UF Astronomers Send School Spirit Soaring From Hawaiian Mountain

Published: December 31 1996

Category:Astronomy, Research

GAINESVILLE — Leave it to astronomers to take something as simple as school spirit and build it up to global proportions.

A group of University of Florida astronomy researchers visiting an observatory in Hawaii demonstrated their team zeal recently by sneaking onto a mountaintop construction site and erecting a 6-foot-high sign that spelled “Go Gators.”

But here’s what made it a truly global stunt: The construction site is monitored by a camera that sends images of it every 15 minutes to a World Wide Web site. The message likely found an audience in the United States and at least five other countries that are sponsoring the construction.

The impetus for the display: News that UF’s football team would be playing in Thursday’s Sugar Bowl.

“We were overcome with Gator enthusiasm and loyalty — and cloudy weather,” said UF astronomy professor Charles Telesco, who, with research associate Robert Pina, hatched the scheme.

The group was in Hawaii for two weeks just before Christmas to use a UF-built infrared camera at a NASA observatory atop the 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea. Also being built at the summit by an international consortium is the Gemini Telescope, which will be the world’s largest single-mirror telescope when it opens next year.

Telesco said he and Pina hit on the idea of the sign shortly after learning of the Gators’ Sugar Bowl spot. When clouds and bad weather waylaid the astronomers’ work, they decided to put the sign caper into action.

Pina said he and his colleagues scouted the construction site to see whether security guards would be a problem. They weren’t. Team members then spent the entire night

making the sign, using eight, 40-by-60-inch pieces of white poster board. Each orange-and- blue letter filled each board.

About 5:30 a.m., braving predawn high winds and subfreezing temperatures, the researchers climbed the stairs to the roof of the Gemini Telescope’s main observatory building. They used plastic ties to attach the letters to steel cables running around the edge of the roof, then retreated to an adjacent telescope dome to watch the sun rise on their handiwork.

“It was great — the highest Gator sign in the world,” Pina said.

The message was beamed out over the Internet for about three hours until construction workers showed up and took it down. But the culprits knew their display was a success: Telesco said the National Observatories in Tuscon, Ariz., which runs the Gemini Telescope web site, received numerous pieces of e-mail from people who saw it worldwide.

“We have a good time when we work,” Telesco said.


Steve Orlando

Category:Astronomy, Research