, without temporarily blinding your night-focused neighbors. Every now and then some unfortunate person would be the butt of brief good-natured booing and shouting, when they moved a car or opened a trunk to get an extra fleece, therby unintentionally activating startling white lights that seemed impossibly bright to our night sky-adjusted eyes. Most Stellafane attendees are practiced in leaving their car lights off if they have to relocate a vehicle, but those annoying automatic headlight thingamajigs were the undoing of a couple of well-intentioned people.
Patrick took us to his campsite (“Watch that brick”; “Look out for this rope here, it’s hard to see”) all in total darkness, save for our dim red lights, themselves hardly brighter than a distant galaxy. He had his own telescope set up, and effortlessly directed it to a binary star here, a globular cluster there. It was a fantastic device. After a while he said: “Do you want to go further up the hill and look through some of the big ‘scopes?” And that was much like asking a dolphin if he enjoys frolicking in the water.
Our first stop was a twenty-inch telescope, more than twice the size of my own largest instrument. Through it, I gazed, stupefied, at the Swan Nebula and the Lagoon Nebula, both of which were more spectacular than anything I had ever seen in the night sky, and—apart from the near absence of color—might just as well have been special effects shots from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
People share at Stellafane. They share their telescopes and also their love of the heavens. As we tiptoed among expensive instruments in the dark, it seemed that each was larger and more impressive than the last and, every few minutes, some friendly stranger in the night would half whisper to anyone within earshot: “I’ve got the 32-inch set on M22″—that being a globular cluster 10,600 light years away—”Who wants a look?”
The parallels between my passion and theirs is obvious: I scour the planet looking for meteorites; they stare into the night skies from whence my quarry came. All in all, we’re a pretty starry-eyed bunch.
Special thanks to Wayne Zuhl and the Springfield Telescope Makers