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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

technology.

"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

Jersey StarQuest, Amateur Astronomers Association of

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.

Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton, State Museum

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.

Friday night viewings at Simpson Observatory, Washington

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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