Astronomical Tales to be Told!

So, I just finished watching, and being very entertained by, “The Pluto Files,” a NOVA special by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Go watch it. Seriously! I’ll wait…

There was a part where Clyde Tombaugh’s son was showing off some of his father’s homemade telescopes, including one that had an axle of a Buick. And I thought, where have I seen something like that before? Ah yes, in good old Green Bank

NRAO/AUI

Grote Reber’s famous home-made radio telescope had wheels from a Model T Ford on the azimuth track. And I realized, oh my goodness, there are SO many stories about the birth and history of radio astronomy that have not made their way to the public, even the astronomically interested public! I’m not sure if it is because radio is less relatable than optical astronomy, or if the field is just too young. But there are so many tales and stories of do-it-yourself, swashbuckling radio astronomy that deserve their own TV specials. The engineers-turned-astronomers, the new windows on the universe, the quirky characters and finicky equipment and crazy ideas that turned out brilliantly… they all make for some seriously entertaining story-telling.

Karl Jansky, the discoverer of radio waves from space, came upon this rather serendipitously, as my advisor explains in a 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. Grote Reber took up the field all on his own with a homemade dish, mapping the entire galaxy at night while still working his day job. The NRAO archives overflow with every scrap of note paper and every little bolt that this brilliant and obsessive man collected and kept. Some of the older astronomers fondly tell Reber stories over dinner. Ruby Payne-Scott gave the male establishment the old “poo-poo to you” and blazed a trail for radio astronomy in Australia after World War II. The Green Bank Observatory alone is chock full of interesting tales, which have been conveniently pulled together in a book, “But It Was Fun” which you can of course pick up in the gift shop (or borrow my copy!) I was lucky enough to have a radio astronomy graduate class that was taught in part by Jim Condon, who can tell all of the most fascinating tales and stories, including how the 300-foot telescope collapsed while taking his data. And, oh my gosh, anyone who has seen the infamous 140-foot telescope construction video, you know that’s fodder for laughter and terror all at once.

Jim Condon with the Jansky telescope replica

There’s so much to be told here, and only a few in the “in-crowd” are privileged to hear the tales, sometimes right from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. So, you know, all of those filmmakers or aspiring filmmakers who read this blog (all 0.2 of you), this stuff is entertaining! Or anyone who wants to teach me how to properly shoot and edit web video, you know, let’s do lunch.

3 comments for “Astronomical Tales to be Told!

  1. Brian R
    March 5, 2010 at 14:35

    Very cool place and a nice guy. Saw him during an internship at the NRAO. So many good and smart people.

  2. Paul from VA
    March 7, 2010 at 21:33

    OMG I still had my ponytail in that picture… brings back memories… also a little voice repeating over and over “never again.”

    Also, I will point out that it is Sunday and Sundays don’t count as Lent, which is why I am enjoying some limited time on the internets today. :-P

    • March 8, 2010 at 11:04

      LOL! I forgot about that :-)

      Glad you included me in your little bit of internet time ;-)

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