Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

SO SOCAL

OUT THERE : Seasoned Celestials

February 18, 1996|Emily Gest

Forget Carl Sagan. Meet Arthur Babcock. At least once a month, often more, the USC professor of literature drives more than 85 miles to attend what the Los Angeles Astronomical Society Inc. calls a "star party" in the Lockwood Valley, elevation 5200 feet, in Los Padres National Forest. At dusk, members gather around 50 or so concrete observation pads on which the telescopes rest. Babcock, dressed in khaki pants, flannel shirt, white cotton sweater and hiking boots, assembles what he calls his "Amish telescope." Homemade at a cost of about $2,000, the telescope is seven feet long, 14 inches wide, weighs about 100 pounds and takes about 20 minutes to assemble. He sets up a stepladder so that he can reach the eyepiece, and on a card table places a box of tools and a collection of lenses.

While the group admires the Andromeda galaxy and the Pleiades, Babcock points out Saturn. "That blinking star next to it?" he jokes. "Oh, that's a silver-bellied air-sucker." When it's completely dark, he locates the planet through his telescope and exclaims, "Oh! holy cow! Its rings are almost on edge to us, it's just gone through its 18-year cycle."

Babcock's fascination with astronomy surfaced when he was a teen-ager, but he couldn't afford the hobby. The hoopla over Halley's comet in the mid-'80s rekindled his interest. Throughout the night he positions his telescope to find such astral wonders as the double star Albireo, the Veil Nebula, and open and double clusters. He knows most of their locations by heart. But when searching for a faint, difficult-to-find galaxy like NGC891, Babcock "star hops." Consulting "The Astronomer's Field Guide to Deep Sky Viewing," he identifies a familiar object and then moves an estimated number of degrees, in this case to the left, to home in on the galaxy in question.

For the untrained, a galaxy like NGC891 is difficult to make out. "It's a sliver of light, coming in toward," Babcock explains. "Catch a glimpse of a dark line. Just look for the same sliver of light. See the middle where there is a bulgy, dark gap on the edge of the galaxy? It's elusive. You might see it best if not looking at it." An astronomer at an adjacent observing pad interjects, "We call that averted imagination." Averted imagination or not, the most frequent sound one hears throughout the evening is "Oh, wow," "Look at this," "I can't believe," "No way."

To keep himself fresh, Babcock has developed arcane specialties. One summer he and a colleague catalogued the best ring-shaped planetary nebulae--central stars surrounded by a gaseous envelope. "You can't spend night after night looking at the same things, or else it it will start to seem a lot colder than it used to and television is going to sound a lot more interesting. Astronomy has always been a science where actual amateurs can make contributions to research."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|