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Metro Santa Cruz Summer 2005 Guide


Waiting for E.T.

When aliens come knocking, the Santa Cruz Astronomy Club will be ready and waiting

By Jaclyn Barcewski

What if E.T. called to say hello? How would the third planet from the Sun respond? We can't speak for the planet as a whole, but we can say that the Santa Cruz Astronomy Club is ready for such challenges. And never mind quantum physics and fancy telescopes. This club has eyes for the earthling community below, as well for the infinite skies above.

Take Santa Cruz Astronomy Club events coordinator Doreen Devorah, who wears a satisfied gaze as she notes that the Harvey West Clubhouse, which is where the club meets, is full of mostly graying SCAC members.

"Two landers on Mars, Cassini circling around Saturn and then there's Titan! It's amazing," says Devorah with a wink as the club is called to session. "It's the golden age of astronomy!"

As it happens, Devorah doesn't really know much about astronomy. She doesn't even own a telescope, nor does she altogether grasp the fundamental basics of observational and theoretical astronomy, or astrophysics. What she does know is that she loves looking at the stars and talking about cosmology.

"Astronomy is not only a left-brain intellectual pasttime, it's also a spiritual experience," says Devorah, her eclipse-sized moon and star earrings jangling "The first time I went out to watch the stars, I didn't exactly know what was going on, but the celestial event was mind-blowing. I realized we are all apart of the bigger picture."

Devorah is one of a handful of SCAC members who meet each month to discuss, debate and consider new and interesting developments in the sky. Mostly approaching their twilight years, SCAC members also share the common purpose of forging a network of friendly people who are interested in stargazing and astronomical science.

With his shaggy flaxen hair, flip flops and baggy T-shirt, SCAC's club president Dave Hesselberg's only formal astronomy training is from high school science classes. "You don't have to have a strong science background to be into astronomy. You can just be interested in looking through the telescope and seeing stuff that is real pretty," says Hesselberg, who is a youthful anomaly in a club whose members are mostly in their golden years.

"We don't know why there aren't more younger members. UCSC's Astronomy program has the best minds in the country but I guess students get caught up with things and can't leave the hill," says SCAC member Ralf Hofmann. "The whole point of this is to bridge to the community with professional and amateur stargazers, and students should definably be a part of that equation. Summer months attract more of a variety of people into the club because of the warm weather and field trips."

It's this philosophy of bridging the gap between the community and the all-encompassing resource of the universe that makes SCAC appeal to more than just math-based science types. Members are involved with outreach programs, including sponsoring annual summer trips to Yosemite and other viewing sessions on the California Central Coast for the public and local schools.

Unabashed by the technical side of white dwarfs or the exact location of the cascade of stars that make up Globular M56, SCAC has also connected leading scientific minds--from NASA, SETI and UCSC astronomy and astrophysics department--with everyday people that just want to gaze and space-out. Recently, the club landed a talk with Dr. Douglas Vakoch, director of Interstellar Message Composition at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, who discussed how different civilizations might create messages to allow communication between extraterrestrials and humans through interstellar space.

"The problem lies in how we could convey what it means to be a human," Dr. Vakoch tells the audience. "Altruism is perhaps a good starting point because we could send our highest ideals: beauty, justice and morality--or maybe that sets us up to be the biggest liars in the galaxy."

Devorah nods with amusement at the dilemma Dr. Vakoch has just posed.

"I think it's a very human quality to have reservations about what you're doing in life and whether it's worth it," she says. "Addressing these topics is what makes this club so special. We can discuss the nitty-gritty science stuff along with the sociology and politics of space exploration all blanketed beneath our love for the sky and ever-changing knowledge about it."

During Dr. Vakoch's one-hour lecture, the audience debated how to explain what it means to be a human without an actual verbal language.

"I just don't understand how SETI or any other group could define what it means to be human," said writer and SCAC member Nancy Ellen Albrams. "Our value system is completely different than someone halfway across the world. Do math equations and computer generated graphs really tell our whole story?"

Dr. Vacoch's lecture also spurred a debate about which country would respond, if E.T. ever did communicate with Earth, with club members concerned about the politics and sociology behind that decision, not to mention whether computerized shapes symbolic of love, unity and other human qualities, plus music and pictures, adequately represent humankind.

Either way, SCAC defies the stereotype of the geeky science guy.

As Devorah, puts it, "Older people might have more time to commit to the meetings but we want the club to be a collective of intellectual thought for all ages, who have a bit of fun at the same time."

SCAC meets every second Thursday of each month at 7:30pm, at the Scott House in Harvey West Park. Meetings are open to the public and have no admissions fee.

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From the June 15-22, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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