Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Career by Fire

It was exactly 40 years ago tonight that my career was defined.

I had just begun my sophomore year at Otterbein College, a small liberal arts school in the quiet town of Westerville, Ohio, where I was studying physics and astronomy, but one of my favorite activities was to get into the Weitkamp Observatory any chance I could.  Its dome occupied the rooftop of the McFadden Science Building and housed what seemed to me at the time a massive telescope: a 16-inch diameter Newtonian reflector that was so immense one had to climb a ladder just to reach its eyepiece.

I spent many nights in the Observatory, checking out the wonders of the cosmos.  My goal at the time was to become a research astronomer and having access to such a large telescope during my early college years was one of the greatest pleasures I could have had. 

One of the nights that I remember vividly was that of February 9/10, 1971.  There was to be a total lunar eclipse late that night and, despite temperatures dropping to -1 degrees F with an average wind speed of 15 mph, I had set up a 16mm motion picture camera to ride piggy-back on the telescope and shoot a time-lapse film of the entire event.

By midnight, however, the floor had frozen solid, and manually pushing it around so that the telescope could peer out became quite an effective exercise in Newton's Third Law of Motion.

Before the eclipse began I walked a few blocks to the Campus Center where I filled my thermos with hot coffee, and returned to the blistering cold of the observatory. By the time the eclipse had begun and I was ready to drink the hot liquid it, too, had frozen nearly solid!  And the eclipse... well, what a great show!  But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't glad to get warm again the next morning!

But the experience that will live forever in my memory was that exactly 40 years ago, November 16, 1971.  I was running a public evening at the Observatory for a small group of visitors; I had just aimed the telescope toward h and chi Persei (a.k.a., the Double Cluster in Perseus) and described to my guests what they were viewing, when someone smelled smoke.  Now smoke from fireplaces from around the community was not an uncommon thing to smell, but this was different.  It smelled like electronics and plastic that was burning.

Since the telescope mounting and electronics were pretty old I thought it might be overheating so I shut it down, but the smell continued even stronger. After checking around I realized that the smoke was coming not from the observatory but from the building's fourth floor just beneath us.  I closed the dome slit, unplugged all the electronics I could find in the dome, grabbed a few eyepieces and whatever loose odds and ends I could find, and ushered everyone past the fire and down the five flights of stairs to the outside.

I then ran back up the stairs to check the situation; students in the biology/chem labs were fighting the fire in their ceiling (that was also the floor of the observatory) but the smoke was becoming incredibly thick and it was clear they were losing the battle.  Within minutes we all bailed down the stairs and out onto the street, where the fire department had set up and a crowd had amassed.

I recall crossing the street, turning around to look back at the rooftop when, seconds later, a giant flash of multicolored flames lit up the sky where the Observatory once stood.  Apparently the fire had hit the chemicals that must have been stored in the laboratories, and I'm sure all of us who were up there that night had the same grateful feelings that we got out when we did.

It was horrible watching the events unfold that night, and not knowing what, if anything, would be left of the Observatory.  And I kind of wondered if h and chi might not be up there looking down and hoping that we were all OK.

A couple of days later, my physics professor Dr. Barnhart and I returned to the roof to check out the damage.  I've never experienced anything like it before and certainly never wish to again.  Blackened water still trickled down the stairs like a waterfall and, at the top, the Observatory was gone.  All that remained was an open sky, wet ashes and fragments of the equipment I once joyfully operated.  When I saw how the aluminum dome had melted and dripped across the 16-inch mirror, I knew immediately how lucky we all were to survive that night;  for aluminum to melt, its temperature must reach 1,220 degrees F!

Anyone who has ever lost a home or workplace to fire knows the feeling of seeing its remains, and anyone who hasn't... well, I don't ever wish that for you.  It's an incredibly empty and helpless feeling that cannot be described in words.  But, for the next half hour or so we looked around and were shocked that the Weitkamp Planetarium--a small educational planetarium dome and a Spitz A-1 projector that shared the rooftop with the Observatory--suffered only smoke and water damage.

Now while I no longer had an observatory in which to prepare for my career as a research astronomer, there remained a planetarium and, with much of my own money and time, I spent the next few months cleaning it up and, in the autumn of that year began writing, producing and presenting my own public planetarium shows.  And it was this experience that led to my selection out of a field of 50 as the 1974-75 intern at the world-famous Strasenburgh Planetarium, and to a fantastic 30+ year career at some of the most highly-respected planetaria in the U.S... at the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum, the University of Arizona, and  San Diego's Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater.

Many years later, I met up with Dr. Barnhart and his wife and, as we enjoyed a nice dinner in San Diego's Little Italy, I expressed surprise that he would remember me after all these years. In his own inimitable style he grumbled  "Not remember you?!?!  Cripes, you burned down my observatory!" 

Of course, it was not I who burned the observatory; according to the Columbus Dispatch, the cause was determined to be faulty wiring. But it was this devastating event on that fateful and terrifying Tuesday night four decades ago that led me away from research and into communicating the wonders of the cosmos to the public. And, quite frankly, I can't imagine a better and more rewarding career.

And so, tonight, I think I'll take my telescope out to gaze at my old friends h and chi Persei... just to say hi.