May 12, 2010

An Old Stargazer Remembers

2010 1513 page31 capS PART OF THE CELEBRATION OF MY NINETIETH BIRTHDAY, I TOLD MY grandchildren the story of my lifetime hobby of studying the stars. 
I was about 4 years old when my mother took me outside one night to look at the stars. The starry heavens left a lasting impression on my mind. She repeated to me the short nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
Years later I enrolled as a freshman at Pacific Union College in northern California and chose Descriptive Astronomy as one of my courses. My teacher was Myron Wallace Newton, who had taught the subject for decades.
As part of the course curriculum Professor Newton took our class to Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California. One of the astronomers allowed us to look through a giant telescope. I remember marveling at the sight of the Hercules Cluster of galaxies.
2010 1513 page31Twelve years later, in 1948, Palomar Observatory in southern California began its work. I read the news about the 200-inch Hale reflector telescope, the largest in the world. A couple years later I had an opportunity to visit Mount Palomar but was disappointed to learn that the giant telescope was used principally for photography. I was allowed to look only at the back of the big mirror.
It was a thrill to learn that Edwin Hubble was the first astronomer to use that telescope. He became famous for his study of galaxies.
Fast-forward to 1957. By this time I had moved to the Southern Hemisphere to teach at Uruguay Adventist Academy. The starry heavens looked very different to me there. Science teacher José Bernhardt pointed out the Southern Cross constellation and the galaxies named the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.
By July 1969 I had been transferred to Peru to teach at Peruvian Union University. When it was announced that the United States would land two men on the moon, students were invited to the college chapel to witness the landing by television.
Edmundo Alva, president of the university, commented on Armstrong’s first words on touching the lunar surface as a “giant leap for mankind.” He thought that it showed a magnanimous spirit to give credit for the feat to “mankind,” not just to Americans. Spacecrafts have since been sent to all the planets of the solar system. Photographs sent back to Earth reveal no signs of life on any of them.
I have taken a special interest in tiny Pluto. Learning that its discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, was still alive, I wrote him a letter. He responded, giving me more details of his life story.
Although recently reduced in status to a dwarf planet by astronomers, Pluto is still important enough to send an orbiter, dubbed New Horizons, to photograph it up close.
In June 1992 editors of Astronomy published my article titled “The Birth of Radio Astronomy.” I became interested in this branch of science when I visited the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.
Grote Reber developed the first dish-type radio telescope in 1937. This venerable invention occupies a place of honor among the latest models on the campus of the observatory.
Deployed on April 25, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope orbits the Earth at a height of about 370 miles (about 600 km). Far above the atmosphere, which distorts light rays, this giant eye in the sky has revealed to astronomers a universe vaster and more beautiful than anyone imagined. Long is the list of its mind-boggling discoveries.
What an honor to be alive in this age! My eyes have seen much in nine decades of life. Every new discovery increases my appreciation for the great Creator God who made this vast universe. 
Robert G. Wearner is a retired pastor and teacher living in Collegedale, Tennessee. This article was published May 13, 2010.