In Which I See Some Light from A Few Million Years Ago

Do you know why the Milky Way is so named?  It’s shaped like a disk, and since we sit inside of that disk, there’s a particular direction we can look and see the “thickest” slice of our galaxy (from where we are to the edge).  This slice appears as a band across the sky, milky because our eyes can’t distinguish the billions of individual stars from one another.  The sight of this illuminated strip, a reminder of our own insignificant place orbiting one star out of a few hundred billion in one galaxy out of a couple hundred billion, is truly amazing.  Have you seen it before?

If not, you should really head over for a tour of the Mees Observatory.  The observatory, owned and operated by the University of Rochester and about an hour’s drive away, sits on the highest point in Ontario County; given the low levels of light pollution there, it’s kind of like “the best seat in the house” when it comes to observing the stars (and other such astronomical objects).

The trip started with a powerpoint.  Well, no, the trip started with the bus ride over (which I planned to spend reading but, naturally, got sucked into a conversation about Marxism and television and Ramadan and what those all have to do with each other, because a bus ride with Rochester students is never boring).  And then continued with us getting out of the bus to stand on a dais outside the house that treated us to this panorama:


And then with us getting coffee and donuts.

But after all of that, there was a powerpoint, courtesy of our tour guide Dave Cameron.  Highlights of the presentation include: everyone at the UR has been pronouncing Gannett wrong (actually guh-NET), and the house at the observatory is named after him; on any given night there will be about 3 dozen satellites visible, most of which are garbage (“we’re polluting the sky”); the night of our visit was the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11, of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin fame; someone asked “Does Pluto still exist?” when we were naming off the planets; and, as beautiful as our auroras are on Earth, listening to Saturn’s aurora provided me with a brand new soundtrack for my worst nightmares.

Overall, the presentation was fun and engaging.  We did pause for a moment during to head outside and see an iridium flare, which is when an iridium communication satellite catches the light just so, and, well, flares.  The flash can be incredibly bright, up to 30 times brighter than Venus, and I’m really sorry that I just ruined that one time you thought you saw a UFO (if you’re interested, you can plan a viewing here).

The tour continued with a trek into the actual observatory.  There are two parts to the observatory: a control room and the telescope.

The control room, running on computers older than me, locks in on a star (or other object) and moves the telescope.


Meanwhile, up in the telescope area, you can rotate the ceiling to reveal some pretty spectacular views.

To help you navigate in the dim red lighting, there were carefully placed glow-in-the-dark stars.
To help you navigate in the dim red lighting, there were well placed glow-in-the-dark stars, which we all found equal parts helpful and amusing.

The first thing we saw was Saturn, and all its rings.  The rings are only about 30-300 ft. thick and more than 750 million miles away (point of comparison: that’s more than 100 times the combined height of every single living person)… and yet, here they were, clearly visible.  I saw how the planet was tilted, and the swirls on its surface.  I don’t know the best way to communicate what it was like to see something that cool, but I will say that the first person to go up and take a peek simply exclaimed: wow.

We saw a ring nebula, and (my personal favorite) the Hercules globular cluster.  All the while, Eric Mamajek, a UR professor, answered our questions and shared stories about the universe and where it came from (and let us know that if we’re interested, we can learn much more about it in Astronomy 105 or 111 next semester).

An expedition to Niagara Falls or Letchworth State Park can certainly be beautiful, but to me, there’s something even cooler about being a tourist of your solar system.  We ended the night by going out, looking up at the stars, and seeing the band across the sky that gives our galaxy its name: the Milky Way, the ultimate sightseeing experience.

PS: if you follow that Mees Observatory link, it loads a different background picture whenever you refresh the page, so have fun with that.

The Loon is Where Debate is at

The UR Debate Union (URDU) is a hidden gem that more students need to be extracted more often. In high school, I participated in Lincoln Douglass (LD) debate and Student Congress, but I wasn’t as active as I would like due to money issues. I wasn’t as driven to do debate in high school because I never won anything at a tournament (and never made it to eliminations), and that changed once I joined URDU. My first intercollegiate debate tournament was the West Point Invitational at West Point. There, I won my very first debate round ever and I owe that to the wonderful debate coaches. The thing about URDU that makes it so different than most teams on the NDT-CEDA circuit is the openness of the team.

URDU on the steps of Rush Rhees having fun at our annual debate banquet.

Debaters with no experience are more than welcomed to join URDU and all they have to do is attend an URDU meeting. The best thing about the URDU is the free travel! Because of a gracious benefactor, all members of the URDU can travel for free to tournaments. FREE hotel rooms, team dinners, car and air travel (to national tournaments) are FREE. Also, if you can prove that you are dedicated to the debate game and show potential/progress, you might be able to get URDU to subsidize your tuition at summer debate camps.

My bear and Rocky chilling in my hotel room at the Harvard Tournament in October 2013.

Currently, I am at policy debate camp in Vermont called The Loon, more specifically the East Coast Loon since there is another Loon on the West Coast. As a debater for the university, I decided to spend some of my summer to refine and develop my debate skills, so I can be a better debater and advocate. My time at the Loon has been very interesting and life-affirming. The East Coast Loon is located on a mountain in Vermont where I have had the privilege to see STARS! There were hundreds of stars scattered and packed throughout the dark sky and for a minute, I felt really really small.   The best part of my star-gazing  was when I was lucky enough to see a meteor shoot across the sky! As a girl from a large city in the south , I never had that privilege or opportunity to see the beauty of space and Vermont gave me that.

Being on the debate team, especially at UR, has provided me with great experiences and access to a community filled with love, competitiveness, and deep intellectuals. If you would like to know more about the URDU or policy debate in general, you can email me at or visit Dewey 1-204 when school starts.

The Magic of Willy Wonka

About two weeks ago, I attended the Summer Sessions movie event at Jackson Court where the feature movie was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

A mixture of students enjoying the classic story about a poor boy getting a happy ending

Although I am not a big fan of the movie, I did enjoy some aspects of the event. For me, the best part had to be the free candy.  (The struggle is real in college and anytime I see advertisements for free food or candy, I have to be there).

Blue Raspberry Cotton Candy
No golden ticket here
A relatively bad picture of the first golden ticket winners huddling over their precious candy prize

The disappointing part of the event was that I did not receive a Golden Ticket. I wanted to be Charlie that night, but my dream never came true.  I guess maybe that is why I had to leave the event before the movie ended; it was just too hard to see Charlie on the screen and know that I could never be him.

Young Charlie