(From the November 29, 2020 edition of the Classical Astronomy Update newsletter….)
December 15, 2020 will mark the 30th anniversary of Classical Astronomy. On that date in 1990, I was 29 years old and we were living in the Washington, D.C. area. During the DC years I discovered Sky & Telescope magazine and amateur astronomy, which changed the course of my life. I became a member of the National Capital Astronomers (NCA), an astronomy club which hosted a telescope making class. I ground three telescope mirrors in that class.
I met many interesting people in NCA. One of them was Bob McCracken, one of the original co-inventors of the atomic clock in the 1950s. Bob was an old guy when I was young, and he was quite the raconteur, very knowledgable of a great many subjects. Bob was retired from the old National Bureau of Standards. His contribution to the atomic clock was to discover the hyperfine spectral structure of the Cesium atom, which is the basis for the standard second used in all international timekeeping today.
In basic terms, the “second” is defined as precisely 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a Cesium atom at this hyperfine spectral frequency. An atomic clock somehow measures that with great precision. Every few years modern atomic timekeeping needs to account for a “leap second” when the sloppy rotation of the Earth gets out of synch with our nano-precise atomic clocks. This standard unit of time is the basis of GPS, which is used for all timekeeping and position location on the Earth, from the military to the stock market and beyond, regulating every aspect of daily life in the modern world.
Here’s my favorite Bob McCracken story — Bob had a special security clearance to use one of the vintage 6-inch Alvan Clark refracting telescopes on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observtory (USNO). One night in the 1980s he was looking through the scope when then-Vice President George Bush came jogging along (since the residence of the Vice President is on the grounds of USNO). Bob hung out with the future president, and showed him whatever planets and other celestial objects that could be seen through the light pollution of Washington, D.C.
So anyway, I was quite impressed with Bob McCracken and happy and honored to be his friend. One night, December 15, 1990, Bob and I were talking on the phone about how to develop unique ways to teach people about astronomy. I hung up the phone and realized that illustrations could be used to communicate astronomical concepts. Astronomy is a visual subject so why not use visual media to teach it? In that era most astronomy education was “words on paper,” not an effective approach since it is very difficult to present only verbal explanations of visual astronomical phenomena.
From that initial inspiration, I created hundreds of pages of astronomy illustrations. I studied all the great works of astronomy, from the Ancient Greeks through Kopernik, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, among many others. I lost track of Bob McCracken when we moved home to Cleveland in 1993. I was saddened to learn of his death in 1996. Bob’s obituary lists his long record of accomplishments and the lives he touched.
“The Project” that became Classical Astronomy had consumed my life. I spent years writing books and trying to get published. From 1997 to 2001 I created an educational astronomy comic strip called SkyWise that appeared in Sky & Telescope magazine. I created a scratchy educational astronomy comic book called Cycles which has been used by schoolteachers for years, and has recently been brought back into print by popular demand.
All of this happened in the background while working full time and raising our five children. So after a decade of failing to get published in the mainstream, I quit all that to devote my attention to our little kids. We had started homeschooling by then and in 2002, I retooled my Starman Update newsletter (which I had written mostly for friends since 1996) into The Classical Astronomy Update, directed to homeschool families.
At that point I never intended to do anything more than create this newsletter. But it got the attention of several “big name” people on the homeschool scene, including our recently departed friend Laurie Bluedorn. These ladies eventually persuaded me to create a homeschool curriculum. So after a couple years of cajoling, I caved in and self-published Signs & Seasons in 2007.
So fast forward to the present, here I am on the threshold of 60, having done Classical Astronomy for more than half my life. Wow, that was quick.
For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. – James 4:14.
Though I regret taking so much time away from my little kids in this pursuit, I am grateful for the things that the LORD has shown me in these last three decades, both in His sky and through my extensive research. And I am grateful to all of you who have taken an interest in the LORD’s sky through my efforts. Thank you all! Hope everyone has a blessed Christmas season in this memorable year of 2020.