COSMIC MATTERS

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This past March, was a perfect opportunity to absorb the history and majesty of the W. M. Keck Observatory, as we celebrated the observatory’s 20th anniversary by inviting our community of astronomers to share their ground breaking and award winning research with our Hawaii Island community.

During the Keck Week events, we held a two-day science meeting at which Keck astronomers weaved stories concerning the importance of the twin telescopes and their legacy discoveries. There was the Star Struck gala fundraising event and a satellite feed of Astronomy Live! Tonight, where Dr. David Jewitt answered questions while observing on Keck I. We also opened our Waimea headquarters’ doors to showcase our astronomy and engineering endeavors.

At the start of the two-day science meeting, Dr. Judy Cohen, from Caltech, and Dr. Ian McLean, from UCLA, opened the science meeting with a Bing Crosby and Bob Hope like off-script dialogue highlighting all the state-of-the-art instrumentation in use at the observatory. Both had the unique perspective of instrument builders having lead the development of several Keck instruments. Then, hour after hour, prize winning engineers and astronomers shared some of their life’s work, and the audience, including me, gained perspective in the trials and tribulations that eventually realized Keck Observatory’s world-leading success.

This was infectious. After the two-day science meeting, I was pumped to share my mini legacy at Keck’s Open House.

In my second year of employment, I wrote a grant and secured funding for a spectroscopy demonstration, and I have manned the demonstration at every open house since. Improvements were made for the 20th, including a five minute introductory slide show for spectroscopy (rainbow making), and how astronomers use this information to determine speeds and chemical compositions. There was not a competition for the best open house demonstration, but TeamSpectro was trying to make it one.

Our Open House organizers encouraged us to see the other demonstrations but I was not deluded like my two teammates. Rainbow making is popular, especially with the kids, and I was steeling myself for the organized chaos that comes with more than 1,700 visitors, some as far away as England this year.

If I was lucky, I could break away for a minute or two and finally sample the Keck nitro-vanilla at the ice cream demonstration. But for a solid six hours, TeamSpecro bounced from presenting five minutes of spectroscopy descriptions to cutting tape, to assemble hand-held spectroscopes, to celebrating the tiny triumphs of kids and adults alike as they correctly identified the spectra of hydrogen, helium, nitrogen, and water vapor glowing in our gas discharge tubes.

Occasionally, one of our top-notch observers who presented at the science meeting entered the room at which point I deepened my voice, stood up a little straighter, and acted like I knew what I was talking about. Although my daughter expressed frustration at my level of assistance and more notably ignored prize winning cosmologist Dr. Charles Steidel after he mentioned to her that I, in fact, do know what I am talking about, most everyone had an “aha” moment when they saw the lab spectrum for the first time and went away happy.

Votes cast by visitors in our exit survey defined the top five open house activities:

1. Keck Theater: Where scientists expounded upon observatory research projects, the technological leap of adaptive optics, and observatory life.

2. Liquid Nitrogen Ice cream: With three root beer float tumblers sitting on my office shelf, I am a connoisseur.

3. Infrared cameras: We can see you behind a plastic bag.

4. Spectroscopy: It is difficult to beat Keck nitro-vanilla and seeing yourself on TV.

5. 3D movies: A chance to use polarized glasses that made you jump and sway in your seat.

And because kids soldered their chosen electrical components on circuit boards, my daughter is sure flasher pins would top rainbow making if more kids had time in the electronics lab. TeamSpectro clearly needs to ratchet up the pizzazz.

In the coming decade, Keck Observatory will discover new intricacies about our universe, and the community enthusiasm makes sharing these discoveries that much more special. By all measures, the week’s events were a success, that is, unless you measure success by how much free liquid-nitrogen-cooled ice cream you consumed. Maybe I will get that scoop of Keck nitro-vanilla in the next decade.