Spotlight- Kristen E. Holms
Philadelphia Astronomy Stars- Debbie Rech
Star Gazing 101: The RAS Offers A Better View of Our Universe
Originally Posted in the
If Mother Nature cooperates on Thursday, December 13, the first quarter moon and the Orion Nebula will be the stars of the show at the Bloom Observatory for the 100 plus members and guests of the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society. And, while what they view through the lens of the 10" Zeiss refracting telescope at the Franklin Institute changes monthly, the group has held incredible staying power.
An organized club since 1888, The Rittenhouse Astronomical Society (RAS) is one of the oldest astronomical groups in the country. The Society met regularly in Camden, N.J. and in 1931 began having meetings at the Franklin Institute on south Seventh Street. When the Institute moved to its present location at 20th and the Parkway in 1934, RAS did likewise.
The Society was named in honor of a Philadelphia astronomer, David Rittenhouse - the very man Rittenhouse Square is named after. A surveyor and clock-maker, Rittenhouse combined his talents to become world famous for the construction of orreries (a mechanical device that illustrates the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons) and his work on the transit of Venus of 1769. History sources cite Rittenhouse as the preeminent American scientist of his age, lauding him an internationally famed astronomer, master craftsman of scientific instruments, surveyor and patriot. His mechanical models of the solar system, precision clocks, surveyor equipment, compasses, and optical lenses were of the highest order available in the world. Considering that Rittenhouse’s genius was a primary force of colonial American achievements in science, it baffles many astronomy and history buffs that he remains relatively unknown. RAS President Dr. Milton Friedman said he does what he can to change that.
“David Rittenhouse has done so much for the history of astronomy that I am always trying to elevate his prominence. For instance, in June of 2004 when the transit of Venus got a lot of local press attention, when the news stations interviewed me (at the Franklin Institute), I talked about him. I mean, amongst all of his other accomplishments, the man made eyeglasses for George Washington. He deserves the recognition,” Friedman said.
Friedman has been president for 28 years, and has been involved with the group since the 70s. How Friedman connected to RAS is a great story. He got called to medical duty in the services in Da Nang,Vietnam in 1967. To help pass time in the evenings, he started reading astronomy books in the makeshift library. As his knowledge and interest deepened, he promised himself that when he got back to the States and it was safe to take his celestial appreciation outdoors, he would. And he kept his promise.
He returned home to Montgomery County, got a telescope and sought out an astronomy group. That search - done the old-fashioned way by picking up the phone and relying on the knowledge of people – led him to the Society.
He recalled going to that first meeting and sitting quietly in the back of the room. When he became a meeting regular, the group asked him to be an officer. That was 30 years ago.
“One of the nice things about RAS,” Friedman said, “is our monthly meetings are a nice free evening out, emphasis on free.” Meetings are held the second Wednesday of the month from September through June at 7:30pm at the Fels Planetarium. The best way to reach the group is to enter the Institute on 20th street through the business entrance that is to the right of the main entrance stairs.
Friedman said the monthly meetings attract around 60-80 people, ranging in astronomy expertise from novice to professor. While there is an agenda, Friedman said after the meetings, many Society members and guests will ask the astronomy experts for recommendations about binoculars, telescopes and even cameras they’re thinking of purchasing.
“What makes me feel good,’ Friedman said, “is getting to see some of the same faces for over 30 years. And, it’s just nice to see people from all walks of life and professions (during the day), come together at night with a shared interest in the stars and planets.
“I also make a point to note any new faces in the crowd and to introduce myself after the meetings. I was in their shoes once and I want to make them feel welcome.”
If it’s a clear night, Friedman explained, the group will go to the Bloom observatory following the meeting so everyone can gaze at the night sky with the expert equipment the observatory has.
That’s where RAS members become acquainted with Franklin Institute Chief Astronomer and Fels Planetarium Program Director Derrick Pitts. Pitts is an RAS member and the man who leads the monthly ‘Night Skies in the Observatory”, which take place the second Thursday of the month, weather-permitting. Pitts has worked in the Observatory for the past 30 years.
Explaining how he became involved with the group, Pitts said, “I first learned of RAS through some of the older, and now deceased, members of RAS, who were actually ATM's (amateur telescope makers) and also staffed the museum's observatory decades ago. My role has been that of an "in-house" advocate. I share my support of RAS programs and their connection with the museum. We have collaborated and co-hosted many programs and historic lectures over the years and will continue to do so.”
Pitts said RAS added to the overall educational and experiential mission of the Observatory, and thus the museum, through its monthly meetings and programs which attract people around the Delaware Valley. According to Pitts, RAS is an excellent example of an astronomy group that is now growing and changing with the needs of its constituency and surrounding society. The group uses the internet to broaden its reach into the astronomy community and it’s beginning to use the talents of its membership to help fulfill its mission to introduce families, and particularly kids, to the world of amateur astronomy. Pitts said, “Their mission works very well with the mission of the Franklin Institute and the Institute is proud to have been associated with and to support them as we have for the past four decades. We look forward to our continued collaboration in the future.”
Pitts credited RAS
members with being adept at fostering an increased appreciation for
astronomical events and objects amongst the public through public star
parties in which they have participated. “One way they do this is by
showing 'newbies' rather than explaining or describing. They let new
people see the wonderful sights rather than overwhelm them with highly
technical or complicated language. The sights are powerful enough. They
let the objects speak for themselves, at first, and then they fill in
what a newcomer might want to learn about,” Pitts said.
Annual memberships for adults are $20/year and for students, $15/year. Membership includes regular access to the Bloom Observatory at the Franklin Institute during the monthly meetings, inclusion on the RAS mailing list for the monthly newsletter and a discounted subscription rate for Sky and Telescope magazine.
For more information on RAS, visit www.rittenhouseastronomicalsociety.org or email
Membership Coordinator Ruth List at RMList@rittenhouseastronomicalsociety.org.
As the sun sets over Rittenhouse Square, and a clear, crisp night envelops the city, take a few minutes to stop and gaze upward from the usual hustle and bustle of the streets. Look beyond the skyscrapers, the shadowy rooftops and the tip of Liberty Place. Is that an unusually bright star in the moonlit sky? Maybe not. It could be the planet Jupiter?
"In the city, the sky is usually not as clear and dark,” notes Milton Friedman, MD, president of the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society. “People can live in Rittenhouse Square their whole lives and not know what is above them or what they are looking at in the night skies, for example, Jupiter."
The Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, founded in 1888, is a local organization devoted to de-mystifying many questions people have about astronomy and the study of the universe. As one of the oldest organizations of its type in America, its members meet to share information, answer questions and provide insight to students, average citizens, curious stargazers or amateur astronomers of all ages.
We try to get people interested in science and astronomy, especially young people,” says Friedman, of Abington and a family-physician at Jeanes Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia. “We discuss lots of topics like whether or not there are people elsewhere in the universe or where light originates from."
Since 1931, the group has met at the Franklin Institute. It is named in honor of David Rittenhouse, Philadelphia’s answer to Copernicus and Galileo. “David Rittenhouse did so much for Philadelphia. We owe a lot to him. He was way ahead of his time,” notes Friedman.
The Square’s Visionary Namesake David Rittenhouse was a leading 18th century American astronomer, inventor, mathematician, surveyor and patriot. In 1825, Philadelphia honored Rittenhouse by renaming “Southwest Square,” one of William Penn’s five original squares, to “Rittenhouse Square.”
Rittenhouse was born in 1732 in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, in a village called Paper Mill Run near the Wissahickon Creek. His grandfather, William Rittenhouse, is recognized for building the first paper mill in America.
David Rittenhouse, who worked as a clockmaker, was an extraordinary, self-taught intellectual with a remarkable list of accomplishments. He built one of the first telescopes used in the United States, served as President of the American Philosophical Society, Director of the U.S. Mint, Treasurer of Pennsylvania, City Surveyor of Philadelphia, he is often noted for his work on the Mason Dixon Line, and earned honorary degrees from the Colleges of New Jersey and Philadelphia (now known as Ivy-league rivals, Penn and Princeton). At Penn, he was a professor of astronomy, a vice-provost and university trustee.
Penn and Princeton both have original “Rittenhouse Orreries,” or mechanical models of the solar system built by Rittenhouse. In addition, Drexel University has a Rittenhouse clock, called the “Chippendale Astronomical Clock,” circa 1793, on display. Donated as a gift in 1894, this clock is considered to be America’s most important clock.
David Rittenhouse and other astronomical pioneers have fascinated people since the beginning of time. Today, the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society hosts many modern-day innovators making a difference in our universe – from Sally Ride, the first American woman in space to Brother Guy, a Jesuit and the Vatican’s astronomer.
The Society also provides community services and practical information. “Our members are available after meetings to answer questions. Sometimes, people are interested in buying a telescope and ask what they should get. We often tell people to buy binoculars before a telescope or to get an inexpensive one. You can find some planets, like Jupiter, with binoculars,” says Friedman.
On the second Wednesday of each month at 7:30 p.m., the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society invites anyone interested in astronomy to the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute for an out-of-this-world presentation. Weather permitting, the group also has the opportunity to get a glimpse of the stars through the newly rebuilt Zeiss telescope in the Joel N. Bloom Observatory on the Institute’s fourth-floor rooftop.
From September through June, the Society offers speakers and educational programs. The next meeting is September 26, 2007, featuring Dr. Robert Nemiroff, an astrophysicist and creator of the popular web site Astronomy Picture of the Day, www.apod.nasa.gov The meetings are free and open to the public.
"We scan the group and look for new faces and make everyone feel at home. At our meetings, we’re all interested in astronomy but in the daytime, we’re in all kinds of different professions” says Friedman. “Our meetings are enjoyable for anyone. We discuss what’s currently in the night skies and what to expect in upcoming months,” notes Friedman.
[Last Updated 2010]
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