Dramatis persona*

helenhead Helen Chick

I've always wanted a bumper sticker that said "I'm a female, LDS/Mormon, Scout leading, geocaching, piano-playing, bicycling, mathematics educator with a PhD in maths ... and I VOTE"!

I think this makes me a minority group of cardinality 1!

* Since there's only one of me and "personae" is plural (I think), I've gone with dramatis persona.
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12 of 12, July 2014

This month’s 12 of 12 sees me several thousand kilometres from home, after 24 hours of travelling, 7 more hours of staying awake and then 7 hours of very solid sleep. I awoke this morning to find myself in Flagstaff, Arizona (which is good, because that’s where my befuddled brain was hoping I was the night before!), with a day free before tomorrow’s statistics education conference starts (this is one that happens every four years, with the last one incorporating a 12 of 12 during the course of events as well), and with it being the 12th (even though all my Australian friends were just starting the 13th as I was getting up!).

After heading into town for some tourist advice and to book a car for after the conference, my friend and colleague Noleine (last seen on a chair lift in Singapore) and I decided to make the Lowell Observatory our destination of choice for the day. We headed up Mars Hill Road in the late morning mild heat, where we had some good views of our surrounds, including Humphreys Peak.


It was hot work and there’s no footpath (for all that there are few pedestrians, perhaps as a symptom of “America’s love affair with the car”, I will say that drivers were very courteous to us at junctions), so we were glad to reach the top and start exploring the grounds of the observatory. After viewing the sun, we followed the Solar System walk (at a scale of 1 inch = 1 million miles (or 1cm represents approximately 630000km for those of us who are metricated)), which ended up at the Pluto Observatory.


The Pluto Observatory is fairly unprepossessing from the outside; we went inside later in the day (this 12 of 12 collection is being presented chronologically).IF

We then had a little time to kill, so we wandered along the Galaxy Walk and the Universe Walk, set amongst the aromatic Ponderosa pines.


We then had a couple of tours (they blurred into one, really), which focussed on the Lowell Observatory’s early work on Mars and then its more famous work discovering Pluto. In the museum room there were a number of interesting exhibits, but in addition there was a really cool art deco Saturn-shaped stained-glass light-fitting.


There was also a 3D-printed model of the newly constructed Discovery Telescope which is housed further out in the darker parts of the Arizona desert, Flagstaff having become a little too light polluted despite being a “dark sky friendly city”. (By the way, I think 3D printing is totally amazing.)


Another of the museum exhibits was “The Millionaire”, an analogue computer which was used by “calculators” which were people who calculated. In this case it was a team of women, working in one of the few yet vital areas in which women could get a “look in” in science at the time. They were able to use observations about the wobble in Uranus β€” which had only been partly explained by the existence of Neptune β€” to predict that the so-called Planet X might be in the constellation of Gemini (as it turns out, a misestimate of the mass of Neptune meant that the wobble was already fully explained and there was actually no need for a Planet X, and so the discovery of Pluto was β€” in one sense at least β€” a total fluke).


Clyde Tombaugh was the guy who, at 25, discovered Pluto by painstakingly comparing photographs of the night sky taken days apart to see if he could find something that had moved (stars stay in the same position relative to each other (at the time frames we’re talking about) whereas the planets move). He used a “blink comparator”, shown below, which allows the viewer to alternate between two views of the same spot, to detect discrepancies (the eye/brain is surprisingly good at spotting differences, because it notices things that change/flicker). I could see Pluto on the two images … mind you, it helped that both images had great big arrows pointing at the tiny speck! Tombaugh didn’t have that advantage! His meticulous efforts make the find less of a fluke.


We then got to tour inside the Pluto Observatory itself and see the telescope that Tombaugh used (although it is now decommissioned). The first photo shows the telescope barrel aimed towards the observatory opening (not seen, to the right), and the second photo shows the viewing end, with the rectangle of metal showing where the photographic plate would have been placed. I think telescopes are totally amazing, especially when they can track the moving night sky so accurately. (Some people would say that 3D printers and telescopes are really cool pieces of engineering; I say they’re just totally spectacular examples of mathematics put to work. πŸ™‚ )



We finished our visit by visiting Percival Lowell’s mausoleum, which has a stained glass observatory dome over the top of it. Lowell came from a wealthy family, and funded the observatory and initiated the search for Pluto although he died before it was discovered and, indeed, the search for Pluto was the observatory’s big chance to prove its viability after his death (the PL symbol for Pluto symbolises both Pluto’s first two letters and Lowell’s initials). The Lowell observatory remains a privately funded but publicly/educationally purposed institution.


After walking back down the hill and putting our feet up we headed out in search of dinner. I forgot to take my camera, which is a shame, because there was an excellent thunderstorm with lightning and a massive downpour of rain complete with small hail pellets to undo the warmth of the day. The final photo was taken after dinner, when the rain had stopped and we’d returned to the hotel, and it captures the lowering sun setting the storm clouds aglow behind the ponderosas on the south slopes of Mars Hill (the observatory is way off to the right and not visible from where I was standing in any case).



2 comments to 12 of 12, July 2014

  • Very cool! I also think 3D printing is totally amazing.
    Let us know if you ever make it up our way! πŸ™‚

    • Don’t worry, I will! “Up your way” is one of the places I’d like to visit one day. Unfortunately, this trip doesn’t have much spare time associated with it (as it is, semester starts tomorrow, and I spent a few hours yesterday (not shown in 12 of 12) getting my online materials organised … since I was too disorganised to have managed it before I left!). One day, though; one day.

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