Grey-bearded Gilbert Clark seems out of place in today’s scientific community of ambitious, young astronomers, most of them armed with doctorates. He spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy before getting his first degree, a Bachelor of Arts — hardly the sort of academic record you might expect from one of America’s best-known astronomers. But Clark has thrived in several careers by taking unorthodox paths.
Today, he heads Telescopes in Education (TIE), a virtual observatory that links schools to some of the world’s most powerful optical telescopes. Using relatively simple computers at their schools, students can operate research-grade instruments in California, Australia and Chile — and soon, Arizona in the United States. By putting these expensive devices online, TIE has rejuvenated an ancient science, bringing what was once the prerogative of a handful of astronomers to school children in the remote hills of Japan, Poland and elsewhere.
In March 2005, TIE began moving its operations from the crowded Mount Wilson Observatory in California to the Arizona Sky Village (ASV), several hundred kilometres to the east. While Clark explains the shift was necessary for budgetary reasons, he has found a "silver lining" in the pristine skies over Arizona. "This is the darkest site that I have seen in the United States," he says. In other words, a fine place to look out at the universe.
Among their many notable accomplishments, TIE users have helped revise the ephemeris (orbital location) of Pluto. With the new facilities, Clark expects even more astounding results.
Search for Funding
Budget cuts in recent years at such major sponsors as NASA have reduced Clark’s funding and at one point it looked as though TIE would have to downsize drastically. But, as with his first TIE telescopes, he has masterfully improvised. Besides putting about US$150,000 of his own money into the programme, he has been working for free at TIE, as have many of his colleagues — only his primary telescope technician and operations manager draw salaries, paid in part by grants from Raytheon, a defence technology firm, and from the Ahmanson Foundation.
Several other earthlings then intervened to keep the programme growing. First, a volunteer telescope operator, Roger Clark (no relation), donated US$25,000, and other stargazers began offering help. Next, Sky and Telescope magazine reported TIE’s plight in its pages.
"Soon after, I was contacted by Gene Turner and Randy Norric of Arizona Sky Village (ASV) in Portal, Arizona," Gilbert Clark recalls. "They are developing an observatory on a 1,970-metre peak in the Arizona desert, and offered free use of their facilities."
The Arizona site has skies far more "transparent than any previous location" and Clark has offered his accumulated know-how for future telescope installations there. To make sure TIE gets off to a bright start in this "Old West" state, he has established an office at the future observatory complex, where he will move most operations from his headquarters in Pasadena, California. Around Portal, Clark hopes to duplicate the "neighbourhood success" enjoyed in California where 10,000 people attend an annual open house and the local school board invited him to bring TIE to schools under its supervision. Clark describes the Portal site as "simply phenomenal" and the people there as "true professionals".
Make a Difference
The first of what he expects to be many giant strides involves bringing another eight huge telescopes online and starting a truly Global TIE Observatory (GTO), while creating a comprehensive database to make images from the world’s best observatories available to students.
When asked why, he answers simply "because somebody has to do it". In addition, Clark refuses to charge schools and students for the service. "For those in developing countries," he explains, "the cost would be tantamount to the salaries of one or two teachers." Clark sees other potential problems in charging for telescope time: "Some schools could pay, but this would be unfair to others, and who’s to decide what and which?"
His adamant stand not to charge for TIE’s services has cost him some long-term support from those who think the programme should be charging users and thereby becoming financially self-sufficient. This does not bother Clark at all. "There’s not enough benevolence in the world as it is," he says.
This philosophy has made a huge difference. An astronomer who was exposed to TIE in a Los Angeles high school before matriculating to America’s prestigious George Washington University describes the programme as "a tremendous educational asset for any science curriculum". He adds that TIE makes the observing location irrelevant, and "allowed the nascent scientist in me to blossom". His experience with TIE has led him to form a team to search for planets outside our own solar system.
A Humble Beginning
Clark’s growing stature in the stargazing world comes not from discovering new planets or tracing the trajectories of comets. Rather, his contribution stems from the practical application of user-friendly technology to an immensely complex field. In the process, he has helped renew interest in other such difficult fields as physics and calculus.
TIE began as an experiment at a small California high school. The resounding success of this pilot effort soon convinced such major players as NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to become involved. The genius of Clark’s concept was the realisation that many large, "research-grade" telescopes were used only sporadically by scientists or were not used at all, in some cases due to the slow creep of light pollution around them and in others because of the development of more modern technology, such as radio-imaging and space-based systems like the Hubble. Even if they were no longer capable of cutting-edge science, these older instruments offered real research opportunities in astronomy, especially for educational purposes.
Clark then applied his expertise as an engineer to combine the telescopes’ optical potential with the latest IT advances so that anyone with a phone line and a computer could explore outer space in real time, using a range of powerful telescopes.
For centuries, astronomy below university level was taught only through textbooks. "By graduation, most students had never even looked through the eyepiece of a telescope," Clark reflects. The problem was even more severe in inner cities, remote rural areas and other relatively poor communities where educational emphasis on topics such as astronomy, as well as access to observing facilities, was limited or non-existent. TIE is helping change all that and, as computers and computer literacy have spread, so has TIE, which is now being used by 4,000 students a year. In fact, studies by national and regional organisations in the U.S. clearly show a direct correlation between TIE and the number of high-school graduates accepted into science and engineering programmes at top American universities.
In Italy, high-school students supervised by Dr Gianluca Masi, at the University of Rome, use TIE to study near-Earth objects. Masi calls the programme "a true winner", saying it helps students accomplish ambitious goals. He explains that TIE makes school more rewarding by allowing even young students to do real research.
Clark is constantly thinking about new ways to make TIE more effective. He describes the history of the Native Americans around his new site in Arizona as "mind-boggling". This has motivated him to start developing an "archeo-astronomy" curriculum that would add an entirely new dimension to TIE by letting students discover how ancient civilisations looked at the stars.
Published in 2005