Friday, August 24, 2007

Actually Looking through a Telescope

Most of my undergraduate research at BYU was spent working in astrophysics, but in that time there was something I never did: actually look through a telescope. Maybe Ryan, Jared, Joe, or some of the other people who did research on the universe beyond our planet took the time to actually look at the universe beyond our planet, but I never did.

Now, as a graduate student in astrophysics, I am being taught how to use a real, live telescope, and I have to say it is pretty darn cool. All of the astrophysics grad students at CU are required to volunteer (yes, that's really how it's stated in the graduate student handbook) for the open-houses that they have every Friday where the public can come and use the university's 16" and 18" telescopes. In order to do this, we, of course, need to be able to use those telescopes, so for the past two nights, I have been trained on the basics of celestial coordinate systems and telescope operation, and have experienced seeing the universe through my eyes rather than through the astronomy picture of the day. The photo above was taken by me. How cool is that?

For those of you who, like myself, never took the time to bother with actual astronomy, I suggest you give it a chance. I'm not saying we should all become observational astronomers - I still think observational astronomy is essentially stamp-collecting - but it is interesting and quite instructive to learn a little bit about how people verify the astrophysics we work with and how we got to our understanding of our place in the universe.


  1. That's a really good picture. I'll go one further Nick, I took 3 astronomy courses and never used the telescope.

    Dr. Taylor said if you want to talk to someone who knows nothing about the actual stars and constellations, talk to someone doing theory.

    Reminds me of my chemistry teacher who said if you want help with arithmetic, ask an accountant, not a mathematician.

  2. I used to TA 127 (the descriptive astronomy class) part of my job was taking the students out onto the roof to look through the 12" they have up there. I learned how to operate it and at the time I could pick out 7-8 astronomical objects that are very interesting to see through a small telescope: Saturn (the rings and 3 moons), Jupiter (4 moons, though I once was able to find 5), Venus (we could see the phases), Andromeda Galaxy (A dim smudge in the view), M64 (a globular cluster), the Orion Nebula, a stellar binary (they are far enough apart to see two individual stars, they are near Vega in the sky but I can't remember where) and a few others that are interesting.

    My dad also bought a 10" telescope when I was 10 or 11 so we have had that and we could always look at the stars, planets, nebulae and the moon. I have always been around observational astronomers and I am friends with several. Every time I go on a trip we usually go see the nearest major observatory (Kitt Peak, The VLA etc.)

    Having said that, when ever people ask me about my research they ALWAYS ask if I look through a telescope to see what I am working with and I have to explain to them that I do theory and I don't actually touch telescopes, nor do I spend time freezing my rear end off on some mountain top. I just sit in an air conditioned room and think about things that are vaguely related to stars.


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