Biography of Erika Rix
PCW Memorial Observatory
Over thirty, ahem, something years ago, I can vividly recollect my grade school teacher gathering up a large box in her arms and asking the class to follow her. We were going on an excursion and I was filled with excitement. Anything to get me out of the classroom with our little wood desks and beat up textbooks was a fine idea by my standards. I was always more of a ďhands onĒ person and thrived on adventure.
When we reached our destination, any momentary disappointment of being led into the gymnasium soon turned into a flutter of anticipation when we quietly followed her up on the stage and she then turned off all the lights after pulling the huge stage curtains shut. You could hear all my classmates inhale from surprise at the sudden darkness, myself included. It was soon followed by giggles when out of the darkness a flashlight clicked on and the only sight to be seen was my teacherís smiling face. I remember her well. She was one of my favorites, very kind, and full of wonder.
The next hour we all sat there cross legged, wide eyed in a circle around her as she explained to us about the our solar system. It seemed as if she had several floating hands rotating the model planets in midair around our sun, the flashlight. It was amazing and left a remarkable impact on me.
Later, I would lay on my back at night, calling out imaginary figures that I would create by drawing invisible lines between the stars. I only knew the big dipper, found in Ursa Major, so I had to make up the rest. I thought I knew the little dipper, but Iíve come to realize that my little dipper was actually the Seven Sisters, Pleiades (Messier 45). By my I had fun. And the best times were when my brother, mother or father would join me outside to gaze up or watch meteor showers. It was a special time looking back. Moments like that can be magical in a childís eye.
My first planetarium experience was on a Girl Scout trip to COSI in Columbus, Ohio. At 9 years old, science was already a big part of my life and this trip was like entering a magical kingdom full of exploration and discovery. Of course, maybe thatís not saying much for a little girl that could spend hours in the woods on her hands and knees watching bugs and studying little ecosystems. Never the less, the planetarium was the icing on the cake that day. I dare say it was even better than having my hair stand up on end when I put my hands on the big metal ball full that produced static electricity in another part of the building. And let me tell you, that was pretty cool.
As the years went by, I took the Milky Way for granted. I wasnít aware that there were actually places where you couldnít see the beautiful ďstar cloudĒ as long as it was a clear night. It was something to gaze at with awe and majesty. But thinking that good telescopes were only for the real scientists, doing it myself was far reached and I kept my feet firmly on the ground, or at least in our own atmosphere, as I discovered airplanes in my early 20ís.
In the early winter of 2004, my husband Paul asked me how I felt about getting a telescope. I donít recall my reaction, but it must have been one of those pick your jaw off the lap moments. I say that because just thinking of it now and how it was brought up, neither of us knowing that the other had any interest, I find my mouth slightly gapped open with wonderment. To make a long story short, he had been searching the web and found reviews on the Meade GOTO scopes.
Iíll regress for a moment. At this time we had moved in next door to my elderly grandmother to help her out a little and for company. I discovered that my assumption that everyone could see the Milky Way was so far from the truth that it was shocking to look up in our new home in town and barely see any stars. Sure we could see the brighter ones, but hardly enough to navigate the night skies with.
A GOTO scope seemed perfect. And it is indeed a great feature to have in light polluted skies. But as we werenít sure this new hobby would actually hold our interest (chuckling now at the mere thought of that silly notion), we wanted a good bang for our buck for a little starter scope. We opted for a refurbished ETX70 AT from the Meade Factory Outlet. It was so easy to set up and align, so easy to use. And it was our Christmas present to each other that year.
I had so much to learn, a whole new area to discover and explore. Looking over Paulís shoulder one day while he was at his computer, I found him on an astronomy website called Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews (www.cloudynights.com). He gave me the link to it and that was the beginning of an obsession. The only thing better than having a great hobby to take on is having a slew of people to share it with. And Cloudy Nights was packed full of people willing to share information and assist in any way they could. It was wonderful, and still is. Above all, it didnít matter if you were new to the hobby or have been in it all your life. Everyone is treated kindly and given support and encouragement.
That little ETX had me fascinated with the night skies, particularly the Moon. My first view through it was Saturn, though. And anyone that can remember their first view of Saturn will most certainly remember being awestruck with the realization that they are indeedÖI mean INDEEDÖviewing the ringed planet with their own eyes and not a photograph. Wow.
I tried my hand at astrophotography, as another hobby of mine is photography. It didnít take long for me to become so frustrated with the little adaptors that I fell back on yet another old hobby of mine to incorporate with astronomy, sketching. I had never sketched in the dark with a little flashlight before. And most certainly, Iíve never tried it looking through a little eyepiece in the late winter with temperatures down to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. But it was right. It felt good. It was peaceful. And it added much more to my astronomy journal than my words alone. But what I found above all is that with each session, I was learning to see more detail. Of course this could have been done without the sketching, but it makes sense that when you sketch, you are in essence searching for the tiniest details to make a rendering true to your view.
Skipping forward, without realizing it, I was soon becoming familiar enough with our equipment (our arsenal of gear and scopes has somehow multiplied and youíd think there was a whole family of astronomers living at our house instead of my husband and myselfÖI would say itís shameful, but I certainly wonít hesitate to have a unique purpose for ever scope and piece of equipment we have) and observing to find myself helping other observers. How did THAT happen? I still consider myself a baby in this hobby, but I have found specific areas of interest. And much to my delight, itís expanding. My husband branched off to astrophotography and Iím a visual person with charcoal in my hand and a sketchpad on my knee.
I love all areas of the night skies. There is a thrill for the hunt of faint fuzzies as I push and nudge my12Ē truss Dobsonian silently around with my face pressed against the side of it looking through my Telrad. The Moon is so tranquil that I immediately get lost as I soar along her terrain. Planets are so fun to view, trying to tease out as much detail as you can before it changes so much that you donít recognise the area you were just observing. But what really gets me revved up is the Sun.
I remember Paul and I discussing getting a little white light filter solar filter, which blocks out 99.99 percent of the solar light allowing you to see features in the Photosphere. The cost of the glass filter wasnít much really but still, I scrunched up my nose and wondered if it was really worth spending the money on a filter to view only one object with it. I hadnít heard of Baader film or the likes at that time.
Next a friend let me borrow his PST (Personal Solar Telescope) for a book project I was working on. That was a whole new ballgame and different features could be seen than what I could view with my white light filter. It was fascinating! It didnít take long for me to dive in and try to study what all of it meant. Paul, bless his heart, bought me my very own PST for my birthday that year and about seven months later, I upgraded to an internally double stacked Maxscope 60mm hydrogen alpha scope that another good friend sold to me. Actually he sold it to me months after he had loaned it to me. I fell in love with this scope and I believe he knew it. Of course, maybe he just wanted to upgrade himself so he needed to sell the Maxscope (which is the reasoning he gave me for this opportunity to purchase it). Maybe itís a bit of both. Iíve named the scope after him for remembrance of his generosity, as well as the truss dob was named after the friend that I purchased it from.
I believe itís fair for me to say that I would be lost without either filter system as they allow me to view two completely different layers, so to speak, of the sun. I now also have Baader film that was given to me by an astronomy friend that I met up with a star party, and a Thousand Oaks white light filter that came with the Meade LX200 Classic that we bought off of yet another astronomy member of Cloudy Nights.
If anyone has never viewed the Sun and wonder what the attraction is, well in one word, itís dynamic. Iím not using that word lightly. It is DYNAMIC! At its core, nuclear reactions are taking place constantly. Think of atomic bombs. Now imagine continual atomic explosions, atoms being broken down by colliding into each other and then separating the electrons and protons, one negatively charged, the other with a positive charge. Hydrogen is being converted into helium by nuclear fusion. Energy is being produced as a result and the Sun shines!
Of course itís not that simple, but the mere thought of it is explosive, literally. And without it, there would be no life here on earth. Did you know that the total sunlight measures the power of about 350 million million million million watts. According to a reference book I have called The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the Sun by Kenneth R. Lang, that figure was derived by measuring the total amount of sun that warms our planet and then extrapolates back to the Sun. Mr. Lang states ďIn just one second the energy output of the Sun equals the entire energy consumption of the United States for a million years.Ē One second, he said! Mind boggling, isnít it? I love it. And I love witnessing the events that take place on the layers we can view, the photosphere, chromosphere and on up to the Corona.
One of the highlights this year has been the construction of our new observatory named after my late grandparents, Pauline and Charles Withers, or otherwise to us grandkids, Nanny and Bampy. Nanny is the one that we moved next door to so that I could help her as her companion and caregiver. Just prior to her 91st birthday, she had her first view of the Sun. Iíll never forget that day as long as I live, Iím certain of it. What a joy to share a solar view this wonderful person who has never looked through a scope before. When asked if she saw the Sun, she said no but she did see a big red-orange ball. When I told her that was the Sun, her face lit up with excitement.
Back Yard Observatories based in Lodi Ohio built the PCW Memorial Observatory. They are friends of ours, which makes it even more
special. We moved back to the country and shortly after, the observatory dreams became a realization.
Another dream became a reality this year. The publication of the book I was working on, when I was loaned the first PST, hit the bookstores this early summer. This was a joint effort headed and inspired by Richard Handy, a fellow sketcher turned great friend. There were five of us in all, Rich, Jeremy Perez, Sol Robbins, David Moody and myself. I was very fortunate to have been asked to participate and itís been a great learning experience as well as a way for me to hopefully help take the first steps or brush up on their observations sketches at the eyepiece.
The book is called ďAstronomical Sketching, a Step by Step IntroductionĒ as part of the Patrick Moore series, published by Springer. I find that my technique is ever changing, just like a prominence sketch series. So slowly over a course of time that you donít realize how much itís changed until you look at the series of sketches leading up to the last one. But thatís the joy of experience and practice. The more you do it, the more refined your technique, and the better your observing skills. The book is packed with good solid information and techniques to get you headed in the right direction, eventually finding your own style and technique that is unique to you.
The key to this book, which Springer was wonderful working with us on, is that we wanted it to be a field book, loaded with step by step instructions as well as photos to correspond with each step for visual aid on how to do that step. This book can be used at the telescope so that you can work on each step as you view.
Iíve since progressed to animating my sketches, taking the record of my observation a step further. A gentleman I met at NEAF this year did my first animation for me and helped steer me in the right direction. Iíve since worked out a way to do it myself and have been having a great time exploring this area of presentation. I have to say that Iím not sure what I enjoy most. Doing my own animations or sharing the technique with others so that they can animate theirs as well. Itís so fun learning from others willing to share their techniques. But the real fulfilment is when I can share and help others through a few stages of the learning process too.
I look back over the past few years and all that Iíve learned so far. I know Iíve barely touched the surface. I also reflect on all the people this hobby has enabled me to meet, either in person or electronically, and the wonderful friendships that have developed as a result. Combine that with the root of this hobby, which for me is exploring and studying the skies and knowing that we are barely a speck in the grand scheme of things. Iím truly blessed.
First Star party Sky Tour 2005
Nanny's first view, Jan 2007
My corner of the observatory
All images copyright Erika Rix