Observing the Stars
John O'Meara, associate professor of physics, has been named a visiting Fellow at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia next year. That university is sponsoring John to engage in collaborative research for a month at Swinburne, spread over two visits of two weeks, once in June, once in November. The visiting fellow position is one that is competed for internationally every year. (November 2013)
Talking telescopes (and visiting them)
If you wave down John O'Meara, the college's resident astronomer genius, as he dashes across the Saint Michael’s campus green from Cheray Science Hall to the Post Office, he might tell you about telescopes - big ones, little ones, near and far.
"I was just in Chile at Las Campanas Observatory, and the second night - October 6 - was the best observing conditions I've ever had on the ground - ever," he says of coveted time that he applies for and frequently is awarded at the world's best and most powerful telescopes. He collects data at such sites for his ongoing study of galaxy formation, and is an oft-published and respected leader in his specialty field. Once or twice a year each, O'Meara says, he'll head either to Las Campanas, or to Hawaii's Keck Observatory, where in recent years he was able to take a student to collect data for a class project she was doing with him.
Though no students made it to Chile this trip, "my physics students got to enjoy a Tegrity session over the computer from the summit," he says, referring to the college's high-tech audio-visual teaching resource called Tegrity, and to the mountaintop location of Las Campanas. "They got to actually see me there - a silly video of me running under the primary mirrors to give them a sense of scale.”
O'Meara says he might use data he gathered in Chile for future astronomy classes, though it's hard to say exactly how until the information gets processed. "The data we took was superb in quality because the sky was so good. Whether that translates into a scientific discovery remains to be seen, but the raw data is as good as it can get from the ground," he says. The physics professor says he's already booked for a January trip to Hawaii to use the Keck for more observations. "The Chile telescope I just used is the best ground-based telescope for imaging - the Keck is the biggest boy in town and hard to beat with the technology and size - but if you want to take pictures of the sky, as I was doing, it's better on the average in Chile."
Such far-flung, cutting-edge technology in optimal observing conditions is a far cry from the college's own astronomical facility, the Holcomb Observatory - a small and curious-looking red-brick domed building that sits alone and mostly unvisited in a field near the Fire and Rescue Station across from main campus. But its telescope still works, O'Meara says, and he’s been known to take classes out there every so often.
Despite some drawbacks, it's a great resource, he says. "It's right near Route 15 with all the passing lights, and there's the night lights of Burlington on the horizon, plus it has giant trees back behind it, so the view is obfuscated in several major ways, but it still functions. So I take students at night to look at the sky - the moon, planets."
"It would be nicer if we even could just drop the observatory in the Mount Mansfield-facing field down from the rocks around the corner, or better yet, put the telescope on top of a building somewhere, but I guess that's not happening," he says. Perhaps, he allows, a system could be rigged to let students know when he's going to be at the Holcomb so they can come and view the sky when viewing is best - an "Observatory Webcam" might even be feasible, he says.
As a sidebar to that notion, he shares a bonus tip about better directing and thereby improving the strength of wireless router signals, either by using Pringles potato chip cans or by cutting a beer can in half and mounting the pieces on the bunny ears. "Pro tips!" he says.