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UCI:Observatory leader uses sky as chalkboard

ON CAMPUS AT

April 03, 2007

When the phone rings in Tammy Smecker-Hane's UC Irvine office, it may be a student asking about the distribution of iron abundance in galactic bulge stars or a concerned citizen wondering if that strange green glow in the night sky was caused by a UFO.

No question in the universe, it seems, is off-limits when you're director of the UCI Observatory and assistant professor of physics. Whether she's speaking to local third-graders about the solar system or UCI undergraduates about galaxy formation, Smecker-Hane seeks to educate her audience about the heavens above. And that audience is expanding. On the observatory's visitor nights, the number of people who gather for a close-up view of the sky has increased from about 100 in 1995 to about 1,000 today. People line up to peer through the observatory's 24-inch and 8.5-inch telescopes, often seeing Saturn's ethereal rings or Orion Nebula's star-forming cloud for the first time. To handle the crowds, the department of physics and astronomy has added a team of volunteers and two shuttle buses.

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"Nearly everyone loves astronomy, and it's great publicity for the university," said Smecker-Hane, who started the visitor nights, which are now held five times a year.

Smecker-Hane especially enjoys getting kids excited about astronomy. The department offers outreach programs for students in the Compton, Santa Ana and Newport-Mesa school districts, inviting them to field trips at the observatory and giving presentations at their schools, often setting up telescopes to view sunspots and solar flares. The program reaches about 2,500 youngsters annually.

As a child, Smecker-Hane learned about the solar system when her parents took her to their local planetarium in Pittsburgh. Smecker-Hane was first in her family to go to college.

She got serious about astronomy as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, where she obtained her doctorate in physics in 1993. Today, she studies the formation and evolution of galaxies.

"Astronomy is still a young science," she says. "It's a field where one person or a small group of people can still make a huge discovery."

The next visitor night will be from 8 to 10 p.m. April 13. The event is free; parking is available for $7 in the parking structure at E. Peltason and Anteater Drives, 18C on the campus map at www.uci.edu/campusmap. Shuttle buses will take visitors from the front of the parking structure to the gravel road near Gabrielino Drive and California Avenue that leads to the observatory.

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