“Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.” — Plato (427-347 B.C.)
Many in Kentucky have been compelled to look upward at night, marvel at the sights and share that sense of wonder. Astronomy clubs can be found within driving distance of any of the Commonwealth’s borders, offering knowledge of the stars and sharing the science with anyone who expresses interest.
One of the oldest clubs in the United States is the Louisville Astronomical Society (LAS). Created in 1933 by University of Louisville professor Walter Lee Moore, the organization is charged with bringing knowledge of the stars to the public any chance it gets. “We teach ourselves astronomy so we can share it with other people,” said Ken Alderson, LAS president. “We bring it down to the level of a sixth-grade student so everybody can understand it. We’ve got technology here that we can take people right out to the planets.”
Alderson said the society gives stargazers plenty of venues from which to study the night sky, including the LAS Urban Astronomy Center at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, the LAS Observing Site in Kirby, Ind., and regular meetings at UofL. But perhaps the best-known get-togethers are the so-called sidewalk astronomy events. “This past year (2011) we had 104 sidewalk astronomy events and programs,” he said. “We also host monthly star parties in Kirby. At the same time, you’ll find us at Blackacre Nature Preserve, Bernheim Forest and Kentucky state parks. We go all over the state.”
But the LAS isn’t the only astronomy group in the Commonwealth. Rick Schrantz, the president of the Bluegrass Amateur Astronomy Club (BAAC), said the club members take out their telescopes and share their passion with people living in and around the Lexington area. “We like to show people things through telescopes. When we show them, we like to explain what they’re seeing,” Schrantz said. “You start to talk about the universe and concepts … kids like to see that and adults do, too.”
Countless children have taken that curiosity and developed it into a passion that spills over into their adult life—even so far as to build a personal observatory in their own backyard, as Fred Calvert of Cold Spring has done. “I have been interested in astronomy and aviation ever since I was in elementary school. I guess 9 years old,” Calvert said. “I went to the school library and got books on stars and planets.”
That interest turned into a career—first in photography and then in aviation mechanics—all the while flying private planes for more than three decades. Then, nine years ago, after dealing with northern Kentucky’s unpredictable and humid nights, Calvert decided to build his own observatory in his backyard. “People get very frustrated with doing astronomy, especially around here,” he said. “You take a telescope outside at night, and the temperature changes. So you dry it off and take it back in. After many frustrating years, I decided to build my own observatory. It’s nice and warm in the winter and nice and cool in the summer, and I stay away from the moisture problems.”
While Calvert said he keeps his eye on two galaxies waiting for supernovas, he mainly uses his observatory for stellar photography. “It marries different things that I’ve done in my life,” he said. “That makes it fun that I can put those things together.”
Keeping things fun and interesting is what many stargazers in Kentucky do for those who attend their events. “While we still have all the science there, we’re taking it to the people,” Alderson said. “What is great about astronomy is that everything is so perfect in the skies. I can sit here with a program and tell you what the moon was on your birthday. I can take you back to the night you were born and show you what the night sky was over your mother.”
Schrantz said BAAC members want to give children and adults the chance to look through a telescope and see the sky from a different perspective. “Some do not get a chance to do that very often,” he said, adding that it’s not just one type of person who enjoys looking through that telescope. Club members include a cabinetmaker, a government employee and political science professors, to name a few. “Nobody here is a professional astronomer. It’s just a hobby of ours,” he said. “There are all different mixes of people, but they all like to look through the telescope.”
Alderson agreed, saying the LAS also comprises people from different walks of life. “We are a lot of people sharing the night sky with everybody we can,” he said.