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Star Searchless

[whitespace] Astronomers turn a calculating eye toward cosmic truth, but save it for a rainy day

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

On clear valley nights, they come out just to look at the stars. Fewer than 20 when it's just the regulars; several hundred when a well-advertised event such as the Hale-Bopp comet brings out the less faithful. Clustering in talkative, esoteric local groups such as The Astronomy Connection and the San Jose Astronomical Association, the true star-searchers gather excitedly. By day, they work as anything from college students to software engineers to music teachers. By night, they pack up their telescopes and photography equipment and seek out the darkest places they can find in a well-lit, overwired valley: Montebello Open Space Reserve in the Palo Alto hills, Pacheco State Park near Hollister, even the soccer field at the back of Van Meter Elementary School in Los Gatos. This is not a profession for many of them, it is an exercise in pure joy. They will sometimes spend much of the night waiting for the chance to get a close-up view of such celestial bodies as the shadows of Jupiter's moons or the Andromeda Galaxy or the M clusters ... unless it rains.

Already this winter, several evening viewings have been canceled in the South Bay because of pre-Niño downpours. And, of course, more wet weather is expected to saturate the valley. So what exactly do amateur astronomers do when it rains? According to San Jose Astronomical Association Secretary Jim Van Nuland, "It isn't singing."

Many local astronomers say they have a regular rainy-day ritual.

  1. Curse a lot.
  2. Disassemble their scopes ("we never call them telescopes," one explains).
  3. Blame El Niño for all the world's difficulties.
  4. Pray for clear skies.
  5. Clean their disassembled scopes.
  6. Pray the skies don't clear up while their scopes are still disassembled so they'll have to hurry up and assemble them again and run out to catch a glimpse of the sky.

Often they work on their equipment. "You may easily spend an afternoon and evening removing the dust accumulation from one trip to the Riverside Amateur Telescope Makers Conference," SJAA president Jack Zeiders says. "Scopes need adjusting and tightening of things that loosen after a summer's bouncing and vibrating up and down mountain roads. A rainy day is a good time to check the right ascension and declination drives. It may be a good time to check collimation and clean eyepieces." Or, in the case of a real amateur, to figure out exactly what those are.

Duane Sand of Saratoga says that the sky gazers, never ones to shy away from a philosophical discussion, expend a good deal of energy trying to figure out who caused the rain. "Murphy's Law, when applied to astronomy hobbyists," he explains, "means that the local weather is always guaranteed to be continuously overcast every night for weeks, just when you've purchased or built a new telescope that you're anxious to try out." He adds: "When it rains on us here, we start casting about trying to figure out which of us has the new expensive equipment that's to blame."

Many spend their time giving thanks that they live in an area of the country that has relatively little rainfall. "I think if we truly had weeks on end of cloudy weather, the suicide rate [among astronomers] would probably go up," says Richard Navarette of Oakland.

According to Astronomy Connection member Jay Reynolds Freeman, three favorite pastimes of deluged star watchers are to "reacquaint ourselves with such other persons as share our homes and names, who have not moved out unnoticed when the sky is clear; engage in arcane rituals involving bizarre and macabre sacrifices to the weather gods; and flame each other on the Internet."

The Internet, not surprisingly, has had a tremendous effect on the lives of amateur astronomers. "The whole sky is digitally available," San Jose's Doug Snyder says. "There are not enough rainy nights to let one even scratch the surface of the resources." Some sites even have continuously updating real-time telescope views. Favorite sites include the Hubble Space Telescope site, the NASA page and, of course, The Astronomy Connection's own site and the San Jose Astronomical Association's page.

And when all else fails, some just ignore the threatening elements--the very definition of dedication. Akkana Peck, a Netscape software engineer, says, "It's sometimes possible to do some quick, casual astronomy in the rain. [You can set] up a small telescope under an overhanging section of roof ... and take quick looks at the moon whenever there are holes in the clouds." Jack Zeiders says that on one Friday night this month when the Van Meter School event had no participants because of overcast skies, some 20 to 25 amateur astronomers peered through moving clouds at Houge Park in Fremont. "We were able to present views of Venus, Saturn, the moon, the Pleiades and the great Orion nebula for those willing to bear the cold."

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From the January 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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