Across The Universe: In conversation with Barry Simon of the Ponchartrain Astronomy Society
It was on a trip to Panama City Beach, FL to watch the Perseid meteor shower in 1978 that Barry Simon’s life-long interest in astronomy was solidified. Well, by that and by 1977’s blockbuster movie Star Wars. Luckily for Simon, New Orleans was home to an established group who also had stars, planets, and galaxies on the mind: The Ponchartrain Astronomy Society or PAS. Now president of the society (his ninth time in the post since 1983), Simon is always happy to promote his organization’s history.
PAS held its first meeting in January of 1959; the same date (Simon tells me) that local TV icon “Morgus The Magnificent” made his broadcast debut. “Virtually everybody in New Orleans should know Morgus, the wacky scientist who would introduce science fiction movies on Saturday nights,” Simon says, adding that it seems appropriate for this dual channeling of scientific interest to have coincided on the same exact night.
Unlike Morgus, though, PAS has continued as an educational venture well into the 21st century. “We always are looking for new members and we're always looking to interest people in astronomy. We do a lot of outreach in schools, for Scout troops, and for others that are interested.”
In fact, next week Simon and other members of the society will participate in the University of New Orleans’ “Einstein Week” that’s sponsored every year by the physics department. “On Friday night (April 7, 2017,) there'll be an open observatory on the roof and then our club will support that by having other members with their telescopes outside to show people some of the things that are viewable in the night sky.”
This week, PAS has two outreach events on Friday, March 31. “We're doing [an observing session] at the Jean Lafitte National Park across the river. And then the same night, some of our members will be doing an outreach event there with Saint Angela Merici School with telescopes.”
PAS is also a member of the Astronomy League, a consortium of astronomy clubs that hosts the bi-annual “Astronomy Day.” “Last fall we did our fall astronomy day at the Infinity Science Center and we'll be doing that again this fall. But throughout the year— particularly the school year— we do a lot of outreach events with various schools that get in touch with the club. “
One of the best things about the science is that there are always astronomical events coming up in which to participate. “One of the things that happens quite regularly that's kind of a fun thing to see [are the] actual stations of Jupiter’s moons, with either a moon going across the face of Jupiter or emerging from behind Jupiter.” Simons adds, there's a comet or two somewhere that's viewable from the surrounding area around New Orleans, which provides a better view than the light infested city. “To truly see the things in the night sky you do need to get out to the country where the light pollution, the city lights, are minimal or non-existent. And that's where we really do some serious photography and can see things at their best.”
Besides the club’s regular rounds in south Louisiana, members regularly take trips to observe astronomical events everywhere from Casper, Wyoming to a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Simons recalls the latter trip fondly, explaining how the cruise to see a lunar eclipse was almost ruined by a cloudy night. However, the captain of the ship, hearing about the members’ troubles, decided to take the ship out to water that night and find an open patch of sky.
As the eclipse reached its zenith point, the captain turned off the motor and the lights and left the onlookers to experience the celestial occurrence in the open sea with only the splashing of dolphins beside the cruise liner to keep them company. “It’s a humble science,” says Simon, “it really puts you in your place.”
More information about the Pontchartrain Astronomy Society can be found at their website, www.pasnola.org.
Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.