click any photo to view this story's photo gallery
published: Wednesday, June 08, 2011
Helping solve a stellar mystery
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- Christopher Stephan is a tall man with a deep, resonant voice. He teaches science at Avon Park Middle School, driven by a passion for his subject and a desire to awaken students to the world around them.
He is the kind of man who lives the observant life he hopes to inspire in his students. His garden is filled with native plants that attract local insects and birds for his study. He regularly uses the telescope he built himself and anchored in his backyard.
This is one reason Stephan joined the Citizen Sky Project -- an ambitious endeavor that combined research by both amateur and professional astronomers.
The object of study was Episilon Aurigae, a mysterious formation so far from Earth it is hard to understand, especially because its orbit does not conform to known precedents.
Because it is so far away it looks like a single star, but over time scientists noticed a regular dimming and brightening of its light. This traditionally indicates a dual object scenario, with some object circling a star causing eclipses at regular intervals.
The thing that is fascinating, Stephan said, "is that most eclipses last three to four hours, at the most a few days, but with this one, the eclipse cycle occurs only every 27.1 years, and the eclipse lasts for days (much longer than ever seen before). The last eclipse was in the 1980s. Now equipment is so much better, we're hoping to discover more."
Preparing for the eclipse two years ago, scientists understood they would need considerable help to collect enough data. They turned to the world of the amateur astronomer and the American Association of Variable Stars.
For the better part of a year, individuals watched Episilon Aurigae go through its eclipse from all over the world -- India, Ireland, Mexico and Stephan here in Highlands County, for example. All communicated over the Internet.
Stephan attended conferences on the project in Chicago and at the California Academy of the Sciences to prepare.
He helped train his fellow backyard astronomers, and because of his knowledge and ability to explain the complex, was asked to take part in a documentary about the work, called "Mystery In The Sky."
What is most exciting to him, beyond the joy of staring into the universe, is working with professional scientists.
"I'm thrilled to be a part of it," Stephan said. "Up until about 20 years ago professionals didn't want anything to do with amateurs. Now we have a good working relationship. It's a wonderful, wonderful thing."
He smiled broadly and spread his hands. "That a local middle school teacher could be a part of this worldwide effort is thrilling, let alone one in little old Highlands County."
The data, having been collected over the past year, are now being studied closely.
One theory being discussed is the possibility the second object is not a planet or solid object at all, but a huge disc shaped cloud that orbits the star.
Several teams will publish papers on the observations.
Stephan credits his father for opening him up to science.
"I caught the bug early," he said, remembering a science teacher who let him borrow the school's telescope on occasion.
"You have to catch them while they're young," Stephan said, referring to students.
"That's why I like teaching middle school, they are still willing to follow. In high school they already know everything and think adults are useless."
There is one ongoing change that disturbs Stephan -- the increasing light pollution that makes studying stars more and more difficult as the night sky washes out and the stars disappear from view.
Increasingly, he said, Florida is losing its dark skies. In fact, Highlands County has one of the few areas -- in the southern part of the county near Venus -- that still shows dark in satellite night time pictures.
The day will come, he said, when observing the sky will be impossible.
He worries that exciting students to study astronomy, or even appreciate the scientific method, will become harder as the natural world recedes and people stop looking into the sky altogether.
Christpher (by: Rusty Shackleford - 6/11/2011)
Cool story. You alway's find interesting material. Astronomy is fun. So cool even Blue Oyster Cult wrote a song about it!
Small Banner Ads