We Observe by Anthony Mallama


We Observe by A. Mallama
1 Youthful Enthusiasm
2 The Moon and Vietnam
3 The Observing Dynasty
Public Awareness
Indian Hill
What Now?

 Updated January 18, 2002

16 Inch Stokes Reflector at Indian Hill Observatory

The 16" Stokes Reflector

 Special Photos:
November 2001 Aurora
November 18 Leonid Meteors


If you learn nothing else from astronomy, you should learn that your hometown is not the center of the Universe. Meetings with other first rate amateur and professional astronomers seldom occur in your hometown, total solar eclipses seldom pass over your house, and, of course, Halley's Comet was best seen in the southern hemisphere.

Buffalo, 1967

Our first out of state trip was to an Astronomical League convention in Buffalo. We were so young we had to get a ride from Don Henning's older sister. We were invited by our former members Billy and Marty Edwards who had moved there with their parents.

We attended a star party given by the host club, heard talks on meteor observing and variable star observing, and saw a demonstration of solar observations made with a spectrohelioscope. The most important result of this trip was that one of the League officers gave Tom Quesinberry a "model" constitution, which would serve as the basis for the club's constitution.

North Carolina, 1970

The club discussed plans to observe the total eclipse of the sun from the east coast in 1970. It was during the low period, of course, and as far as I can tell the trip never happened. I was attending Vanderbilt at the time, however, and a friend and I made an all-night drive from Nashville to La Grange, North Carolina to see it. I can tell you from experience that your first total solar eclipse is like your first love, you'll never forget it. As totality approached, wild birds disappeared from the sky, and chickens at a nearby farm roosted. When darkness fell, Mercury, Venus and the brighter stars of Orion appeared in the sky. The pearly-white solar corona dazzled our amazed eyes for a few precious, and awe-struck minutes. For a few tens of seconds after third contact, fleeting shadow bands raced by, then the birds re-awakened in a wild cacophony of aviary confusion. Finally, it was over and our senses returned to normal.

Winnipeg, 1979

The first successful total solar eclipse expedition by a group from the club was in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the dead of winter. Most of the members, including Keith Richards, Dan Rothstein, Doug Caprette, and Steve Fishman drove up in a rented motor home. This intrepid group had to bear sub-freezing temperatures along the way because the propane heater in their mobile home froze. Click for Picture. On reaching Manitoba, they were treated to a spectacular auroral display on the night before the eclipse with streamers stretching from the north horizon all the way to the south. A friend of mine from graduate school and I met up with the group briefly in Winnipeg, but we traveled to different sites to view the eclipse. Both groups had good skies. Once again, the corona was dazzling and, this time, we were treated to a view of several large prominences. An enormous one on the southeast limb of the sun was conspicuous to the naked eye. Minutes before and after totality, the sky turned a violet hue and shadows on the snow were razor sharp.

The Carolinas, 1984

Another east coast eclipse passed through the Carolinas in 1984. This one was so near the boundary between total and annular that authorities were debating exactly what solar phenomena observers would see.

Dan, Doug and Steve once again chased this eclipse, and were joined by Bob Modic, Bob Petti and Al Havrilla. Several of this group stayed with the NASA/GSFC group on the way south. At the last minute, I teamed up with a friend from Maryland and chased the eclipse too. The group from Ohio camped out the night before the eclipse on the Virginia-North Carolina border. They had problems with heavy rain, collapsing tents, etc., reminiscent of the freezing propane of 1979. Rain continued through the early morning before the clouds began to break. A missed left turn split their group into two, Steve and Doug going one direction, and the others going another way. Still on their way to the centerline at about 80 miles per hour and with time running out, Doug's car had a flat tire. Click for Picture.  He and Steve dumped out all the equipment from the trunk, changed the tire, and loaded back up in record time. The eclipse started while they were still driving, but they managed to reach the centerline and set up in time to watch totality. They also had three shadow band detectors, two visible light detectors and one microwave. The two visible light detectors registered the bands but the microwave device did not. Doug proposes that this is evidence that the shadow bands are an atmospheric phenomenon.  

The group that had turned left also made it to the centerline just in time. The place happened to be a rest stop on Interstate 77. Truck drivers and curious passers-by observed along with the group. Al took a photograph at mid-eclipse that was published in Astronomy magazine.

My friend and I made it all the way to Greenville, South Carolina in a single overnight push from Maryland. The weather was good, and we were treated to the shortest eclipse I'll probably ever see. I can attest to the fact that the predictions were generally too conservative. The chromosphere and inner corona were easily visible, and a little of the outer corona could be glimpsed too. Of course, they were only seen for a matter of seconds. The category total-annular seemed to fit.   


On Breezy Hill, in Vermont, there is a telescope convention every summer that is the Mecca for Amateur Telescope Makers (ATMs) all over the eastern United States and Canada. It is a lovely, dark-sky site, with perhaps the richest ATM history of anywhere in this country. This is Stellafane, the shrine to the stars. When you see the picturesque clubhouse on the summit with the inscription "The Heavens Declare the Glory of God" in bold letters across the eves, you get religion. In addition to the clubhouse, there is the Turret Telescope, so named because it is in a revolving dome, which is sealed around the telescope in order to keep out bitter winter weather. There is also an underground ATM museum containing mementos of Russell Porter, one of the principals of Stellafane. Porter was the editor of the original Amateur Telescope Making volumes that have become legend over the years. He was an amateur, however, he was called on by the big buys more than once because of his intimate knowledge of telescopes and his expertise as a draftsman. His most famous work is the cut-away drawing of the 200-inch telescope.

I visited Stellafane about 1976 for the first time. In the years to follow, it has become a regular pilgrimage for many other groups from the club. My first visit was my best. I had just come off a long hike on the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts and southern Vermont. I arrived late in the afternoon just in time for the cookout, heard some excellent evening-time talks, and observed through a huge array of large and small telescopes of unique designs. Since I was self-contained, with only my backpack, the organizers permitted me to stow my pack in the clubhouse and to sleep out under the stars on the Hill once the crowds had retreated late in the night.

It is not a short drive from Ohio, but it is worth every mile. One ATM who can attest to that is Denny Jefferson. While the club has had ATM's over the years, Denny was the first to perfect the fine art of parabolizing a mirror. In 1983, Denny made his first trip to Stellafane along with Doug Caprette. He brought along a 6-inch F8 mirror that he had figured and mounted in a Newtonian configuration. Denny was impressed with the quality of all the other 'scopes and figured that he had no real chance to win. He remembers hearing an announcement on the loud speaker saying that the judging was over and that the winners would be announced in ten minutes. He disassembled the 'scope and began walking back to his campsite with Doug, then on the loud speaker, he heard that he was wanted at the clubhouse. Still not believing he had won, Denny returned to the clubhouse to find Walter Scott Houston and Dennis di Cicco waiting for him and two others. When all three had arrived, they were told that they were the three winners. First place had gone to a refractor, second to an 18-inch, and third to Denny's 6-inch F8.

Kutztown, l976

A large group lead by Tom Quesinberry attended the national Astronomical League convention in Kutztown, Pennsylvania in August 1976. It was the largest League convention ever with 667 people in attendance. The meeting featured a national astrophotography contest and talks by many notable amateurs. Tom and George Gliba presented their public awareness talk, reproduced in chapter four of this volume. An article about the convention appeared several months later in Sky & Telescope (November 1976 issue, page 339), and it included a paragraph and two pictures describing Tom and George's talk and the bumper stickers.

Halley's Comet

The 1985-86 apparition of Halley's Comet was the worst in 2000 years, yet we had all been waiting for it since the time we first saw its name in our grade school science books. The fame of it, and the flotilla of spacecraft that would meet it this time, thrust it into front-page news and made up for the poor apparition in the sky. Of course, to get the best view you had to go south as far as possible.

Dan Rothstein and Steve Fishman were the first voyagers. They traveled to Florida in December 1985 for a look. Battling mosquitoes all the way, they did find warm weather, had a good view and came away satisfied. George Gliba and Denny Jefferson traveled to the mountains of Georgia for a better look the following spring. They had good weather and dark skies, and were treated to an excellent view of Omega Centauri as well as the Comet.

My wife and I and our new daughter, Halley, flew to the Island of Bonaire, at five degrees north latitude in the Caribbean Sea for our view and for a vacation.

The big trip, though, was a three-week excursion at the end of March by Al Havrilla, Steve Fishman, Bob Modic, and Dan Rothstein. The first major stop was the Very Large Array in New Mexico, followed by Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Then they went to the U.S. Naval Observatory where they saw photos of the Comet from the 60-inch telescope. After that they visited the Grand Canyon (Click for picture), followed by Kitt Peak Observatory (Click for picture) in Tucson. Proceeding into Texas, they visited McDonald Observatory and Big Bend National Park (Click for picture), where they stayed one week. That was the main point for observing the Comet and Omega Centauri. It was so dark there that the Milky Way cast a shadow on the ground. To climax the great observing session, they witnessed a bolide of magnitude -9. At first it looked like a flare going up, it started out white, turned green, and exploded as it went down. It lit up the entire landscape. Al says he was unable to speak for five minutes. I can believe it.

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