The ever-shifting positions of the planets and stars scattered across the night sky have invited the curiosity of their onlookers since the age of antiquity. They have acted as tools of navigation for travelers and as guidance for astrologers. Modern astronomy developed over centuries, searching for clues into the nature of the universe, matter, and the origins of sentient life. In the wake of the limits of even the most expansive studies of our astronomers, mysteries of the cosmos abound. Dreams of distant galaxies have inspired writers, artists, and pop-cultural icons ranging from H.G. Wells to Carl Sagan to Gene Roddenberry. The facts, fictions, and mysteries outer space hold intrigue for people far beyond Astronomy’s scholars and practitioners.
At the University of Texas at Austin, the Astronomy department opens its telescopes for public viewing on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. At these Star Parties, Education, Outreach, and Visitor Program Coordinator Lara Eakins and student volunteers set up telescopes for viewing constellations, galaxies, the moon, and planets, special celestial events—whatever is visible from the UT campus on a given evening. Such events help non-scientists—and future scientists!—to learn astronomy through experience. Facilitators parse basic concepts, fun facts, common misconceptions, and that which is still unknown about the field of astronomy. In addition to scheduled Star Parties, the Astronomy department goes to schools and leads special workshops for youth groups, new and prospective UT students, and other community organizations. I spoke with Lara Eakins to learn more about UT-Austin’s Star Parties.
1. What comprises your role in the Astronomy department, and how did you end up working there?
I came to UT as Freshman majoring in Astronomy in 1990 and graduated in 1994. While I was a student, I was a member of the Astronomy Students Association, which started my Freshman year and is still going strong, and I did some outreach events then. Some of that was just helping with the film series (and I mean that literally—we were showing 16mm films), and sometimes it was going out to schools with telescopes. We didn’t do nearly as much of it back then as the students in the group do now.
I was originally going to go to graduate school at the University of Florida, but it didn’t work out, so I stayed at UT part time in my undergraduate research job for a year and worked retail part-time to make ends meet. In 1995 the Astronomy Outreach and Education Office position opened up, and they decided to make it a full-time position, so I applied for and got the job. And I’ve been here ever since!
The nature of my job has changed quite a bit over the years though. I still manage the teaching demo equipment, but the days of helping professors choose slides for their lectures and replacing overhead projector bulbs are long gone! I still run the Wednesday night star parties, of course, and I do field trips for local school groups. I also help out at things like Explore UT. I used to do a lot more things like elementary school science nights and career days myself, but as time has gone on more undergrad and grad students and postdocs have come to me about helping out with things like that, so I mainly just organize things now. I still go out myself from time to time, like when my old elementary school was looking for someone to come talk about astronomy. I couldn’t resist that! I also help out at Astronomy on Tap (which isn’t officially sponsored by UT, but it is run by astronomy postdocs and grad students).
Over the past few years, I’ve had to take on more administrative duties, so it’s great that we have so many people volunteering to go out to schools and do other programs that I don’t have the time to cover myself anymore.
2. Can you talk a little bit about what happens at Star Parties?
We’re pretty informal at our star parties—we just start out with the telescope on an object and people line up and come through and observe. I tell them a little about what they are seeing and then answer questions. How many things we see can depend on what’s up—and bright enough to see in the middle of Austin!—as well as the size of the crowd.
3. How did the Star Parties get started, and what do they look like today?
I’m not sure exactly how the star parties at Painter Hall got started, but I know they were already pretty well established by the 1950s. As best I understand, the Wednesday night star parties at Robert Lee Moore Hall originally started on the 14th-floor roof area with small telescopes during the 1985-1986 apparition of Halley’s Comet. I think part of it was because of the large crowds at Painter, and the department wanted to give more people opportunities to see it. I’m not sure how the decision was made to keep the RLM ones after Halley was gone, but I suspect it was still drawing enough interest that it was worth keeping that additional night.
The move to the 16-inch telescope at RLM happened in 1998, and I was involved in that. The telescope was originally purchased in the late 1970s and then had an upgrade/update in 1998. We began using it for public viewing at that point because it was finally a reliable telescope! Prior to that, the telescope was mostly used for a few undergraduate projects and an undergraduate majors observing lab and had a very wonky drive system. It was also nice for me, since it meant that I didn’t have to carry telescopes onto the 14th floor roof and set them up manually.
3. Who participates in the Star Parties? Who leads them, and who comprises the audience?
We have all kinds of people and groups come to our public viewing. We get a fair amount from the general public, especially in the summers. Sometimes they are families with kids interested
in astronomy, but some are just people who heard about them and decided to visit. During the long semesters, we get a lot of students from our introductory astronomy classes coming for their courses and some students who visit because the star parties are on the “Gems of the University” list.
We also get groups like high school students taking astronomy, groups of local schools, and Girl and Boy Scout packs.
I run the Wednesday nights, and we currently have two astronomy undergraduates sharing Painter Hall telescope duties. In the past we’ve also had graduate students running those nights.
4. How has the project evolved or expanded over time?
When I took over the Wednesdays at RLM in 1995, the summer viewing was pretty slow, and a lot of the time had pretty low attendance. We don’t tend to advertise a whole lot, since when we
do get some publicity, the star parties can get then get very, very crowded. But about five years ago we started getting more exposure in lists of “Fun Free Things to do in Austin” and other similar things, as well as some coverage in the Austin American Statesman and Austin Chronicle, and that really bumped our summer numbers up! We also have some groups in the summer that come from various camps that UT hosts over the summer. Our undergrads also host special star parties for Freshman Orientation.
5. What kind of feedback have you gotten about the Star Parties?
People really seem to enjoy them, and I’m proud to say, we’ve won two Austin Chronicle “Best of Austin” awards (Critics Choice 2010 and 2013). I have people who come back too, which is always a good sign that we’re doing something that they enjoy. I’ve had some regulars who have been coming back once or twice a semester over many years now! One frequent comment I hear is people say, “thank you all for offering this,” which is great feedback that tells us that people really appreciate that we give them these opportunities to look through our telescopes.
6. How has working with the public influenced your own scholarship and/or teaching?
I don’t do any formal teaching or research now, but fielding questions from kids and the general public is great for keeping you on your toes! It’s also a good way to gauge what people are taking from science stories that they hear in the media, as well as some of the not-so-scientific things they read on the internet. I’ve ended up learning a lot about some of the astronomy-themed conspiracy theories that have popped up over the years, which often come from people’s lack of more than a cursory understanding of astronomy. The peak of this was around the so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” of 2012 where some claimed that a rogue planet would crash into the Earth or flip the Earth, etc. There was a lot of misunderstanding of how solar system astronomy works in that!