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.