On this day in 1986, Halley’s Comet last reached perihelion — its closest approach to the Sun. This was right about the time I decided that I was not going to be a musician and that I was going to kill myself if I had to continue to be a baker. So I had started studying physics and math in my spare time and took a few courses at the local junior college. I befriended a guy who was really into astronomy. And I went out with him and his wife to view the fabled comet.
It was uninspiring, to say the least. The last visit of Halley’s Comet didn’t bring it very close to the Earth. So it looked like a smudge in the sky. But that was more or less my introduction to experimental astronomy. And by that, I mean standing out in the cold near telescopes. I had gone with the same friend a year earlier to see Carl Sagan give a talk on his book Comet. But this was rather different. And in the coming years, I would spend a lot of time at the Sonoma State University Observatory.
But that really wasn’t about astronomy. I only ever learned any astronomy when I was forced to teach it as a lowly college professor. At that time, the observatory had just gotten a CCD camera that we hooked up to a telescope (a 13″ reflector, as I recall). I had written some very small part of software for the system and I was usually the guy who controlled it for public viewings. But that just meant that I was where I am almost always when I’m awake: sitting in from of a computer.
As nerd activities go, astronomy is one of the better ones. And it takes place outside. At the same time, it is at night, which is more in keeping with nerd sensibilities.