The Amaz!ng Meeting 2003

Electric Monk - Buehler Planetarium and Observatory

Originally, the planetarium trip was limited to 30 people, and by the time I had noticed its existence, the list had already been filled. Fortunately, the day before I left California, Linda Shallenberger had managed to get the number expanded to up to 100 people. I immediately sent her a message thanking her for her efforts, and asking to be signed up.

I rode over with Scott, Girl 6, Sid Rodrigues, and Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer himself. The capacity of the Lincoln was put to good use this on trip.

Buehler planetarium
Exterior of Buehler Planetarium

The planetarium is located on the Broward Community College campus, a short drive from the hotel. We arrived shortly before 10pm (later than originally planned), and gathered in front of the planetarium building. There we met the Assistant Director, Susan J. Barnett. She offered us a choice between looking through the telescopes, or seeing a presentation in the planetarium first. After a short discussion, we decided on the latter.

The show that was loaded was Susan Barnett's favorite one to run, because it involved significant audience participation. Before the show started, she divided us into four groups. I was in group four. Coming in late, and joining our group because it was the best one, was Michael Shermer, who would be presenting a talk on secular morality the next morning.

The presentation was about using the stars to navigate at sea, as done by the Polynesians. For the first exercise, each group was assigned a star group to watch as the time elapsed. The first group had Scorpio in the southern portion of the sky, thought of by the Polynesians as a fish hook. The second group had an equitorial constellation, and group three had a northern constellation. Our group was assigned Polaris, the North Star.

Each group was to describe how its stars moved as the night progressed. The stars for the first three groups moved in similar, but distinct ways across the sky. Ours, of course, did not move since it was the pole star. Feeling left out, some smart-aleck in our group (sounding remarkably like myself) called out "Ours is broken!". Hey, it got a chuckle.

The other exercise in the presentation was to use Polaris to navigate from Tahiti to the latitude of Hawai'i. First we were shown the height of Polaris at Hawai'i, and told to remember it by measuring with our hands. Then the stars were rotated down to the latitude of Tahiti (where Polaris is well below the horizon), and slowly rotated back until we said "Stop". We stopped a few times and voted on whether we had gone far enough yet. (The first few times, some people were looking at the wrong star: Polaris was barely above the horizon). Finally, the majority agreed that we had reached Hawai'i's latitude, and the actual latitude was revealed. We were two degrees off, but Ms. Barnett said it was pretty good for a first try.

At one point in the show, it was explained how Polynesians navigated to the longitude of the small islands in the vast Pacific. They intentionally navigated well to the East while sailing to the correct longitude. Then they would sail due West until they encountered the island.

Exterior of Observatory

Following the planetarium show, we headed outside to the observatory, where there were a number of telescopes set up for viewing planets. Unfortunately, the sky, which had been clear when we arrived, had clouded over almost completely. With the hope that it would clear again, we decided to stay and check out the equipment, including the 16" telescope up the ladder, under the dome. Only six could go up at a time, so the rest spent the time talking about what goes on in the observatory, and details of the equipment.

Soon, the clouds started breaking up again, and we could get glimpses of both Saturn and Jupiter through the telescopes set up on the patio outside. The Bad Astronomer spent some time going back and forth between these scopes, spending particular time on the one trained on Jupiter, where he pointed out that there were two moons (Titan and Io) crossing the face of Jupiter. The Cassini division in the rings of Saturn was clearly visible, and after getting a description of where to look, I could see Io, and the shadow of Titan. Phil Plait was excited about this since this is a relatively rare event. His enthusiasm was contagious. I had never seen either planet through a serious telescope, so it was a real treat.

Observatory interior
Inside the Observatory with Associate Director Ms. Susan J. Barnett (Left) and the Bad Astronomer (Second from Right)

Inside the observatory, we gathered around the computers to see some pictures that had been taken previously with the large telescope. Susan Barnett was a very nice person, and was very willing to answer all of our questions about the observatory and about the universe in general. I'd like to thank her for the time and effort she spent on us.

Midnight Food Scavenging Expedition Leads to Albertson's

At the stroke of midnight, we piled back into our cars and left for the hotel. On the way, the Bad Astronomer and Girl 6 remarked that they were starving, so we went off in search of nourishment. We discovered that nearly everything in the vicinity was closed. The 7-11 was open and Phil Plait was willing to stop there, but Girl 6 vetoed the suggestion except as a last resort.

We eventually settled on an Albertson's as a food source. Dr. Plait spent some time evaluating the store content. From my observations, I think that he would starve if he were presented with more choices. (Just teasing.)

Food located
Girl 6, Phil Plait, and Sid Rodrigues: Foraging Successful

With sustenance in hand things moved smoothly to the checkout stand. Girl 6 did not reveal the contents of her plain paper bag, but Phil Plait's selection was a bagel (reported, by him, to be of high quality), and two apples.

Checking out
The Bad Astronomer Chooses Two Apples and a Bagel, and Pays the Price

When we got back to the hotel, there were still groups of skeptics in the lobby discussing all sorts of topics. I joined in for a while, and then headed upstairs to bed.

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