Last updated on
4/11/
2006

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Who am I?

My name is Ted Kurkowski and I am a physicist and mechanical engineer. I spent many years managing solar energy research programs for the U.S. Department of Energy - one of the accomplishments of my research program was the low-emissivity films you can now buy in windows (“low-e glass”) to reduce heat loss.  Later I managed many of DOE’s computer systems operations. I left DOE and moved to northern Arizona where I now work for a consulting firm in software development.

My hobbies include astronomy (of course), photography (both film and digital), cabinet-making, and music.  I am fortunate to have good skies at my house (in a small town), and great skies a few minutes away. Here’s a picture of me. Unfortunately I don’t own that wonderful but very expensive ($350,000, and you thought amateur astronomy was expensive) 1997 Waco YMF-5 biplane - I wish I did.

Where I live
I live in Sedona, Arizona, a truly beautiful setting - it’s like living in a National Park.  Click here for some of my photos of the Sedona area. Sedona gets as many visitors as does the Grand Canyon, and if you ever get a chance to visit this area you won’t regret it.

North-central Arizona has excellent dark skies very close to populated areas.  Here is a light pollution map for the region, taken from data provided jointly by the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute at the University of Padova in Italy and the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. (Click on the thumbnail on the left.) Obviously ya’ gotta get away from Phoenix, but you don’t need to travel very far to reach dark skies (and reasonably high altitudes - Flagstaff is at 7000 feet).  By the way, a good way to get to light pollution maps like this for many locations in North America is Attilla Danko’s Clear Sky Clock site - see the Learning to See page for more information.

In Flagstaff, Arizona, about 30 miles north of where I live (and 2500 feet higher in elevation), Percival Lowell built the Lowell Observatory in 1894.  His main telescope there was a 24” Alvan Clark refractor, with which Lowell studied Mars.  The respected astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had seen dark, narrow lines on Mars and called them “canali” (Italian for “channels”). Lowell saw them also, and became convinced these were canals built by intelligent beings. (One of Lowell’s drawings of Mars is shown here on the right - click on the thumbnail for a larger image.) Because his telescope was one of the best in the world at the time, his theory of intelligent life on Mars caused quite a stir in the world of astronomy .  Eventually, astronomers such as the great Mars observer E. M. Antonialdi (whose maps of the surface features of Mars and Mercury were not bettered until these planets were mapped by spacecraft) were unable to see the canals, and Lowell finally abandoned this concept. But before he abandoned the idea he had traveled around the country lecturing on his Martian canals and the possibility of life there.  In one of his presentations a boy was listening and became excited about the possibility of actually going to Mars.  The boy was Robert Goddard, who went on to become the father of U.S. rocket science.  
   An interesting footnote to Lowell’s canals, is that physiologists note that the when the brain processes images it tends to accentuate the boundaries between subtle differences in brightness - it has been proposed that this is the effect which gave rise to the lines Schiaparelli and Lowell saw.  Curiously, some of the best webcam images of Mars taken during the recent historically close opposition, also show these lines and in the same places Lowell drew them - the image processing algorithms tended to accentuate subtle albedo boundaries like our brains do.

Later, perturbations in the orbit of Neptune convinced Lowell and a few other astronomers that there must be a ninth planet.  Lowell began the search for that planet and after he died in 1916 the Lowell Observatory continued the search.  Meanwhile, in the early 1920’s a Kansas farm lad became interested in observing the planets. He ground a 9” mirror and built a telescope mount out of the only parts he had available: pieces of a 1910 Buick, the base of a cream separator, and components of a mechanical straw spreader. It turned out to be an excellent scope and the farm lad made many drawings of the planets, some of which he sent to the astronomers at Lowell Observatory. They were so impressed with his work that they offered him a job, and eventually Dr. Clyde Tombaugh, encouraged by Vesto Melvin Slipher (the Director of the Lowell Observatory from 1917 to 1953), became the astronomer who discovered Pluto (in 1930), the only U.S. astronomer to discover a planet. (The photo on the left shows him at Lowell in 1930, when he was 26 years old.) Dr. Tombaugh spent several years studying photographic plates with a blink comparator before he was able to identify Pluto.  Pluto was named in honor of Percival Lowell with the abbreviation for Pluto - PL - in memory of him.  (Clyde Tombaugh was known for his sense of humor and when he retired he bought a house in New Mexico that was surrounded by trees.  He still continued his love of observing but as he got
older, moving his telescope around to avoid the trees became quite a chore.  So, tongue firmly in cheek, he mounted his scope on the base of an old lawnmower. He passed away in 1997.)

The Lowell Observatory is also well known for the fact that in the 1920s Vesto Melvin Slipher was the first to note the red shift in the spectra of distant galaxies, which became the basis for the expanding universe theory. The rings around Uranus were also discovered at Lowell.  To avoid the increasing light pollution in Flagstaff, the Lowell Observatory ultimately moved its operations to a mesa 15 miles east and the original observatory buildings are now a National Historic Register site.

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