Tales of Astronomy 2: The Contest

By Ed Ting 6/30/02, 7/15/02

"This wine is a little dry," said Kip. "I didn't realize you cared," replied Ron. An uneasy silence fell between the two men. Pete Kip and I were having dinner at Ron's place. It was a meeting among some of the officers in our astronomy club - Kip was the club's past President and current Treasurer, while Ron's term at the helm was expiring next month. Both of them had mentioned me as a possible future President and they asked me to sit in at dinner. But all talk of club leadership ended very early in the evening, as the two men did not easily get along. Ron and Kip were polar opposites. Pete Kip, a tall, lanky, athletic, perpetually tanned middle-aged man, had led the club through two productive but highly tumultuous years. Highly organized (it was rumored that he needed a Day Timer just to organize his Day Timer), he spoke with authority. Unfortunately, he was also quick to offend. Once, at an officer's meeting he flew into a rage because he disagreed with the way the newsletters were being folded. After two years he had the astronomy club running like a top but no one in it was happy. His favorite way to begin a sentence was with the words, "You should." Ron was elected President in a landslide when Kip sought a third term. He was a short, stocky man with a long, unkempt hair. Disheveled, even sloppy, Ron was apt to forget dates, club events, and (once) a club meeting (the Vice President ran the meeting that day.) While everyone loved him, it was obvious that after only a few short months, his disorganized style had left the club in shambles. Club events came and went without any notice. The club's web calendar had not been updated in months. We missed participating in the club's Astronomy Day at the for the first time ever, which infuriated Kip. At a recent meeting, he stood up and made an uncomfortable speech to the members about how incompetent he thought Ron was, and this was the beginning of the end for the two of them. Ron thought it was a good idea to get us together for dinner to talk things over and smooth over the rough spots that had developed between the two men. But the gesture had been lost on Kip. Twice he had already complained about the food. He also brought up club issues which he felt were not properly handled. And now he was complaining about the wine. "You should have cooked the chicken longer," said Kip. "It's a little juicy." Even through the dim candlelight across the table, I thought I could see Ron's face slowly turn red. "I think it's fine," said Ron, coolly. Kip rolled his eyes and sipped his wine. "If you say so. Chicken was never meant to be cooked this way. You should read the directions more carefully next time." "Are we going as a group to Stellafane this year?" I asked, in an attempt to break up the tension. "I'm putting together a caravan," said Ron. "We'll meet in Manchester, hit the grocery stores, and go over as a group. Most of us HAMs - we can talk to each other on the way over." He seemed to perk up at the thought of this. "So Stellafane is now a social event?" asked Kip. "What do you mean?" I asked. Kip shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing, nothing. I'm just wondering, since when did Stellafane become a social event, that's all." There was an uneasy pause. "No one ever goes observing anymore," said Kip. This was clearly a slap at Ron, who is the most dedicated observer I have ever seen. He may miss club meetings and events, but he shows up at nearly every club observing session, every school skywatch, every community charity event. I have seen him leave one skywatch when it ended, only to pack up and go to another if it was still clear. He didn't seem to care, as long as he and one of his telescopes were under the stars together. Ron had the most extensive collection of telescopes I had ever seen. Years ago, he had started a chain of hardware stores in the area, and then sold them to one of the big warehouse chains when they moved in. Now retired at 37, he had a garage full of the most expensive, rare, and beautiful equipment imaginable. Once he had built an elaborate alarm system using some of the telescopes in his house, but he wound up dismantling it when it malfunctioned on him. "And besides," said Kip, doing a slow burn across the table, "no one ever contacted me about this caravan of yours." This seemed to confirm what he had suspected for years - when you needed something done, you called Kip. But if you wanted to relax and have fun, you avoided him. And if there was one thing that upset Kip more than not being able to run things his way, it was not being told when things were happening behind his back. "Tell you what," I said. "I'll go observing with you at Stellafane." I was ready to say anything, just to ease the tension between the two men. "No need," sighed Kip, waving me away. "I am twice the observer you are. You could never keep up." "Hey, don't talk to Ed that way," said Ron. "And besides, it's not true." "Suit yourself," said Kip, draining his glass. "But I am twice the observer any of you are. I can identify any object, any telescope. Just ask me." Ron stood up. He was a patient man but all the months of dealing with Kip were starting to take their toll on him. "You can identify any telescope, just by looking through it?" "Easy," said Kip. "Pick one of yours. Put a shroud over it with the eyepiece sticking out. I will identify it." "Pete, do you know how many telescopes I have?" "Thirty eight," replied Kip, without a moment's hesitation. "How did you know that?" said Ron. "I just bought a few more last month." "It makes no difference," said Kip. "And I will wager you on it." Ron sat down. "What did you have in mind?" Kip filled his glass slowly and drained it again. "Pick any of your telescopes. Throw a shroud or blanket over it. Allow me only to see the eyepiece. Show me any object in the sky. You do not even have to identify the object. I will know it soon enough anyway. I will return to this room and reveal the identity the telescope. "If I win, you resign as President of the club. You will not run again, not ever. The club bylaws state that in the event of a resignation, a runoff shall be held at the next meeting. You will support me. I know I am not a popular member, but with you supporting and campaigning for me, I will surely win. Then I will put back together this club of mine that you have destroyed. Ron ignored the swipe. "And if you lose?" "If I lose, I will resign from the club, permanently. You will never see me again." Ron and I gasped. Although the thought was appealing at first, it was hard to imagine. Kip had grown the club from an informal, local gathering of a few amateurs to one of the premier outfits in this part of the country in only a few short years. Despite his personality issues, he had undoubtedly been its greatest leader, and the man who put the club on the map. Such a thought -- an astronomy club without Pete Kip! "This is what you want, isn't it?" said Kip. "To get rid of me? Here is your chance." Ron sat, deep in thought. Then he spoke. "You and I have the same 20/20 vision. I will focus the image for you. You will not refocus." This was a reference to a parlor trick that Ron had once shown me. By defocusing the image, you could identify a Newtonian or a Catadioptric from a Refractor, and if you were good were good enough, you could make an estimate of its central obstruction percentage. Even without seeing the rest of the scope, you could make a fair guess as to its identity. Not being able to defocus the image would hurt Kip's chances, but not by much. Ron had all kinds of stuff in his garage --Classical Cassegrains, Ritchey-Chretiens, Schiefspieglers, etc. It seemed to me that Kip had set an impossible task for himself. "I will not touch the telescope or eyepiece at all," said Kip. Ron folded his hands on the table. "We have a deal."
"I am only doing this for you," said Kip, returning from the restroom. We were alone together in the dining room. Ron had left the room twenty minutes ago and was busy setting up the mystery telescope in his driveway. "How so?" I asked. "Ron has ruined my astronomy club. I will not stand for it. Someone has to fix this mess. The bylaws state that the winner of a runoff election will only hold office through the end of the year. It is already September. Thus, I have three months to repair this club before -" "Before what?" I asked. "Before you become its next President," said Kip. "You see, I am only doing this for you." I was flattered by the sentiment, but not for long. Kip never did anything without careful planning. He was like a cat. He never jumped unless he was sure he could make it. His support of me only meant one thing - he felt he could control me, and run the club through me. Suddenly the prospect of becoming President became less than appealing. Ron appeared in the doorway. "I'm ready." "Then let's go outside," said Kip.
We wandered outside, into Ron's driveway. It was clear, dark, and quite cold for September. Ron lived at the top of a hill overlooking the town. He picked the location specifically for astronomy purposes, away from city lights. Despite his careful planning, though, a little dome of light had grown towards the east, partially obscuring one of his horizons. The scope sat in the middle of the driveway. Or, what we could see of it anyway. There was a large black curtain directly in our path, twelve feet high and at least twenty feet across. In the middle of the curtain, about half way up, was a small " X " cutout with a tiny little eyepiece sticking out at an angle. Ron had been very thorough. The scope could have been a small Newtonian on a raised platform, a refractor with its diagonal purposely twisted at a strange angle, a Schmidt-Cassegrain on an extended tripod, or a really big Dobsonian pointing towards the horizon. It was impossible to tell. I approached the eyepiece. It was dark enough near the curtain that I couldn't even tell for sure what kind of eyepiece it was. I would have guessed it was a Plossl or an Orthoscopic of medium focal length, but I wouldn't swear to it. Ron had done an excellent job of concealing the scope's identity. "Come on out, Pete," said Ron. Kip emerged. He approached the curtain with sure and steady steps. It was dark enough that Ron had to guide him to the eyepiece. Kip leaned in to look through the eyepiece, then pulled back. "I want to make absolutely certain that you want me to do this," he said. "Once I look through this eyepiece, this bet is officially on. There can be no backing out." There was a short pause. "We have an understanding," said Ron, in the darkness. Kip leaned in again, and looked through the eyepiece. What happened next was uneventful. He stood completely still. He did not touch the eyepiece, and did not try to look behind the curtain. Truth be told, he didn't even seem all that interested. After perhaps a minute or so, he pulled back. I expected him to take a lot longer. After all, we were talking about Kip's future with the club, something I knew he cared deeply about. Kip stepped away and wandered casually back towards the house. While he did this, I snuck a peek into the eyepiece. There was a star in there. Nothing more. I had no idea where the telescope was pointed, and no idea of the aperture of the instrument, so it was impossible to tell what star it was. It looked perfectly ordinary to me, the way Capella or Procyon might look in a run of the mill 8" Schmidt Cassegrain. "I'm ready," said Kip.
Ron had cleared the table and had set out dessert - cookies and ice cream. Kip dug in with gusto and asked for seconds. "You should serve the cookies separately," he said. "They get soggy when they sit next to the ice cream for too long." After we finished, Ron was impatient. "All right, all right, spill the beans. What do you think?" Kip wiped his mouth and set the handkerchief on the table. Then he leaned back in his chair, and appeared lost in thought for a moment. When he finally did speak, it was quietly, in that calm, analytical voice that all of us knew so well. "Well. You gave me the image of a star, or a stellar-like object. It was probably too much to expect that you might give me something easily identifiable, like the Ring, or the Dumbbell. If you did that, I might have had a fighting chance. I might have been able to tell magnification, approximate aperture, etc. and make a guess from there. But you did not do that. You gave me a simple stellar image. Something I have no hope of working with. Do you really dislike me that much, Ron?" "We had a bet," said Ron. "Yes," replied Kip, "but one in which I apparently have no hope of winning." A long pause. "So that's it, then," said Ron. "Apparently so," said Kip. Ron rose, and picked up the dishes from dessert. He was trying to contain himself, but there was an obvious spring to his step. Just as he was about to disappear into the kitchen, Kip spoke again. "But then again..." Ron stopped dead in his tracks. "I do have one guess, don't I?" No reply from Ron. "There was a stellar image in the telescope," continued Kip. "You picked a fairly dim star, but one not dim enough, I'm afraid. It was bright enough that I could see the absence of any diffraction spikes in the image. So we may rule out any conventional Newtonian with a two, three, or four-vane secondary. Now, this could have been a Newtonian with a curved secondary, but my guess is that you are not a curved-secondary kind of guy, am I right, Ron?" He did not wait for a response. Kip continued. "So we are left with a Refractor or a Catadrioptric-type of telescope. Knowing your love of Newtonians, this removes close to half your telescopes from consideration. Also, while I do not know the exact aperture of the telescope in question, my guess is that you did not bring out one of your larger instruments. A good ploy, using that huge black curtain, but my guess is that the telescope is a relatively portable one. "I have been to your house many times for observing, Ron. If you had bothered to come over to talk to me once in a while you would know how much time I spend under your dark skies here. You have very little sky glow around these parts, but you do have some. In a larger telescope, say twelve inches and up, there is a noticeable brightening of the sky background. I saw none in the image. So my guess is that the telescope is of eight inches of aperture or less, possibly a lot less. Also, I saw no wavering of the image, which suggests the telescope was used at relatively low power. This eliminates all of your larger Mak-Newts and all the conventional C8s and LX10s you have lying around here. "So we are left with a small refractor or smaller Schmidt Cassegrain. I know you are not a fan of the latter so we can concentrate on the refractors. I saw no purple halos, no false color of any kind, and the star was a pure white color, so we may rule out the achromats. The image looked a little too bright for any three inch telescope so my guess is that it's a four inch, or thereabouts. In this class of smaller apochromats I know you are a fan of the Takahashi units, specifically the FS102, which I have seen many times. It is, in fact, your favorite telescope. "You tried to hide in plain sight, Ron. It did not work. This telescope was your Takahashi FS102. Ed, would you care to step outside and verify my guess?" Ron stood stone still, but motioned for me to sit when I got up. A long pause. "I demand to know how this was possible." Kip sighed. "Simple deductive reasoning. As I said, I am twice the observer any of you are. You should have been more careful." "This is not possible." Kip rose. "Oh yes it is, Ron. And as the club Treasurer, I now officially ask for your resignation from the club." Ron set the dishes on the table. He looked like a defeated man. Through these nine months of battling with Kip, it was hard to believe that it was ending this way. "I gave you my word," said Ron. "You have my resignation." "Shall I make the announcement, or do you want to do it?" "I will do it, thank you," said Ron, barely able to contain himself. "Do it soon, Ron. I want to make my intentions towards the Presidency known right away," said Kip. "And with that, I will take my leave. Thank you for dinner. You should invite more guests next time." "I think I'd better leave too," I said.
Later, in the driveway, I met up with Kip, who was ready to get into his car. There was a calmness about him that was not there at the beginning of the evening. I wondered how the club was going to react when they heard he was going to be President for the next three months. Some officers would probably resign. Others would tough it out, hoping for the best when election time came around again. In a way I felt sad for him; he was not comfortable in any situation unless he had absolute control. I think that being President of the astronomy club was the only thing that really ever made him happy in life. Almost before I knew it, I blurted out what was on my mind. "Tell me how you did it," I said. Kip flinched. It was the first time I ever saw him do so. "What do you mean?" "You know what I mean." Kip paused, as if to gauge me. "Ron's resignation is permanent. I will not have it revoked." "I'm not asking for that. I just want to know what happened. What really happened." Kip paused. "You will tell no one." "I will tell no one." Kip looked at me, as if studying me. Then he spoke. "While Ron was in the driveway setting up the scope, I went upstairs into the bathroom overlooking the front of the house. I saw him drag out the Takahashi and hide it behind the curtain. When I was in the garage later, all I had to do was check that the Tak was missing. It was. It had to be the one." Now it all came together. His nonchalance at the eyepiece, his confidence. The outcome was never in doubt. Like a cat. He did not jump until he was sure he could make it. "You cheated." "It was never stipulated that I could not cheat. All I said was that I would not touch the telescope or the eyepiece. I did not. I played by the rules set forth between us. As I told you earlier," he said, getting into his car, "I am doing this for you. I only have the best interests of the club at heart. I look forward to working with you next year, Mr. Future President." Kip started up his car, put it in gear, and drove away. Behind me, the Takahashi stood in the driveway, waiting for an observer to take the controls. I glanced up at the inky black sky, and then down to the base of the driveway. Kip's taillights flashed as he hit the brakes, then dimmed, looking like a pair of distant red flashlights underneath the cool blanket of the clear sky above. -Ed 4/2/01, 7/15/02
Author's Note: Some of you caught a continuity error in this story. In Tales Part 1, it was clearly stated that the events were in a dream, but in this piece it states that Ron really did build a telescope-based alarm system. All I can say is, some of you have too much time on your hands! And hey - if you thought this story didn't make any sense, wait'll you see Part 3!! Go back and read Tales, Part 1! Back to Home Page