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When I heard the lern’d astronomer March 18, 2009

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, poetry.
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In my first semester at UofM I took astro 111, the introductory class on the solar system for non-majors (I hadn’t had calculus yet, so my college counselor suggested I take it rather than the first course for majors, giving me my first hard-life lesson in college: always talk to the program counselor before making decisions about which classes to take in your program.)
Like most intro-astro classes, the first quarter of the class was spent learning the physics and chemistry needed to understand everything else. Like most of my fellow students, I was having some trouble with this: I signed up to learn about the planets and instead I’m learning about velocity vectors and Newton’s laws.
My professor obviously knew what we were feeling. As we finished the lessons on spectra and Kirchoff’s laws, he read us a poem:Walt Whitman’sWhen I heard the Learn’d Astronomer“.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I still think of this as a warning not to get so bogged down in the details that you loose sight of the Big Picture. However, at the time I remember thinking how true it was that scientists could ruin a good thing with equations. It took a few years before I found the counter argument, but that’s tomorrow’s poem


altering my perceptions of astronomers October 8, 2008

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy.
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Last week we were watching a tv show with an astronomer in it. I complained that it was a complete and total distortion of reality.

The astronomer in question was a radio astronomer working alone at the telescope at night. Well, ok, on this occasion, he’d brought his daughter with him. But he normally works alone, at night.
First off, most radio astronomers do not work at night. In fact, if you try to visit the Peach Mountain radio telescope at night, you will find yourself locked out (or worse, locked in if you got there early enough to find the gate open). Most radio telescopes these days are automated, and a blue sky or even clouds are no barrier. Human activity, like cars and microwaves are actually a much bigger problem than the Sun. So why sit up all night when you can observe or program it in the afternoon? And if you really do need someone to be there at night, well, that’s what students and technicians are for! Of course, someone who is working on a pet project with an object currently up at night might in fact go to the observatory in the evening. But that would be the exception, not the normal thing to do!
It also isn’t very often that an astronomer works alone. There are usually technicians, students, and even other astronomers at the observatory. But maybe this was supposed to be such a small observatory that it didn’t have all those extra people.

The thing that really made me complain though were the clothes. I believe my exact words were “You know, I’ve known a lot of astronomers, and I’ve never seen one wear a lab coat. I don’t think I even know an astronomer who owns a lab coat.” Dang TV people never get anything right!

This morning, my office neighbor was wearing a lab coat.

My one consolation is that another astronomer stopped him in the hallway and said “Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever known another astronomer who owned a lab coat!”

At least I’m not alone…