TAEM interview with NOVAC President Phil Wherry

novacTAEM- The Arts and Entertainment Magazine recently expanded our coverage of subjects that would interest the many college students who read our publication. We have added a Science section for the interest of our readership and first embarked on this by posting exciting interviews with astronomers David Levy and David Brin. We then began posting interviews with distinguished professors from George Mason University in Virginia, and USC and UCLA universities in California. We plan many new and exciting science articles and interviews in the near future.

 We would now like to turn our attention to what has spiked such interest in science. In the past few years the study and findings in the realm of Astronomy began with the discovery of new worlds outside of our own solar system. These are referred to as Exoplanets. We also have discovered so many new findings in our own solar system that interest in this subject have far surpassed our quests for knowledge since man first landed on the surface of the moon.

 Many amateur and professional astronomers began to group together to share their knowledge and findings. There is no greater group than the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (or NOVAC) for these gatherings. The club boasts of over 1,100 members, the largest club of it’s size in the world. A California based club comes in at a distant second place with just over 800 members. Leading NOVAC is the new club president Phil Wherry. Phil, how did the club begin ?

PW- The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club was organized in 1980, and it went through incorporation formalities in 1991.

TAEM- Please tell our readers of its early days.

PW-The club has been remarkably consistent in some respects over time. Reading through old club newsletters, it’s clear that the group has always existed to share insights and expertise with its members and with the public. I’m actually a relative newcomer. I joined the club in 2002, when the club was already fairly large—at around 600 members. The club has continued to grow since that time and now we have well over 1,100 members.

President-Phil-Wherry TAEM- Please tell us about the composition of the NOVAC members and the many walks of life that they come from.

PW-NOVAC’s membership reflects the diversity of the area in which we live. We have a few members who are in elementary school, a number of retirees—and everything in between. We have a number of members who are professional scientists. A couple of our members have flown in space. Most, though, are amateur astronomers. Within that broad description, we have people enjoying the hobby at all levels of expertise. Some are just learning their way around the sky while others are conducting research-grade observing programs. We’re united by our shared interest in observing and a desire to help others advance in the hobby.

TAEM- What is the scope of interest of the many members that the club has?

PW-In an 1,100-member club, one can find just about any interest!

Most everyone in the club does some night-sky observing from time to time; that’s something anyone can do using simple equipment or even with no equipment at all.

We have an active group within the club who do solar observing, studying the Sun (our nearest star!) in great detail. One of our members, Greg Piepol, is one of the best solar photographers in the world; his pictures have been published many hundreds of times in a variety of venues.

We have a member who studies “lunar occultations” (in which the moon passes in front of a distant star) to map the height of mountains on the moon. We have members who study asteroids. We have members who make their own telescopes. We have members who are very active in reducing “light pollution” through the use of better-designed and more efficient outdoor lighting. I think it’s safe to say that there’s someone within the group who’s involved in just about any facet of astronomical observing.

TAEM- What of your own interest in Astronomy ?

PW-I’ve been interested in science generally since I was very young. My interest in astronomy developed from an interest in photography and grew as I developed an understanding of the sheer number of objects that can be observed using even simple equipment.

I enjoy dabbling in astrophotography (a very complicated and technical pursuit), but probably observe most frequently using a simple set of binoculars.

NOVAC-membershipTAEM- Please tell us about the many symposiums that the club sponsors.

PW- Our club has a monthly general meeting on the campus of George Mason University, where we conduct club business and offer a presentation from a guest speaker on a topic of general interest. These meetings are free and open to anyone who would like to attend. Quite frequently these talks feature cutting-edge research, and our speakers do a great job of making these topics accessible to people at all levels of expertise in the hobby.

TAEM- We understand that the club has ‘star parties’ and public events as well. Please expand upon these.

PW- Our club holds public observing events roughly once a month. These are generally held at a park facility, and they’re an opportunity for interested members of the public to come out and learn a little bit about the night sky. Our members have telescopes and binoculars available at these events for the public to use, and they’re also able to provide some information about the objects we’re viewing. They’re great opportunities to learn a little about astronomy and perhaps a bit about operating a telescope.

We also hold two major public events each year: an “Astronomy Day” event in the spring (May 11 at Sky Meadows State Park) and a fall “Star Gaze” at C.M. Crockett Park. Both events offer speakers on astronomy-related topics and telescopes for public viewing. When the weather’s good, it’s not unusual to have 100+ telescopes on the field and 500+ members of the public in attendance.

We also run a regional “star party” called the “Almost Heaven Star Party.” It’s a multi-day (multi-night?) camping event held at a facility in the mountains of West Virginia that attracts 200+ astronomers of all experience levels every year. The event’s in early September this year. It’s a really enjoyable event in a beautiful setting—and the skies are among the darkest to be found in the eastern half of the country.

TAEM- What are the goals of the club, and how do the many members contribute to this ?

PW-Our stated mission is “to observe and help others observe,” and I think that remains a very good way to sum up NOVAC and its activities. The club’s very strong in observational astronomy and public outreach work.

TAEM- Has any of the members made interesting discoveries in their research and viewings?

PW-Astronomy is actually one of a relatively few scientific pursuits where amateurs can make meaningful contributions to scientific knowledge. It’s quite rare for a discovery to be made by a single individual; most “new finds” in astronomy are made by collaborative groups. The search for planets outside our solar system has been supported in a significant way by amateur astronomers. The same thing is true of the search for comets and asteroids. We have members who participate in all of these activities.

With that said, though, most of our members are stargazers simply because it’s such an enjoyable experience. It’s one thing to look at a picture of an object in a book, but it’s an entirely different and more satisfying experience to find it and observe it with your own equipment! 

TAEM- How does someone join NOVAC, and is there any links or contacts that you can provide ?

PW- Our club maintains a website at www.novac.com. Anyone with an interest in astronomy is welcome to join. Our dues are the princely sum of $25/year and it’s possible using a credit card to become a member in about five minutes online. We’re an all-volunteer non-profit organization, so 100% of member dues are used in support of amateur astronomy activities.

TAEM- Are there links that people could view to see the activities that NOVAC is involved with ?

PW-Our website (www.novac.com) has a pretty good overview of the club’s activities, but the best way to find out is to come out and visit. We’d be pleased to welcome you to one of our meetings or public observing events!

TAEM- Phil, it has been a pleasure and honor to be able to interview you. I am sure that many of our readers who share an interest in science and astronomy will be looking forward to reading more articles about NOVAC that we plan to post in future issues.