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A Fellow Grand Canyon Resident (featuring Dr. Jennifer Hoffman)

The Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute brings in experts and amateurs alike from all over the world as part of their Astronomer in Residence program. Dean speaks with current astronomer in residence Dr. Jennifer Hoffman, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Denver, and reflects on his own time there. Listen in to learn how you too can apply for this amazing opportunity! New episodes, now releasing every other Friday!

You can learn more about the Astronomer in Residence program at the Grand Canyon Website.


Looking Up is transcribed using a combination of AI speech recognition and human editors. It may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Dean Regas: [00:00:00] You know, when most people schedule a trip to the Grand Canyon, they'll want to go see its majestic beauty during the daytime. I mean, I get it, geology's cool and all that, but the real beauty, at least from the perspective of an astronomer, comes after the sun has set the lack of human made artificial light pollution makes the Grand Canyon an excellent place to peer into the countless worlds that lay outside of our own.

And the great people at the Grand Canyon Conservancy bring in experts and amateurs alike from all around the globe as part of their astronomer and residency program. Today we're joined by an astronomer who has just finished her residency.

From the studios of Cincinnati Public Radio, I'm your host, Dean Regas, and this is looking up the show [00:01:00] that takes you deep into the cosmos or just to the telescope in your backyard to learn more about what makes this amazing universe of ours so great. Our guest this week is Dr. Jennifer Hoffman, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Denver, and most recently an astronomer in residence at the Grand Canyon.

So I have to admit, I have a very big soft spot for the Grand Canyon and you know, we set up this interview because, you know, I was, Astronomer and residence too at the Grand Canyon. It was the most amazing experience. I got to live and work at the Grand Canyon for an entire month. I got this little apartment above the gift shop and, you know, kitchen, bathroom, all that kind of stuff, shower and outside.

The view was the Grand Canyon. I wake up every day and see that view, and then as darkness fell, then I went to work. [00:02:00] My job as astronomer and residents was to do astronomy programs for the public, set up telescopes, give astronomy talks. I haven't got to hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and do astronomy programs at the bottom of the Grand Canyon with telescopes.

It was an incredible, incredible experience that I will never forget.

You're getting there. I. Drove from Cincinnati to the Grand Canyon, which is about 28 hours by myself all loaded up with telescopes. And I remember the first day I get there and I'm just like, tired of driving, but so giddy.

Dean Regas (being interviewed): My name is Dean Regas. I'm the astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory.

Dean Regas: They, they interviewed me that first night and there's these pictures that they took of me. They're promo pictures and I look like a, I look like a. Kid, this like overjoyed kid. I think I was exhausted from driving. I think I was just excited to be at the Grand [00:03:00] Canyon. I, I'm like gonna use those head shots for the rest of my life.

Hi folks. Would you like to see through a telescope and see Jupiter? Yes, you would. We heard you were out here. All right, so I'm at the South Rim set up the telescope outside the hotel there, the El Tovar hotel and restaurant, and. I didn't really tell anybody. I just set up the telescope and pastors by would come.

And here I am in the darkness of the night where it's so dark, like you can't, you just see the Milky Way right there, stream across this guy. And here's this guy saying, Hey, you wanna look through a telescope?

[Grand Canyon audio]: Like so, you wanna look right through this little eye piece right there. A little pretend like you're looking through a picture and...

Dean Regas: -and some people are like, "mm, no thanks man. I don't really I'm not. Interested in whatever you're selling."

[Grand Canyon audio]: Seriously? Yeah. Cool. Very cool. I'm not just standing here for fun...

Dean Regas: But most of them are like, yeah, yeah. Oh, totally. Wait, you have a telescope? I'm like, yeah, come look.

[Grand Canyon audio]: Oh dude, you can see the rings. Wow, that's [00:04:00] awesome. Isn't that cool? Yeah.

Dean Regas: You could look through the eye piece and you just see the rings of Saturn and you see Jupiter, and then, then as they step back, they just have these like . You know, gasps and reactions.

[Grand Canyon audio]: Wow. Oh my God. Jupiter? So cool. Wow.

Dean Regas: And then they look up at the sky themself and see the Milky Way, like you hear about in books.

[Grand Canyon audio]: What am I seeing there? Oh man. I could just stare at that thing for... that's pretty cool.

Dean Regas: Here I am at the Grand Canyon. This is the, the granddaddy of all national parks. This is like the view, and I don't know how many people said, looking through your telescope. Was the best part of my trip.

[Grand Canyon audio]: That is so fantastic! How about you? That is great. Yeah. Well thanks. Can I take a peek? Yeah, of course. Thank you so much. Thank you. Yeah, this year. Fantastic. Really? Made my evening. See? Yeah. But perfect is set up.

Dean Regas: And I'm like, are you kidding me? There's a canyon right behind me, like in the daytime, the thing's amazing. And they're like, no, no, this is what I'm gonna [00:05:00] remember.

[Grand Canyon audio]: Yeah. Thanks for sharing that. Yeah, my pleasure. You must like it, but I'm glad you're staying out the cold for the rest of us. Nah, I don't mind it. We're the lovely sky. Oh yeah.

Dean Regas: It's one of those things, and I hope we get some great stories about this from our latest astronomer, in residence at the Grand Canyon.

I'm so excited. Oh man. It's gonna make me jealous. That's that's what's gonna happen. I'm just gonna have to go back. Yep. That's it. I'm gonna have to go back.

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: Hi Dean. How are you doing? How are you? I'm good. How are you?

Dean Regas: Just like waxing poetic about being an astronomer residence.

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: Awesome!

Dean Regas: I mean, I don't know. Don't, don't you miss it. Don't even wanna be there right now?

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: I do, I do. It really, it really gets into you. I think. I can't deal with normal life anymore. Yeah. I don't know. It was. Yeah, it was really the perfect, so I'm on sabbatical right now from, from teaching, and it was really the perfect getaway, like totally separate from the rest of the world.

You know, it was like a vacation on Mars or something.

I know talking to you is [00:06:00] gonna bring back all this flood of memories. Tell me, was it everything you hoped for and

more? Yeah, pretty much. I didn't know what to expect going in. I had never been to the Grand Canyon. And so I didn't know what it would be like, and I, you know, I had some ideas about what I would be doing.

They have us write proposals for, for what we wanna do while we're there, but, right. The reality was just, was more, was more everything bigger and wider and deeper and more beautiful than anything I could have imagined.

Dean Regas: And so how long how long was your residency for?

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: I got to stay there for six weeks which simultaneously felt like forever and not nearly long enough, but it was a really cool time to be there. I, I started in March. When it was still pretty much winter when I got there, a lot of the trails were still snow packed and icy and, and we had a lot of clouds and a lot of, a lot of wind.

And I stayed through [00:07:00] the middle of April when it started to warm up a little bit and there started to be a few flowers here and there, and the sun came out and. So, so it was a really beautiful transition to, to be there through the change of seasons.

Dean Regas: Man, I can't believe you. You took the whole six weeks. I didn't. I don't know. I regret it.

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: Yeah. It was, it was a good amount of time and they warned me when I got there, like, it's not gonna feel long enough. And I kind of didn't believe them, but it, it totally was true.

Dean Regas: Oh, exactly. That's the, was long but not long enough. And, yeah. So what was your main focus? What was your project you did as astronomer residents?

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: I think my overarching goal was to help people see the sky as connected to them. Not something separate. Not something far away and untouchable and un understandable. Right. But something that they could relate to. My research deals with transient objects, so, so things that come and go in the sky and also [00:08:00] objects that cycle.

So I was trying to find those connections because I think that one thing that maybe helps the sky feel closer to us is if we can see it change, right? So that it's not something that's, You know, consistent and unchanging and, you know, never that interesting because of it. So I was looking at various ways to help people track cycles and changes in the sky, and that took several forms.

The first thing that I did, because I got there in mid-March, the Equinox was coming up, and so I set up a project where we would go to Hopi Point, one of the great. Overlooks of the Grand Canyon, and we were trying to track the location of the sunset, the point where the sun hits the horizon as it sets.

And of course, near the equinox, that point is moving from south to north in the spring equinox fairly quickly. And I thought, if I can collect people's cell phone photos of this and stitch them together into a [00:09:00] composite image, then we can actually see that motion. You, you can't see it on a. Day, you know, daily basis, right?

Just looking at it one day. But if you could collect the images over several days, then you could maybe see that motion. So I set up a tripod with a cell phone holder and talked to people about the Equinox, and everybody came up and took pictures and emailed them to me. So I'm still working on putting that together, but I'm really excited to see what that's gonna look like.

Oh, that's so cool. Yeah. It was a lot of fun. I got a lot of people because everybody wants to see the sunset, right? So we had picked a pretty popular spot and we got a lot of people that way. I also did some moonwalks where we looked at the moon during its waxing phases from cre to full and, you know, and that was just like I talked about the moon a little bit.

We looked, looked at it through a telescope, but I had some art projects for the kids to draw me the moon, right? Or, or show me what the moon looks like to you. Or we had some Play-Doh that they could make. Sculptures. And then [00:10:00] after each night I was, I was leaving out the art projects from the previous night.

So you could compare what, how did the moon look yesterday and how is that different from it? Look how it looks today. So that was another way of sort of getting at this idea of changes or cycles.

Dean Regas: Well, so is there any you know, Individual moments that stand out to you, whether you know, personal or with the public. Is there some moment where you kind of like communed with the canyon and the sky above?

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: Well, several of course. There was another experience I wanted to mention, which was that I got to talk to a middle school, a couple of middle school classrooms. So I went to the school. There's one school for the whole Grand Canyon Village, right?

One elementary school. Cause I. Don't have that many people. But I connected with a middle school teacher there, and I run a program in Denver a a summer camp from middle school girls. So I really wanted to kind of connect with the kids at that age. And so I spoke to three different classes and they, you know, those kids have the best questions.

Of course, a lot of them are about black [00:11:00] holes, right? That for some reason black holes really have a, a hold on people's imaginations, especially kids. So it's something about that extreme, extreme physics that really grabs them. So we did a lot of talking about black holes, but what I really liked were the questions that were a little more personal, like that asked me like, what's your favorite star?

Or, you know, have you ever been to space? Right. What do you think? Or do you think. Will ever meet aliens, that kind of thing. So when they were trying to make a connection with me, that was, for me, the most rewarding part. It's really, it, it gives you hope for the future, right? To see what these kids are thinking about and what they're interested in.

Dean Regas: I know, I mean, there's, there's something you miss as a, as a, just a casual visitor to the Grand Canyon. I mean, this is a community. I mean, there's a, yeah, they have a school, they've got, you know, so imagine, I just like to imagine what it must be like growing up as a kid living there and going to school.

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: Oh yeah. Can you imagine? It's. Right there are elk just wandering through the town.

Dean Regas: Oh yeah. It is so unreal. So what, what would you [00:12:00] say is your favorite time of day do, would you say daytime versus nighttime? If you, you had to pick which, which was your better time of day at the Grand Canyon?

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: I think that I did the best work kind of right around sunset, actually around dusk.

So we did the Sunset Project, we did the Moon project and just, and we had several planets. We had Venus and Mercury and Mars all visible, right? Venus is the first thing, of course that comes out. People see, and I think a lot of people look at it and go, oh, it's a star, right? You tell them it's Venus, they go, oh.

So I think that transition really from, from day to night is pretty magical. It's when things start to be visible and it's a really cool time to be looking at the sky. Yeah, I,

Dean Regas: I would agree. I think that was like the, the magical time of day and sunrise is pretty good too. And I'm not usually an early bird, but being, being an eastern time, going to Arizona time worked in my favor for that, that's for sure.

But I think the, what's really impressive too, is the parks [00:13:00] national parks are really kind of making this effort to, you know, the half the park is after the dark is kind of their, their segue. Yeah. Did you see that? You know, like this really great push from the parks themselves to really kind of embrace this nighttime programming.

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: Oh yeah, absolutely. And everybody that I met from the park and from the conservancy was super helpful, super supportive, and really dedicated, I think, to providing a good experience for the guests. And I, so I think it's a brilliant program effort to. Allow people to think of the darkness as sort of equal to the light.

And that's part of what I wanted too, right? I wanted to, as I said before help people feel a connection with the sky. And I think along with that, help people view the sky as part of our ecosystem, as part of our environment. Something that can be and should be preserved as much as. The land and the water.

Right. And when you have people visiting the Grand Canyon, they are really in [00:14:00] the right mindset for that. They come expecting to see. Awesome beauty. And they come expecting to learn about what caused the canyon and, and what are the processes that go into making the landscape that we see and how can we preserve it for future generations.

And it's so, it's, it's easy and, and. I think really appropriate to include the sky in that sky is a resource that we wanna save for our children. So, you know, we, I tried to talk about that as much as possible, that hey, you've never, you've never seen the Milky way from, from where you are. And, and that's okay.

It's, I'm not, I'm not against. Cities, but, but we, we can be very thoughtful about preserving the ability to see things in the sky. Well, and

Dean Regas: So I gotta tell you, between the two of us, I'm, I'm lobbying for an astronomer in residence alumni.

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: Yes, I did talk about that with them. And I think it may be in the works.

So let's, let's keep up, keep up the pressure.

Dean Regas: So you're on board, you're on board for going [00:15:00] back?

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: I'm on board, yeah. Okay. For sure.

Dean Regas: Because I just think about it all the time.

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: Yeah. Yeah. I think it, it gets into you. It really does change your perspective on everything. I had this long conversation with Rader as we were walking into the canyon, and then this is kind of what we touched on.

We were talking about whether it. Changes your perspective to be there for a long time. And, and basically the question was like, do you ever get bored of this? Right? Do you ever get bored of this view? Does it become normalized so that you're not really seeing it anymore? Do you get used to it? And what we kind of worked out was that it, you, you certainly change your perspective being there for a long time.

You don't get over awed by it every day. I mean, it's certainly awesome and, and you think about that a lot, but. The first time you see it, right? It kind of hits you and you think, oh, this is amazing. This is overwhelming. This is [00:16:00] transcendent. And for the first few days, that's kind of all you do. But really being able to be there for a long time allowed me to kind of get past that initial.

Overwhelmingness of it and start to appreciate it more in depth, maybe going deeper on smaller pieces of it. Right. So I, you know, I, I did many hikes. I, I went down bright Angel trails several times trying to kind of get used to that hike. Right. So I got to the point where I was familiar with it. I was recognizing rock formations and, and trees and learning about.

The geology of the, of the canyon and, and was a personal goal of mine to walk the entire rim trail in pieces. And so I finally did that kind of pushing a little bit farther every time. So for me, that was maybe the most rewarding part of being there for a long time that I got to really. Dive deep [00:17:00] into pieces of it and, and I think that also connects with what I was trying to do with the public because there's a reaction to the night sky where you just go, oh wow, that's amazing.

And it's gorgeous, right? But. I would like people to be able to go a little deeper than that and to say, not only is this amazing and gorgeous, but I, I understand bits of it. I, I can think a little bit more deeply about small pieces of it and, and thereby kind of deepen my entire appreciation. So I think that's what I got to do.

Dean Regas: Well, this has been so great talking with you. It brings me back to those those beautiful weeks in that special place. Thanks for, thanks for bringing this. Yeah. Bringing this back to us.

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: I'm so happy to, to relive the experience myself.

Dean Regas: Our, our guest this week has been Dr. Jennifer Hoffman, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Denver, and most recently, the astronomer residents at the Grand Canyon. Thanks so much, Jennifer.

Dr. Jennifer Hoffman: Thank you. It was great to be here.

Dean Regas: So [00:18:00] do you think you have what it takes to be an astronomer in residence at the Grand Canyon? Well, the Grand Canyon Conservancy is now accepting applications for both programs. They actually have two programs. They have an astronomer in residency and an artist in residency. So you can Make a proposal to be an artist there and do art in any form as well as astronomy in any form.

So yeah, check it out with the Grand Canyon Conservancy. They're looking for candidates for 2024 now. And you know, tell 'em Dean sent you. It might not help but you can try it. Looking up with Dean Rodriguez is a production of CI Cincinnati Public Radio. Marshall Verbsky is our show producer and consultant on light pollution.

We've got too many lights in here, Marshall. Ella Rowen is our audio engineer and chief rock climber whose philosophy is, "Keep looking down!" And our theme song is Possible Light by Ziv Moran. I'm Dean Regas [00:19:00] and keep looking up.