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Astronomy for Everyone at Lowell Observatory (with Kevin Schindler)

Dean chats with historian Kevin Schindler about Lowell Observatory's exciting new facilities coming later in 2024 and the observatory's decades long history helping visitors to connect with the wonders of the universe firsthand.

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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.

Kevin Schindler: You know, partly it's this unique heritage that goes back to the 1890s. It was founded 18 years before Arizona was even a state.

And so it started really in the wild west. You had cattlemen and railroad people and astronomers rubbing shoulders in the old west.

Dean Regas: That's our guest today talking about the famous Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He's worked there for decades and even lived at the observatory. In the same place where astronomers past and present make out of this world discoveries. From the studios of Cincinnati Public Radio, I'm your host, Dean Regas, and this is Looking Up.

The show 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 Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory historian. At Lowell Observatory, looking up into the night sky. Transforms us. It's a deeply human act shared across time and culture.

Well, this is really exciting. I've been wanting to talk to Kevin forever. We've met quite a few times. I'm a frequenter over at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. It's just such an amazing place. You got astronomers walking around, you got the public walking around, you got these old historic telescopes, you're in the woods, but yet it's still sunny.

I try to frequent a lot of historic observatories. I want to see the old telescopes. I want to see how they did things back in the day. I guess I kind of have like this. Old school astronomer in me.

Then a few years ago, I was, uh, going through town and I spoke, uh, gave a talk there and Kevin said, would you like to stay in Clyde Tombaugh's apartment? Clyde Tombaugh is the fellow who discovered Pluto way back in 1930. And I was. Completely on. I was like, what do you, I can sleep in his same apartment.

He's like, yeah, you can sleep in the same apartment. So I go there and it's in one of the old buildings above one of the centers there. And, uh, I was getting settled in and then they recorded me on their podcast, this podcast called star stuff. Hello and welcome to star stuff. I am Cody Halfmoon and I'm joined today by our cohost, John Compton and a very special guest, Dean Regas.

Hi Dean. Hi, how are y'all doing? And so we're in the apartment recording this. Yeah, we're here in person recording today in Clyde Tombal's apartment where Dean's staying tonight. And they're asking me all the Pluto questions and they ask me, is Pluto a planet? And I'm like, What am I supposed to say? This is Clyde Tombaugh's house.

Uh, and it's an illustrated guide for kids to help walk their grownups through the tragedy and the five stages of grief of losing a planet and hopefully move them to acceptance that Pluto's not a planet. Clyde's talking in the background. I know, you hear the wind. I know. I am, I'm going to be haunted tonight in this apartment.

The hosts were like, you know, This, this place is haunted. He is going to haunt you bad tonight. And I was a little scared, uh, stay in the Clyde Tombaugh apartment. Um, but, uh, luckily his ghost did not appear. Sleep well, Dean, sleep well. And I will say nothing bad about Pluto itself. Pluto is an awesome, awesome world.

Then once nighttime fell, I went outside and they have star parties. They have programs out there where you have a hundred, 200 people out there. Walking around the grounds in the dark. It's, it's one of those great places. I highly recommend folks to check it out. Uh, and they have a lot of new things that are coming online, especially a new building coming up at the end of 2024, which is going to be incredible.

So let's take you on over there with Kevin for a even better tour. How's it going? It's going okay. So take our listeners on a tour of the Lowell Observatory. They, they come up from Flagstaff, drive up the hill of Mars Hill. What's the campus like? What are they greeted to? How many telescopes are there?

And why is it such a great place?

Kevin Schindler: You know, partly it's this unique heritage that goes back to the 1890s. It was founded 18 years before Arizona was even a state. And so it started really in the Wild West. You had Cattlemen and railroad people and astronomers rubbing shoulders and in the old West.

Flegstaff's an hour and a half, couple hours north of Phoenix. So you get into this mountain town, and you're in downtown Flegstaff. And then you look up at this mesa just west of downtown, and you see this big, looks like a big birthday cake on the side of the hill. This big white dome that rises 40 feet.

And you wonder what that is, and you drive up there, and it's this fabulous old telescope dome. that's been sitting there since 1896. It's not only a piece of art, as it were, but you can still

look through it.

And then another part of campus, you have a smaller dome. Physically, it doesn't look as impressive until you realize that's where Pluto was discovered. And, you know, Pluto is such a It's such an exciting thing to talk about, I think, because, because of the controversy. Well, it seems there's a space controversy brewing over the decision to downgrade Pluto.

Is it a planet? Is it not a planet? What is a planet? And to me, whatever you call it It all started right there.

Dean Regas: You describe it so well. I think I, I tell the story a lot is that I was there visiting once and they were showing me around and they said, Oh, do you want to meet some of the astronomers? I said, Oh, sure.

Yeah. You guys doing research? Oh yeah, we do research here a lot. And they're, Oh, they're just over there sitting under the pine trees and having their coffee break. And they're like some of the most prestigious astronomers just to having coffee. Right next to the dome. It was such a cool thing. So you brought up the P word.

We got to talk about Pluto since that's kind of, you know, Lola's really embraced that. And you're even nice to people like me who think Pluto is not a planet. I appreciate that. You're actually accepting of all, all things, but tell us a little bit more about, why do you think Pluto is such a big thing for, for the public?

And you all even have a I heart Pluto festival coming up. Tell us about that.

Kevin Schindler: Right. I think, you know, Pluto really resonates with people. If we think about maybe what we would call the traditional nine planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. Pluto was by far the smallest.

Pluto is about half the diameter of the United States. And so there's this kind of. Little guy mentality. Now, Nathan, uh, tell me, what do you think of Pluto being

downgraded? I think it should, um, not be downgraded because I like the planet a lot and, um, it's one of my favorite planets.

Uh, when Pluto got reclassified, or as the media really has liked to say, demoted, in biology, there are a lot of beetles.

And they get reclassified all the time. Somebody discovers Betel, Oh, that looks new. And then realize, Oh no, somebody already knew about that. Pluto being changed from a planet to a dwarf planet is, is, it's a classification thing. Reclassification in science isn't unusual, but with planets, it's a little bit different.

And when Pluto was reclassified, it was like the little guy got picked on, you know, poor little Pluto because it was so small. I think that's one thing. Another thing is because it was discovered in the United States, scientists don't sit in a room and vote. That's just not how science is done. And when it was reclassified, a lot of these astronomers who were involved were from other parts of the world.

And so some people in the United States thought it was It's an anti American thing, they're picking on the United States, that was part of it. And so there's a lot of, there's a lot of reasons that it goes well beyond the science, it's a cultural thing that why people got so connected with Pluto. You know, Pluto was discovered just a few days after Valentine's Day, after New Horizons went by, the New Horizons mission several years back, it revealed this heart shaped feature.

The great equatorial, uh, dark regions. With, uh, with Tombo Reggio, as we informally call it the heart on Pluto. We all love Pluto. We all heart Pluto. You had mentioned our I heart Pluto festival and, and it's in February. I wish Clyde Tombo had discovered Pluto maybe in June because February can be a little snowing in Flagstaff.

And so it goes well beyond. The scientists, this cultural thing of celebrating science in different ways.

Dean Regas: The other part is that you have the accessibility to, can you tell us a little bit about the new, the open deck observatory area for the public?

Kevin Schindler: Little Observatory is taking advantage of Flagstaff's dark skies and opening a new observation deck to the public this Saturday.

Yeah, a few years ago, we realized we had to expand our visitor facilities. We decided, let's build this. Open Deck Observatory, and its official name is the Giovali Open Deck Observatory, named after a lovely family here in Flagstaff, John Ginger Giovali. And the idea with this is, it's a place where instead of everybody waiting in one long line at the old 24 inch refractor, Let's have an entirely different facility and it consists of a building that looks kind of like an airplane hanger and the roof rolls


The entire building, and not just the roof, but the entire building rolls back on track. And you have six telescopes that are mounted and ready to go. And all you have to do is press the button on an iPad and the telescope moves to whatever you want to look at. One of our ideas is astronomy should be for everybody.

Are you limited to a wheelchair? Let's have articulating mounts, where you push a button, and the mount that's holding a telescope moves up or down, so the eyepiece can be moved down to your height, and the telescope is still pointing at whatever object we're looking at. Let's make it accessible for everybody.

But then we have the other two telescopes that have monitors, so that one of our astronomers, for instance, can be on site, and they can have a group standing around them or sitting around them, and they can teach. At any given time, you can walk around and see different. representatives of the night sky and essentially every night's a star party.

The expansion plan also includes a unique rooftop planetarium open to the sky.

Dean Regas: Well, and, you know, in talking to you about your time at Lowell, you're part of the history too. Like you kind of have a old fashioned astronomer in you, just like I do, you know, you, you actually lived on campus for a while and then you'll walk to work every day up the Mars hill to get there.

What was that like? Kind of just living there.

Kevin Schindler: To me, it was a special experience that I'll never forget because when I moved up on the hill, there used to be seven residences up there. And those were kind of leftovers from the old days where the astronomers just lived on site. And the views, you have the best view in town looking over, across the city.

But to be able to walk to work every day and walk past the house where Vesto Slipher lived when he detected the expanding universe, and then coming over a little rise and seeing the old telescope dome, and thinking how you're walking in the footsteps of Percival Lowell and Vesto Slipher and Andrew Douglas and others who used that telescope.

And walking inside the dome and thinking how it was in 1963 when a group of scientists took some astronauts in there and said, as part of your training, we're going to look at the moon through this telescope. And, and you, you're doing the same thing. You're standing where some of the moonbound astronauts stood.

And that's just one telescope. It feels like a home. It's not like you're going to work. People are there because they love it.

Dean Regas: Well, and knowing you, I think you're the perfect person for the job for this. Your appreciation of Lowell Observatory, of the, the town. And by the way, Kevin, I don't know if you know this, but everybody in town knows who you are. You are a Flagstaff legend. Everybody knows you.

Kevin Schindler: It's great. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

It depends on how they are using my name, but you know, I've been here. I've been at Lowell for 29 years now. And so at some point you kind of become part of the community.

Dean Regas: Oh, and you definitely are. I mean, anything I'm doing, like, Oh, did you talk to Kevin about that? I was like, yeah, yeah. I better talk to Kevin about that, he knows everything.

Kevin Schindler: I think Lowell is a microcosm of Flagstaff. It's friendly, helpful, courteous, family like atmosphere. It's just it's a great place to live and work.

Dean Regas: Well, this has been great chatting with you today. Kevin, thanks so much for taking the time.

Kevin Schindler: Oh, great talking with you, and I look forward to more adventures. I can't wait till you get out here again, and I still need to get back to Cincinnati.

Because I, as we've talked about, I grew up north of you a few hours in Medina County.

Dean Regas: That's right. Another Ohio boy out there among the stars. We appreciate you.

Kevin Schindler: Yes. Great talking with you.

Dean Regas: All right. One more note about Pluto's discovery, Clyde Tombaugh and the Lowell Observatory. So when I got to stay there in Clyde Tombaugh's apartment, I thought, well, I need to do the full like discovery tour because one of the little anecdotes about Clyde, the, the night he discovered Pluto, he was pretty sure he just found something new.

And, uh, so what do you do after you do that? Well, you got to eat at some point. So he went down into downtown Flagstaff and had a bite to eat at a restaurant called the Black Cat, which is now called Karma Sushi. So of course, after I checked in at the apartment, I went down to Karma Sushi to I believe sit in the same exact booth where he sat.

And then he went to a movie at the Orpheum theater, which is also right down the street. Uh, so I walked down to there and saw that, uh, and then went back to the apartment, went to sleep and was not haunted one bit. So I got my whole Pluto discovery experience. Looking up with Dean Regas is a production of Cincinnati Public Radio.

It was created by Kevin Reynolds and myself. Ella Rowen is our show producer and resident Pluto apologist. Marshall Verbsky assists with technical support and crater management. Our theme song is Possible Light by Ziv Moran. Jenell Walton is our vice president of content. Ronny Salerno is our digital platforms manager.

Our cover art is by Nicole Chance. And Brittany Mayti is our social media coordinator. I'm your host, Dean Regas, and keep looking up.