Nothing is more compelling than looking into deep space through a high-powered telescope for Jeff Bernardis — with one exception — sparking an interest in astronomy in a kid.
“If one kid gets interested, it’s worth it,” says Bernardis, director of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP).
To help that effort AAAP offers free public events and programs to kids and adults at the Simpson Observatory at Washington Crossing State Park, at local schools, and at other venues in New Jersey.
During open house season at the observatory — Friday nights April through October — visitors mingle with club members and view planets, stars, and other celestial objects through the eyepiece of a professional-grade telescope. AAAP members answer astronomy questions and help guide visitors across the constellations.
In addition to the observatory telescopes, members set up their own equipment to share, and visitors are invited to bring their own devices. The open house nights attract an average of 25 people per night, and at times draws as many as 70.
AAAP’s events attract people from all walks of life: families with kids; elderly couples; boy scouts and girl scouts; and young couples on dates. “We run the rainbow here,” Bernardis said.
“The most popular planets among visitors are Saturn and Jupiter. People also like to look at the moon,” Bernardis said. “Visitors are usually amazed at what they see through a telescope.”
When it comes to engaging the public, Simpson Observatory open house nights are impressive, but AAAP doesn’t stop there.
“We are among the greatest astrophysicists in the country, at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study. They speak at our club meetings and events and bring in visitors and guests speakers,” Bernardis says, adding that he would challenge anyone to find a greater roster of speakers anywhere.
At AAAP’s 50th anniversary celebration this past May, the public was treated to a panel discussion of scientists and authors including Freeman Dyson, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study and author of several popular science books that include “From Eros to Gaia,” “The Sun, the Genome and the Internet,” and “The Scientist as Rebel.” Other panelists included Princeton University’s David Spergel, a theoretical astrophysicist who is involved with exoplanetary detection and imaging of earthlike planets in the habitable zone of nearby solar systems; and Richard Gott, author of several popular science books including “Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe.”
One public discussion at the event, “Is Anyone Else Out There?,” explored the possibility of finding life elsewhere in the solar system. It’s a point of ongoing speculation for both professionals and the public.
“I think this whole topic is extremely interesting and I wish the discussion could have lasted longer. I’m not sure we will find evidence of life during our lifetime, but I think we can definitely determine if life-supporting conditions can exist elsewhere. I do not believe there is intelligent life elsewhere in our solar system, but I do believe simple forms of life are possible,” Bernardis said.
Bernardis has a different view of what could exist beyond our solar system. “I believe that intelligent life absolutely exists other places in the universe, but the distances and times are so staggeringly large that I do not believe we are near answering this question for certain.”
The public can ponder the potentials by looking to the sky, and, in addition to the Friday night open observatory, the AAAP’s 2013-’14 schedule has programs on the calendar to help.
On Monday, August 12, AAAP and D&R Greenway Land Trust join forces for the second annual Perseid Meteor Shower Watch at St. Michaels Farm Preserve in Hopewell from 10 p.m. until midnight. D&R Greenway’s vice president Jay Watson said the hilltop location gives one of the best views in the area. Attendees should bring lawn chairs and flashlights.
AAAP’s monthly meetings featuring guest speakers will resume in September at Peyton Hall on the university campus.
In the spring of 2014, AAAP will participate in New Jersey State Museum’s Super Science Saturday and Princeton’s Communiversity.
Night sky watching at local schools is a program that is close to Bernardis’ heart. “We go to the schools at night and show the kids and their parents the night sky. The parents are just as interested in looking through the telescopes as the kids,” he said. Some schools that participate in the program regularly include Princeton’s Stuart Country Day School and Riverside School, Lawrenceville Elementary School, Allentown Elementary School, and West Windsor’s Millstone River School.
Bernardis has mixed feelings about the level of science education. “Some schools are challenged economically. But some schools have excellent programs for students interested in astronomy and science in general,” he says.
Overall, he is encouraged by kids’ responses when they have an opportunity to look into a telescope. “I see kids out there who are really engaged and ask a lot of questions,” he says
Bernardis, a Montgomery Township resident, can relate to their enthusiasm. He has been fascinated with astronomy since he was a boy. Though his parents were not scientists — his father was a stone mason, and his mother an office worker — they encouraged him to pursue his passion for the sciences. He earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Penn State and to take graduate courses at Kansas State University. He now works as a software engineer in Piscataway at Ericsson, a company that develops programs for cellular phone networks around the world.
He bought his first serious telescope 20 years ago and in 2006 joined AAAP, where he took on the role of outreach coordinator and later moved on to assistant director and now director.
Bernardis encourages high school and college students to consider education and careers in astronomy, saying there are good research opportunities, especially today with research showing that there are more planets that possibly support life.
One of Bernardis’ goals is to increase AAAP membership and to have members take more active roles in planning meetings. Formed in 1962 by Robert Sanders and a small group of amateur astronomers, the club currently has more than 90 members who pay annual dues of $40. The club has built two observatories, one at Jenny Jump State Forest in Warren County, and the Simpson Observatory, the larger of the two, completed in 1978.
The Simpson Observatory houses two telescopes, a vintage 6.25 inch refractor — or a tube where light is collected, bent, magnified, and focused through lenses — and a state-of-the-art 14 inch reflector, an instrument that uses one or more curved mirrors to reflect light and form an image.
Putting things in perspective, Bernardis said the 6.25 inches is simply the diameter of the objective lens, the lens out at the end of the tube.
“Many people, when looking for telescopes, are only interested in the magnifying power,” he said. “To be quite honest, power is insignificant. The diameter of the objective — the aperture — is the most important factor to consider. The larger the aperture, the more light the telescope can gather, the more resolution it can provide, and therefore the higher magnification it can support. If you try to look through a small aperture telescope with too high a power eyepiece, you won’t be able to resolve anything. As an analogy, if you zoom in too far on a magazine picture, you won’t see finer and finer detail, you will only see dots.
“Eyepieces are interchangeable on a telescope. Different eyepieces serve different purposes. Each eyepiece has a focal length. Generally within a family of eyepieces, the higher the power, the narrower the field of view. There are several designs that can offer wider fields.
“The paramount is simply the mount on which the telescope is mounted. It is an equatorial mount — which means that one of the axes of rotation is parallel to the equator. This simplifies the telescope’s task of ‘tracking,’ which means that the telescope is constantly moving to counteract the earth’s rotation. The paramount is connected to a PC, which is running companion software that allows us to select an object or a coordinate from a database, and the paramount, knowing its exact locations as well as time of day and day of year, will move, or slew, the telescope to that object, and once there, it will continue to track it as the earth rotates.”
AAAP is hoping to install a fully automated telescope and mount for remote astrophotography under a new dome at the Washington Crossing facility. Though Bernardis cannot say the plan is definite, he believes there is a good chance it will happen sometime in 2014.
“AAAP members do a lot of good for the community through sharing their knowledge of astronomy and giving people opportunities to see the sky’s celestial bodies through professional grade telescopes. They keep things going, and no one gets paid for their services,” Bernardis says. “They volunteer their time because they enjoy sharing their passion for astronomy with others.
“This country had led the world in the sciences for so long, but we are faltering,” Bernardis says. However, he is encouraged by the work being done at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, not to mention the enthusiasm expressed by some of the school kids he meets at the observatory open houses and school outreach programs.
“Every time I go out to a school event, I’m glad I did,” he says.
Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP), Simpson Observatory, Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville. Friday nights, 8:30 to 11 p.m. Free. For more information on parking, directions, and weather related closings, go to princetonastronomy.org or call 609-737-2575.