John Pazmino
 MYSkies Astronomy Inc
 2000 July 1
    It was an evening destined to be a colossal catastrophe for 
astronomy. But it ended up a stunning victory. That evening, Tuesday 
the 20th of June in 2000, was the inaugural run of the Centennial 
Lecture at the new Hayden Planetarium in New York. The American 
Astronomical Society operated the indoor lecture while the Amateur 
Astronomers Association hosted the nighttime starviewing. The 
presentation, the first major home-campus joint astronomy event of the 
new millenium, also christened the new Planetarium as a venue to host 
astronomy events. Prior events, like the 'Cosmic Collisions' symposium 
in early June, were convened in rooms of the Museum next door. 
    When the telescope team arrived, about an hour before the lecture, 
the doors of the Planetarium were locked. Guards inside passed us by 
despite our waving and tapping on the windows. Yet there were people 
milling around inside. We came so early to freshen up, stow our gear, 
and get seat assignments in the sky theater. 
    How to get the attention of the folk inside? Juggling a hefty rock 
in front of the huge glass windows did the trick. The guard explained 
that the main hall was in use right then for a photo shoot. Some 
advertising firm had female models posing around the exhibits. So no 
one else was allowed in. 
    OK, the evening was warm and humid but not unduly so. We sat on 
the benches and ragchewed. Other crew came along and joined the flock.
    The lecture was announced to the general astronomy community in 
the City. Astronomers came. It turned out that many crew members 
missed getting the required tickets! The notices were not clear on 
this. Tickets were free for the asking, but you did have to get one 
for seat control. Would our people now be shut out? 
    By now, the advertising session was over, the models went away in 
their bus, and the doors were opened for us. A huddle between 
Planetarium and Association loosened up a fistful of extra tickets. As 
we filed in, we noticed several people being shooed away. Uh-oh. A 
Planetarium official calmed us; they were not Association members. 
They were extragregates. 
    The crowds, we and the general public, swirled into the 
Planetarium, handed in our tickets, and trooped to the sky theater. 
    The grand entry is on 81st Street but the elevators to the sky 
theater are on the 'back' wall of the Planetarium. This called for a 
healthy hike of about 80 meters all around the perimeter of the 
Planetarium, thru what looked like back halls, to the elevators. Not a 
big deal but a somewhat untidy welcome for such a signature event as 
this Centennial Lecture.
    The way to the sky theater was the same as that for the regular 
skyshow. We went thru the dimly-lighted forebay, across the skywalk, 
into the dome. Ushers packed us into the seats and escorted the 
telescope crew to a reserved section in the innermost ring of seats. 
    We knew the Planetarium tried very hard to get a realistic 
impression of being outdoors. Perhaps it overdid itself? The dome was 
warm and humid, just like outside! Dr Neil Tyson, director of the 
facility and host for the lecture, explained that late in the 
afternoon the air condition konked out. Fans were deployed to at least 
ventilate the place. No good. The heat got to me in the middle part of 
the lecture and I fell asleep!
    Actually, I heard most of the talk. This was the first occasion 
for the dome as a lecture hall. Previous Planetarium lectures were 
held in the Museum. From now on, the Planetarium's series of talks 
will convene here, lifting the space crunch in the Museum which was 
precipitated by the closing of the old Planetarium building in 1997. 
    The talk itself, by Anneila Sargent of CalTech, was a good review 
of interstellar gas and dust. She played out the present importance of 
gas and dust. She reviewed galaxy spiral arms, supernova remnants, 
circumstellar rings, blackhole accretion discs, and perhaps others 
noted while I was dozed off. 
    Her slides were clear and well made, composed from observatory 
images with large captions and labels. A double projection put the 
slides on opposite sides of the dome so people all around could get a 
comfortable view of them.
    The talk was followed by question session.
    It was impossible to hear any speaker without amplification. 
Remember that a planetarium dome is purposefully perforated to pass 
sound thru it to prevent echos and reflections! Neil had to scurry 
around with a wireless microphone to pick up the questions. On a 
couple instances, the question came from a remote part of the room and 
had to be repeated by Tyson or Sargent for the others to hear. 
    An extra feature after the questions was an explanation of the 
Orion Nebula scene from the present skyshow. This is the flythru of 
the nebula assembled by supercomputers. Being made of dust and gas, 
this show was quite appropriate. Neil and other Planetarium faculty 
explained how the show was made and pointed out several of the new 
features discovered in the nebula. These included the 'loose planets'. 
    Neil then gave a brief nightsky talk to prepare the audience for 
the starviewing outside. He fired up the Zeiss projector, already 
raised and ready for launch in the center of the dome. Its low profile 
obscured only the lowest part of the far side of the dome from our 
front row seats, quite unlike the gross blockage of the classical 
dunbbell machine. 
    So he set the machine for late afternoon to let the Sun crawl its 
way to the horizon. 
    No Sun. Hindoo! No Sun. Do-over! No Sun. Tyson gave up and threw 
the projector into the nighttime. He began to indicate the evening's 
stars. At a cue the telescope team slipped out to get our stuff and 
set up outside. A roar of applause rang out from the auditorium. With 
thrusting fists we marched out. 
    Where are the stars? The sky was all cloudy and hazy! The 
afternoon was very slowly drying and clearing. We hoped that by 
nightfall, after the lecture, there would be some clear areas. There 
weren't any. 
    We set up anyway. All the instruments were totable rigs being that 
so many of us arrived by train or bus. A couple came by cars, which 
were allowed to be parked near the Planetarium entrance. Hence not 
only did we have lousy skies, we had no aperture to combat them. We 
joked about epiplanetary clouds and vapor. 
    Look! A clear spot opened up. And an other. And soon the sky was 
sort of clearing with still lots of clouds all around. Could we save 
the night? The sky never got really clear; the transparency pinned at 
quite third magnitude. 
    That was enough. The scopes were armed and aimed. In a few moments 
they were tuning up on the major summer objects exposed in the clear 
gaps between clouds. 
    The Planetarium project included a rebuild of Roosevelt Park along 
81st Street. New lamppoles were put in, replacing the grotesque 
streetlights. These poles are the classical acorns with the New York 
lamps. However, the globes are not fluted! The lamps were properly set 
up against the top cap to partly shield them, but the globes are a 
plain diffuser allowing too much side scatter of light. 
    Oh, these lights are far better than the old ones, and other towns 
would cut off their right arm to have them. The correct New York acorn 
has both the elevated lamp and a fluted globe, like the new ones in 
almost every other park. As a result our team suffered some annoyance 
in eyeballing the sky, even if they were not blasted with photons. 
    In all fairness, the front arena of the Planetarium was never 
meant for starviewing. That mission will in a few months be served by 
the terrace above the garage. That part of the campus is deliberately 
left unlighted, except for safety lamps here and there, for 
starviewing. Also, with the abundance of trees, including some new 
ones, all around the park, side spray from the lamppoles is soon 
intercepted. But, yes, we advised the Parks Department about the goof. 
    The sky talk inside was now over, it being about 21h. The crowds 
were cascading out and ushers pointed them to the telescopes. We were 
deployed in the bay in front of the Planetarium, the same one, 
rebuilt, that fronted the old building. We were also prepared to 
establish our base on the new terrace but this was not anywhere near 
    The audience diffused among the scopes stopping at each for a 
view. At times a scope was idle to let a cloud pass by; then the 
telescopist fielded questions and handed out litterature. In the 
audience were the faculty from Columbia University's astronomy 
department. It was the local organizer of the Centennial Lecture. We 
all chatted and rapped about astronomy.
    The scopes ranged from large binoculars thru an Astroscan thru a 
Meade ETX. All were expertly operated to present views of several 
binary stars, the Hercules cluster M13, Canes cluster M3, and Ring 
nebula M57. An extra treat, because the lecture mentioned dust as part 
of planetary systems around other stars, was tau Bootis. 
    There are about 15 planetary stars bright enough for binoculars 
and small scopes from the City. Many are naked eye objects in a dark 
sky. In this crummy sky over us now only tau Bootis was at hand. 
Others, 70 Virginis, 14 Herculis, and rho Coronae, stayed behind 
clouds or peeked out too briefly to get a good look. 
    The visitors thinned out after a long while. With the poor night 
it was amazing that people hung around for fully two hours! It was now 
quite 23h, hey, time to go home already.
    One member, Bob Little, came by car and offered to drive me part 
way home. We figured to let me off at a major station in Downtown 
Brooklyn, where I could get a train for a much shorter ride home. We 
settled on BMT's DeKalb Avenue station. 
    On the car ride thru Manhattan we chatted and I decided that in 
the stead of fooling around with trains and buses so late at night, 
could Bob drop me off at his own place where I can get a car service? 
He could and he suggested a couple near him.
    But the service would cost me about $20. So what? It's just for 
this one time. A few more minutes of banter. Bob then said to forget 
the car service. He'll drive me all the way home! 
    By half-past midnight I was at my stoop in Brooklyn. After a 
welcome drink of cold water I flipped on the radio. 
    A few minutes before 22h a BMT West End train was chugging over 
Manhattan Bridge heading to Brooklyn. Aboard probably were many from 
the Planetarium audience, our members and the public, on their way 
home. High above the East River they likely savored the beauty of the 
City, with its subdued lighting radiating a majesty unchallenged 
elsewhere on the planet. 
    The train slithered into Brooklyn, stopped at DeKalb Avenue 
station, and set off again on its way. The first two cars clanked over 
a switch south of the station. The third car didn't make it.