Amateur astronomers squak for stargazing

February 16, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

David Harris (left) and Gil Drynan, founding members of the Squak Mountain Telescope Gang, open a meeting Feb. 12 at the Issaquah Brewhouse with a ‘squaking,’ using PowerPoint slides to welcome their out-of-this-world gathering. By Greg Farrar

David Harris (left) and Gil Drynan, founding members of the Squak Mountain Telescope Gang, open a meeting Feb. 12 at the Issaquah Brewhouse with a ‘squaking,’ using PowerPoint slides to welcome their out-of-this-world gathering. By Greg Farrar

The only stars visible inside the Issaquah Brewhouse were those projected onto a plastic screen, but that detail didn’t stop members of the Squak Mountain Telescope Gang from voicing their approval.

The amateur astronomers squawked with delight and hoisted their pint glasses. Squawking — the sound — is not to be confused with “squaking,” defined by the Telescope Gang as “a meeting of a group with no members held on occasion in a darkened place where very little is accomplished.”

Squak Mountain resident David Harris, a self-styled Founding Fellow with an unruly mane of silver hair, describes the dozen-year-old group as “a lot of silliness. Absolute silliness.” His neighbor, Squak Mountain resident Gil Drynan, another Founding Fellow, said traditional astronomical societies were a tad too formal.But squaking has a serious side, too. 

“The interesting thing is that astronomy is one of the few sciences where amateurs can contribute to real science with actual scientists,” longtime member Ajai Seghal, of Woodinville, said during the Telescope Gang’s Feb. 12 squaking. The event attracted about 30 stargazers. 

So, while members may wear lab coats and bowler hats to meetings and invent nonsensical titles, the Telescope Gang is committed to science. Case in point: Halfway through the group’s most recent meeting, Tom Gwilym, of Renton, president of the Eastside Astronomical Society, showed a series of images he captured from his telescope. He clicked through photos of comets, nebulae and a series of shots of the International Space Station.

“That’s one of the best amateur shots I’ve ever seen of the space station,” Seghal said.

When skies are clear, the Telescope Gang hosts “star parties,” essentially a chance to observe the night sky with some serious astronomical gear. The group also works with local schools to spark students’ interest in astronomy.

Ted Cook, of Sammamish, a longtime Telescope Gang member who carries the rank of Most Senior Fellow, took the education component to the next step: He produces children’s DVDs about space. 

At the Feb. 12 squaking, his topic was space tourism, a burgeoning industry set to transform the New Mexico desert into a departure point for Earth orbit. Cook presented a spot for Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of British mogul Richard Branson’s empire.

“It’s amazing what’s coming out of these companies without funding from any government,” Cook said.

He also told the group that 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy and a celebration of the groundbreaking discoveries of Galileo and Kepler. Cook poked fun at the Founding Fellows.

“I believe David and Gil, you both knew these gentlemen,” he said.

Harris and Drynan launched the Telescope Gang in 1996 as an informal way to bring together amateur astronomers. As the group puts it on its Web site, “We get together when the sky is clear (not too often in Western Washington) and we feel like getting out to observe the universe.”

Squak on.

Reach Reporter Warren Kagarise at 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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