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A Different Kind of First Light

Ed Greenberg


My niece, Marie (8 years old), is in town from New York for Thanksgiving, and a fine young lady she is. Intelligent, articulate, and billed to be interested in "the stars."

During the afternoon, I was working on Skymap 7, installing files from the CD onto the hard disk, etc., and Marie wandered over. I made some comment about "this is how we know what is in the sky" when Marie started pointing out planets.

Marie then asked me to align Skymap for "here" and "tonight".

To do this, I had to add Danville to the location file in Skymap, and we spent about 30 minutes on latitude and longitude to do that. We were finding locations on Street Atlas, and moving the coordinates into location.dat, with Marie converting degrees and minutes into decimal degrees. We did Danville, Syosset, New York, and also a decent approximation of Plettstone, where I plan to be this weekend.

Finally, we did time zones. With the aid of a magic marker and an apple, we demonstrated not only that New York was at 75 Longitude and San Francisco at 120, but also that 120 Longitude corresponds to 8 hours earlier than GMT. Marie "got" that 15 degrees = 1 time zone, and correctly noted that we had earlier entered a longitude coordinate of 120 degrees for Danville.

Most of us in the Bay Area know that Thanksgiving Day was predicted for rain in the evening, and I had no intention of taking out the telescope, but as the sun set, we were looking at only partly cloudy skies over Danville.

I took out my XT8 (Orion dob) and pointed it east at Jupiter and Saturn. The street was not 100% dark, but with no street lights, just house lights, I could see the Pleades naked eye, as well as most of the really bright stars.

With Jupiter in a 25mm eyepiece, I went in and got Marie. I said, offhand, "Look for Jupiter and his four moons." As her eye hit the eyepiece, she gave that little gasp that you get when somebody sees their first object in a telescope.

Then she said, "There's only three moons. Where's the fourth moon?" I looked, and sure enough, we could only see three. Io was just coming out of occlusion.

We looked at Jupiter under higher power (166x - my highest) and then went over to Saturn at both 48x and 166x. Got major gasps on these. I told Marie how to move the scope to keep the object in view. Torre, my brother-in-law, went in to get his wife, Chong, to see. I told Marie to keep Jupiter in view for Chong, which she did. I said, "After Aunt Chong gets out here, I'll teach you how to point the scope at different things."

"Me?" she squeaked.

"You," I replied.

Now, finding something as bright as Jupiter or Saturn in a Telrad is not a challenge for most of us, but she took less than two minutes to have Saturn in the sights, and in the eyepiece. Dead on. Next we looked at Aldebaran. Then back to Jupiter. Then we were changing eyepieces on each object. We visited the Pleades. Back to the two planets.

Now we've picked up a crowd. Marie is holding court at the telescope. She's telling people, proudly, what they are going to see. She's not only doing astronomy, she's doing sidewalk astronomy! Her first night.

With her mother's permission, I presented her with a set of binoculars (I have two in the truck) and a copy of Touring the Universe Through Binoculars. Fast as a meteor, she had those puppies on the planets, on the Pleades, and just bouncing around saying, "Wow!"

Things started to cloud up, fog up and dew up, and Marie and her mother had to leave, so we broke and went inside. I closed by presenting Marie with her very own red flashlight - one that Jane Houston Jones had given me.


Mail to: Ed Greenberg
Copyright © 2001 San Jose Astronomical Association
Last updated: July 19, 2007

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