Saturday, October 11, 2008

Chapter 14 Indiana University

Chapter 14

I had a scholarship to begin my graduate work at IU, but boy, resources were tight. There were five of us now, and we had housing in Hoosier Courts—housing essentially reserved for veterans and “deserving” married students. There were 8 apartments in each building, and a couple dozen or so buildings.
I needed extra money, so worked at odd jobs whenever I had the time. One of them was to demonstrate electric organs for an organ company by going to churches and playing organ music that I guessed they would like to hear. One had to be careful—too much Bach or not enough Bach is a very fine line to walk.
The second year I had a National Science Foundation fellowship and that was a very big help. The third year I was a University Fellow, and the fourth (this does go on and on!) I was a Swain Fellow. The Astronomy Department was located in Swain Hall, so being a Swain Fellow gave one a certain stature with astronomical undergraduates.
On the campus was the Kirkwood Observatory, and in addition to the telescope there was office space for a number of graduate students. The observatory phone gave us training in answering public calls, most of them being “I just saw something in the sky! Might it be a flying saucer?” We had to be on our toes in order to convince the caller that the object was quite OK, and that all was well. The phone was also monitored closely at about 2:30 pm or so, for that was when Mrs. Potter, the department’s secretary, called to give us the latest information from the chairman. Actually she just wanted to keep us in line. It was vitally important that we remember just who was in charge.
We had a very good observatory 50 miles or so from the campus, named for benefactor Goethe Link. In it was a 0.91-meter telescope, and the primary mirror was a Corning honeycomb test pouring for the 200-inch telescope at Mt. Palomar, California. The observatory building included a kitchen, sleeping quarters, and a small library. Because Indianapolis was relatively nearby—l6 miles or so—the sky brightness was always a problem.
It was possible to spend lots of time there. Many a long night was needed for my PhD thesis on eclipsing binaries.
Unfortunately, working all night did not release one from attending class the next day, and there were numerous weeks that I had only three hours of sleep per weekday in order to make my morning class.
Astronomy classes were rigorous, and my thesis advisor, Prof. John H. B. Irwin was a first class teacher. For me he was the source of many important lessons, not only for Astronomy, but for life as well. He did a lot of traveling, and his family was one that I greatly admired. In later years he would contact me to meet him somewhere in the world, and I was usually able to do so. This means that we were together in England, Chili, Greece, Germany, Switzerland, and France and also were together in a good many observatories in the US. I missed seeing him in South Africa and Ethiopia, and am not quite sure how that happened.
Sometime in the 1960s I was in South America, and I made it a point to visit John while he was spending a year in Chile. His purpose there was to take atmospheric measurements in conjunction to the establishment of the Astronomical Observatory at Cerro Tololo. Immediately to the south of Cerro Tololo was Cerro Morado, and John and his wife Ruth were living there.
John had a big van, and he was eager to take me to a very remote part of the Andes well to the south and “up” from Cerro Morado. When I use the word “remote”, it seems to be the correct one, but it does not truly convey just how far from anywhere John wanted us to be. There was a very primitive road but it was doable. We took fuel, food, camping equipment, and took many hours to make our way to a spring at an incredibly high altitude where John knew there would be water. (The dry side of the Andes is DRY, for we were in that part where it might rain once in a century.) Once on our way we came upon a Chilean sheep herder. He was exceedingly glad to see us as we were the first people he had seen in a couple of months. We offered him food, candy, water, clothing—what did he need? He politely turned down all our offers. He just wanted a wife.
The next day we were more than 12000 feet high and the road grazed the edge of an abyss so deep and dark that we could not see the bottom. Indeed we could not even see into it. How deep do you suppose it was? Well, right over there was a teetering rock about the size of the van. It was one of a whole row of rocks destined to fall in the very near future! Do you suppose I could roll that rock into the canyon, count the seconds for time of fall, and determine the depth that way?
As we had not seen anyone but the sheep herder, we were quite certain that no one at all was anywhere nearby. John assured me that there was no way I could roll that rock. That was certainly a challenge coming from a highly respected professor and all, so I went to work. It took me maybe 20 minutes of digging and thinking before I felt the rock tremble for a moment. Then I knew it was possible. Finally that massive rock very slowly began to move, picked up speed at an ever accelerating rate, then disappeared over the canyon wall. There was silence for perhaps twelve seconds, and then there was a mighty roar with countless echoes that are difficult to describe. Allowing for the speed of sound coming back to us, the depth must have been more than 2,000 feet. Rather than try to describe the sound, I will report that it inspired us to roll rocks for the next hour or so, and John worked every bit as hard to do it as I had done on the first one. It was a wonderful moment I particularly enjoy remembering, for I can drive almost any environmentalist right out of his mind with this story. I am one who has made a lasting impression on a magnificent canyon in the Chilean Andes. I know this is true, even if nobody ever sees it! In truth, we were only guilty of shortening the time Mother Nature was going to waste before she rolled those rocks!
Professors James Cuffey, Marshal Wrubel, and Frank K. Edmondson were my other professors, and there was much to learn from each of them. Prof. Edmondson was chairman of the Department, and it is to him that I owe much for his support for me and my family for those four years.
These four years are worth remembering, as the next chapter reveals.

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