The New England Fall Astronomy Festival draws crowds
Published: Monday, September 24, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 16:02
Last Friday night marked the beginning of the second annual 2012 New England Fall Astronomy Festival (NEFAF). The festival was held at the UNH Observatory and ran from Friday to Saturday. Events opened up with a talk on dark energy and the acceleration of the universe by the festival’s keynote speaker, Alex Filippenko. Filippenko is an astronomer who worked on the two teams that discovered the universe was expanding in 1998.
“Why are all these other galaxies moving away from us? Is it because they’re lactose intolerant? Get it? Milky Way,” Filippenko joked.
Nearly 300 hundred high-school students, parents, UNH students and professors, amateur astronomers, children and one golden retriever filled the lecture tent for his two-hour talk and Q&A session.
John Gianforte, who said he has been an astronomer since he was seven, teaches astronomy courses at both Granite State College and UNH, and is the head of the organizing committee for NEFAF. Gianforte also helps train the new students working at the UNH Observatory, though he says it is important to remember that the observatory is student-run.
“I did the same thing last year and it was pretty successful, except for the rain. They asked me to do it again and I said yes,” Gianforte said.
Gianforte is the man who booked Filippenko for his talk Friday evening. After spending a week with him in Hawaii observing the transit of Venus, he contacted Filippenko in the summer to see if he would be free for the event.
Gianforte said he was extremely happy with the turnout and the level of audience participation during the talk. The Q&A session lasted for nearly an hour, with questions ranging from the possible existence of other universes to the science around the “Big Crunch” theory, which refers to the collapse of the universe.
“I’m thrilled. Excited. I couldn’t sleep last night, it went so well,” Gianforte said.
The festival picked up again on Saturday morning, with astronomy-themed carnival games and booths for children while the adults listened to speakers talk about exo-solar planets and the Mars rover.
Ian Cohen, the manager of the UNH Observatory, and a graduate student working on his Ph.D. in physics worked at the festival last year, and said it was very successful.
“This year we’re doing a lot more things at once, have more things for kids, more speakers,” Cohen said.
While many of the events and talks were aimed at adult audiences, Cohen said that his main goal was making the festival fun and interesting for children.
“This is big about getting kids interested in science. We want kids to come away saying ‘I want to be a scientist’ or ‘I want to be an astronomer,’” he said.
According to Cohen, there were many people interested in both coming to the festival and volunteering. The New Hampshire Astronomical Society made up a great deal of the festival’s volunteers and visitors, bringing a wide variety of telescopes for people to observe the sun, moon, nebulae and other astronomical objects.
“We have volunteers from everywhere: new students, local amateur astronomers, people from sororities, fraternities, students from local high schools and local astronomy clubs,” Cohen said.
According to Cohen, the only thing that didn’t go as planned this year was that volunteers were unable to set up an inflatable bouncy planetarium due to the wetness of the ground that morning. But he said he feels that was a minor issue.
“The best for me is seeing kids look through the telescope and saying ‘That’s cool!’” Cohen said.
The festival ran seven science talks and programs for children, with subjects ranging from black holes, constellation identification, whether Pluto is a planet or not, and Curious George (whose character was created by the Margret and H.A. Rey Center, and therefore falls under the category of science).
“Our backup plan was to read science books, but the kids seemed interested in the talks. We didn’t have any kids who were not involved,” said Robert Burnett-Kurie, a meteorologist who found himself as the festival’s kid-coordinator.
Burnett-Kurie said that there was a big effort on making the talks interactive to keep the kids engaged. At some points, the children even got to come up and act out scenes as the different Greek gods and goddesses that the celestial bodies are named after.