First Impressions

© 2000 by Robert C. Moler

(March , 2000)

An essay about how first impressions are so important in the learning and appreciation of astronomy.

Spring arrives later this month, and the first great spring constellation is Leo the Lion. It is my grandson Christopher's favorite constellation, which he learned 3 years ago when Comet Hale-Bopp was around. He was 6 then. It gave me a chance to point out to him various constellations. Leo, with its backward question mark marking its head and mane, stuck in his mind. My grand daughter Nicole, just three at the time could spot Hale-Bopp in the evening twilight before I could spot it. Constellations were a bit too complex for her, and besides the comet, her favorite was the "Doggy Star", Sirius, which she remembers to this day.

My daughter at that age became attached to "My Benus", when we saw the Evening Star, the planet Venus on spring evenings. She also came up with the expression "Half a Cookie Moon" for the first quarter moon. I think she got that from me, one lunar eclipse when I told her that people long ago thought something was eating the moon and likened it to the Cookie Monster eating a cookie.

In my case, my mother pointed out Cassiopeia as the "Flying W", and she and my dad showed me the Big Dipper. My mother would try to wake me for the Perseid meteor shower. I say try, because I was a deep sleeper in my younger days. My parents told me about and let me stay up to watch lunar eclipses. My dad would say an eclipse had the moon go through all its phases on a single night. To my sorrow, he was never able to understand eclipses or the moon's phases, despite all my explanations. Still it was from them I got the initial spark for my astronomical avocation. My dad built the mount for my first telescope, and the mount, tube and hardware for my second from my design.

In astronomy, first impressions are everything. The grandeur, the wonder, the impossibly great distances can capture the imagination or put one off. The younger that first impression the better.

The GTAS hosted public viewing nights make that first impression. We still get lots of local families who have never been to the observatory before, and lots of oos and ahs from kids and adults who get their first close look at Saturn.

For their dedication over the years I'd like to especially thank Gary and Eileen Carlisle. Gary usually runs the 8 inch Celestron out back. Eileen collects donations and sells star charts and buttons. Donations really soar when Eileen is there. When Bill Hathaway returns with his bees from Florida, he enthralls the youngsters by pointing out the constellations and telling their stories. He also has a magic trick or two up his sleeve, one of which is his ability to spot Venus in the daytime. Thanks Bill.

Jerry Dobek and Judy Wieske are usually on hand with their knowledge and help with the new 11 inch Celestron. Newest of the public viewing night regulars is Craig Ensfield helping with his expertise.

Newest of the first impression opportunities is Project Astro Polaris, part of the national Project Astro program brought to our area by Jerry Dobek and Northwestern Michigan College. This collaboration of astronomers and teachers is bringing imaginative astronomical first impressions to students on the area.

If you want to help with the viewing nights or Project Astro Polaris contact us at the next meeting.

Questions? Comments? Send Email to me at

Updated: 02/28/00