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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the June 5, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Starstruck in New Jersey
This weekend, a secluded field in northern New Jersey
will bloom with dozens of tents and scores of telescopes. The Amateur
Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP) is holding its 25th annual
Jersey Starquest party, drawing 100 aficionados from throughout New
Jersey and neighboring states to swap lenses, compare cosmic snapshots,
and pull back-to-back all-nighters of deep sky gazing.
Hosting the event is AAAP director Kirk Alexander, a boyish-looking
52-year-old with an easy laugh. The party coincides with the rise
of the new spring moon, Alexander says, and the view from this dark
New Jersey patch of earth is always spectacular.
"We should have a great view of the southern sky, like the Scorpio
and Sagittarius constellations," he says, "but it’s still
early enough in the summer to get a good shot of galaxies at the tail
end of Leo and Virgo."
Like many of the weekend’s more expert "amateurs," Alexander
will combine stargazing with photography, using a CCD camera —
that stands for charge-coupled device — to take electronic pictures
of stardust nebulae, and jammed star clusters. But like other AAAP
members, he will be eager to share his telescope view with rookies
looking through an eyepiece for the first time.
The mix of advanced and novice enthusiasts characterizes AAAP and
its year-round activities. The club sponsors a series of monthly lectures
between September and June that is open to the public. And with two
terms as director already behind him, Alexander has helped spearhead
another crowd-pleaser: Friday evening open house sky viewings, two
dozen scattered throughout the year, at the club’s observatory in
Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville.
The Friday viewings showcase AAAP’s upgraded telescope, the happy
result of a major fund drive two years ago that raised $16,000. Opening
the observatory to the public helps the club pay for the tiny chunk
of land it leases from the state, but it also gives astronomy greenhorns
the chance to become, well, starstruck.
"The first time you see the red spot on Jupiter or the rings of
Saturn or a galaxy with spiral arms, that’s really exciting,"
Alexander claims. "You can see pictures of moon craters all the
time in newspapers — but when you see one for real for the first
time yourself, it’s a totally different experience."
Being enthralled by images informs not only Alexander’s astronomy
bug but his professional life as well. A native of Colorado, he first
came to Princeton as an undergraduate in 1968 and never left. He graduated
first with a B.A. in art history in 1972 and then a masters in civil
engineering, with a thesis on Gothic cathedral vaults, in 1975.
That same year, he began working at Princeton’s Interactive Computer
Graphics Laboratory. Along with some entrepreneurial stints in image
processing, Alexander helped create the University’s state-of-the-art
computer graphics laboratory. Now managing director of Princeton’s
Educational Technologies Center, he oversees a staff of 14. (His computer
background screensaver is a planetary nebula, and he keeps a little
model telescope on his desk.) He creates central media databases for
online teaching and has turned university courses for 15 different
departments into interactive, multimedia Internet presentations.
He has transformed art history into a "Walks in
Rome" series with graphic animation. For Princeton University
community users he helped design and execute the Piero Project, featuring
works by Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, and put together
an interactive architectural history of the university. He designed
an Internet series on the history and culture of the Middle Ages,
while his computer-generated video on Jerusalem has been featured
on A&E television. His most recent projects include this month’s release
of "War in the Western World," an Internet presentation with
four hours of content on the social, technological, and psychological
evolution of war, available to the university community and alumni.
There are, Alexander says, common threads running through his various
passions: a spatial awareness, a deep appreciation of the visual,
an enjoyment of teaching, and the desire to manipulate images through
"I spend my professional life in the middle, between computer
programmers who know the technology and academics who are really in
the discipline," Alexander says. "I can speak both languages,
and that’s what I’m really good at — the role in the middle."
He plays that same role, he admits, as director of AAAP. The word
"amateur" encompasses the Latin verb "to love." And
as the group’s director, he is able to bridge the camps of eminent
researchers, polished technicians, and less experienced enthusiasts.
It was technology, in fact, that first got Alexander
hooked on the stars. As a child, he’d had a small telescope but found
it frustrating to try and use without any guidance. But his future
father-in-law turned out to be an avid amateur astronomer, as well
as the proud owner of a seven-inch Questar telescope, one of a body
of telescopes with hand-ground lenses that number "only in the
tens," he says.
"I oohed and aahed over it when I first saw it, so he gave it
to us as a wedding present in 1990," he says. "Once I owned
it, I felt I should learn how to use it — and only then did I
realize how rare it was." It’s one of three telescopes Alexander
keeps here (he also has one at his family’s home in Colorado to use
on visits). The Questar is the telescope he takes to the Starquest
parties, along with his two young daughters.
As a hobby, astronomy can be just one financial notch below sailing:
"Instead of a hole in the ocean that you pour money into, it can
be a hole in the sky — but it doesn’t have to be," he says.
"If you judiciously spend between $500 and $1,000, and avoid what
they sell in department stores, you can have a telescope that can
last you for life." Stargazing has shown him some remarkable sights:
a dance of Jupiter’s moons, for instance, a four-hour session where
the moons passed in front of the mother planet, lighting up, then
turning to shadows and fading away.
It has also taken him to remarkable places, like the Chiricahua National
Monument in southeastern Arizona, a sweep of high, dry desert where
a search of the horizon at night doesn’t reveal a single electric
light. He has driven up rocky roads in the dark and narrowly escaped
being caught at the top of a mountain in Colorado — with a metal
telescope — in a lightning storm. (He was able to make it back
down to trees before the storm struck.)
He says the Princeton community has nurtured his love of art, architecture,
and technology, and now his passion for astronomy. Despite the "amateur"
billing in the AAAP’s name, the 150-member club, founded 40 years
ago, draws members of Princeton’s physics and astrophysics departments,
while its roster of monthly speakers has included such eminent speakers
as Nobel Laureate Russel Hulse, the Institute for Advanced Study’s
Sara Seager, Princeton cosmologist J. Richard Gott III, and J. Anthony
Tyson from Lucent Technologies.
AAAP meets monthly, from September through May, in Peyton Hall on
the Princeton University campus. In June, its last meeting of the
season traditionally takes place at the New Jersey State Museum Planetarium
in Trenton. This year, on Tuesday, June 11, at 8 p.m. William Murray
will present a talk and planetarium show titled "Celestial Sensations."
It is hard to believe that despite the wealth of technological and
scientific starpower that Alexander and AAAP enjoy here, there is
one thing Princeton cannot provide. Says Alexander: "Princeton
just doesn’t have any dark skies."
— Phyllis Maguire
Princeton , Hope, New Jersey, 609-333-1130. The annual convention
and star party begins Friday, June 7, and runs through Sunday, June 9.
Campers $35 per person; or bunkhouse $45 per person for three nights.
Meals additional. See website at www.princetonastronomy.org
for information and registration. Friday, June 7, 5 p.m.
Planetarium, West State Street, Trenton, 609-393-2565. Final spring
meeting features a show and talk by William Murray on "Celestial
Sensations." Meetings resume in September. Free. Tuesday, June
11, 8 p.m.
Crossing State Park take place through October, free to the public.
Check the website or call 609-737-2575. Friday, June 7, twilight
to 11:30 p.m.
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