Life of an Astronomer
"Somewhere, something incredible
is waiting to be known".
you ever lie on your back in the grass, gaze into a star drenched
sky and wish you could do that forever? What if you could study
and explore those strange and beautiful lights, learn what's really
out there before anyone else? If you love mystery and adventure,
maybe the life of an astronomer is for you.
Professor John Slivak of the Mount Regina Observatory in Pennsylvania
grew up on a cattle ranch, which was an adventure in itself. He
wanted to be a cowboy more than anything in the world. But he
was too small to ride horses or cows, so he tried to ride goats,
and he learned to rope chickens, much to the chagrin of his mother.
he got a little older, he would sleep outside in the summer and
spend most of the night gazing into the sky. The sparks of light
and their peculiar patterns boggled his mind. The word astronomer
however, never entered it. It wasn't part of his vocabulary.
Slivak spent most of his life as a civil engineering consultant
working on familiar landmarks such as the Philadelphia Metropolitan
Hospital, the Broad Street Subway South and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
He even surveyed and designed the entire layout of the Ocean City
Expressway, so he was more than familiar with mathematics. Still,
he never considered becoming an astronomer.
1973, a strange event in the office parking lot changed his life
forever. As he was leaving work one evening, he noticed a man
tinkering with what looked like an orange coffee can on the top
of a car. Being the curious type, he went over to see what was
going on. The man told him he was looking at the Comet Kohoutek
and offered John a peek. He was first surprised to realize it
was actually a telescope and not a coffee can he was looking through.
But that was nothing compared to the shock he got looking at the
comet itself. To John, it looked like a picture in a book, complete
with blazing tail against a velvet sky. He asked the man what
kind of telescope he was using. It was a Celestron 5, but the
explanation was as foreign to him as the rest of the sky. All
the way home, John thought about what he'd seen that evening,
how he knew nothing about the sky or telescopes or comets, but
he couldn't quit thinking about them. He looked for the comet
from his house later that night and was overjoyed to find it.
Its fuzzy appearance suddenly made him remember a small telescope
he'd bought in 1961, stuffed into a closet but never used. Now
he excitedly set it up, found the comet and vowed from that moment
on to learn everything he could about telescopes and astronomy.
His next step, with the help of his ten-year old son's card, was
Slivak read every book about telescopes he could get his hands
on. He bought his first telescope, learned how to use it, and
began learning the night sky. Several years of study and many
telescopes later, his observatory boasts several finder telescopes
and his pride and joy--a 10" Newtonian telescope that sits
thirty feet above the ground, high on a hilltop in Pennsylvania.
The telescope at Mount Regina Observatory is 12 feet in length
and the tube is 14" in diameter. With that, you can see the
asked about the most exciting thing he's ever seen, Professor
Slivak says, "You certainly see lots of things both boring
and exciting. For me, nothing will ever compare to the first time
I climbed up that 8 foot ladder and peered into the eyepiece to
catch my first glimpse of the moon. At 56x , I could see clearly,
the mountains, valleys, rocks and craters. What a sight!"
and his students have viewed the things we're all familiar with:
the rings of Saturn, the bands of Jupiter, the Mars polar caps
and Hally's Comet. But his deep space research has shown him sights
most people can never begin to imagine. Professor Slivak has studied
everything from the behavior of the speed of light to the optical
aspects of telescopes. He has performed and studied the experiments
of Kepler, Galileo, Herschal and Newton and has observed deep
sky objects like galaxies, billions of miles away. One of his
favorite constellations is Sagittarius. "When we look at
Sagittarius, we're looking toward the center of our own galaxy.
It is a cradle of galaxies, not to mention rife with mythological
Professor Slivak feels that astronomy is the most important scientific
field of study today, other than the field of medicine. He is
afraid that schools aren't doing enough to teach the basics. But
that shouldn't hold anyone back from entering the field. "Read
every book you can on the subject. Today, even television is a
wealth of information with programs about astronomy. By all means,
start with Carl
Sagan's Cosmos," he says.
favorite quote from Carl Sagan , "If you want to make an
you must first make a universe", is a summation
of what he believes astronomers will discover in the future. He
feels there are probably lots of apple pies in the making, that
we may one day discover our universe is just one of many. The
theory that nothing can go faster than light will be proven false.
And, maybe, time travel will happen.
Professor Slivak has this advice for budding young astronomers:
"Studying the universe makes you believe anything is possible.
Read, read then read some more. Learn math and trigonometry. Study
telescopes, learn the sky from maps and keep in mind, you don't
have to be mentally gifted, just have the will."
photos taken from the Mt. Regina Observatory
can learn more about astronomy, Professor Slivak and the Mt. Regina
Observatory at these sites:
You can purchase Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and other educational
products here: Viatouch