[Copyright 1987 by Robert J. Nemiroff]

How Much is that Comet in the Window?

During the winter months of 1985-1986 season, I had the good fortune to run the 'Campus Station' of the University of Pennsylvania's famous Flower and Cook Observatory. The observatory station, located on the roof of our building, features an 8 inch Alvan Clark refractor. Being a graduate student in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, I was allowed to open the observatory to the public so that they could see Comet Halley for themselves. No admission was charged.

In total, almost 500 people came out, mostly from the university, but many from the surrounding region. Many of the people were knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and I would judge the whole affair to be quite a success. There were, however, along the way, several curious remarks made.

It is probable that many of you (readers of Astronomy Magazine) have shown or tried to show "the comet" to friends and relatives. You, too, may have come across such situations as I will describe. Although the quotes are not exact, all these conversations are based on truth.

The Senior Citizen

"Do you see the comet?"
"Oh, my. Yes." Pause. "Now I can die."

I can't think of a good response to this. If I had known they would say that, I wouldn't have shown them the comet. How guilty I feel! Please live, please. This elicits some wonderful responses from other graduate students: "The Comet's really killing them up there tonight, huh?"

The Little Girl

"Do you see the comet?"
"Wow. Wow. WOW!" she beams.
"You see it!?"

The Family Man

"It's been 5 minutes already, can't you find the damn thing?"
"Please be patient. I should have it shortly."
"Listen, just get any old thing and we'll tell the kids its the comet."

The Telephone

"Why isn't the observatory open during the day?" (Too many good TV shows.)

"Is this the Astrology Department?" (Sometimes I think so.)

"How do you get up to the observatory?" (Suction cups.)

"Are you in charge of the Comet?"

The Opportunist

"That fuzzy splotch? I was hoping to see something more dramatic."
"Sorry, there is no tail visible. If you want to stay later, I'll show some objects that you may find more visually interesting."
"Nah. I have to go."

The Little Boy

"Wow. This looks like a big gun."
"It's a telescope. In some ways it's more powerful than a gun. Do you see the comet?"
"Yeah. Can we shoot it down?"

The Business Man

"How much is that telescope worth?"
"I don't know. At least ten grand."
"Yeah? How much is the comet worth?"
"It's priceless."
"No. Really. How much?"
Pause. "How much do you have?"

As annoying and funny as these comments seem, I guess they would not annoy me as much nor appear as funny to me now if I hadn't had thoughts like these once myself.

by Robert J. Nemiroff
Appeared in Astronomy Magazine in 1987, Volume 15, Section 2, Page 30

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