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08/12/2003 07:00:00

Things looking up for new public information coordinator at Palomar Observatory

After five months as Palomar Observatory's first-ever public information coordinator, Scott Kardel is getting accustomed to being a Southern California resource for all things pertaining to the sky. A typical question may be how one can best see a meteor shower, or which telescope he thinks is the best purchase for an amateur, or more somberly, which asteroids discovered at Palomar were recently named in commemoration of the Columbia astronauts. Lately, a common request has been to explain the current hubbub about Mars.

In all cases, Kardel is the guy to ask, because he has been fielding questions about astronomy constantly for the last 10 years -- and an avid watcher of the sky for 30. A native of Arizona, where the skies are clear and the telescopes are many, Kardel has been involved his entire working life in either teaching science at the high school level, or in explaining astronomy through the written and spoken word as a columnist or as an observatory employee.

"I've been a confirmed astronomy nut forever," says Kardel, who came to Caltech in March from the Lake Afton Public Observatory in Wichita, Kansas, after a long and exhaustive search by a special committee at the California Institute of Technology, which has owned and operated Palomar Observatory since its opening in 1948. The observatory, never having had an employee directly charged with the task of communicating astronomy to the public and news media, wanted to get the right person for the job.

Astronomy questions coming to Kardel are slowly but surely increasing as he becomes better known in the region, and he says he definitely has the time available to help reporters with their stories on upcoming astronomical phenomena of interest, such as Mars's close approach on August 27.

"Right now the time I spend on media queries is still a relatively small part, but that will probably change," says Kardel. "But this is what I've been doing for a long time now -- that and helping people get to know the sky."

Kardel earned a master's degree in astronomy at the University of Arizona, which has the reputation of being one of the best graduate programs in astronomy in the nation. He worked his way through grad school while employed as a science teacher at Agua Fria Union High School, where he taught classes in physics, earth science, physical science, and biology.

And as if teaching and earning a graduate degree weren't quite enough to consume his time, Kardel also built the Christa McAuliffe Observatory at the school, and once it was functional, operated it for his classes as well as for the astronomy club and visiting community groups. His honors include the Agua Fria Foundation Awards for Teaching Excellence in 1986 and 1988, and the Arizona designee of the 1988 Christa McAuliffe Fellowship Award.

His interest in astronomy, however, goes back to his own school days, when he took on the laborious and tedious task of grinding and polishing his own six-inch glass objective for a reflecting telescope. He admits that the optical qualities of the telescope weren't particularly good, and today relies on an off-the-shelf 10-inch Dobsonian for his private viewing.

"Grinding that mirror gave me a tremendous respect for glass," he says.

Now that he's at Palomar Observatory, Kardel says he looks forward to doing the sort of thing he has enjoyed so long -- answering astronomical questions.

"If people have questions, I want them to feel they can get them answered somewhere."

Richard Ellis, who is the Steele Family Professor of Astronomy and director of Caltech Optical Observatories, said he created Kardel's position to better serve the public's demonstrated interest in science, particularly, astronomy.

"In the past, film crews, reporters, and casual visitors to the observatory often relied on catching up with the daytime technical staff to answer their questions or receive assistance," Ellis says. "Quite a few longtime employees of the observatory really enjoyed doing this, even though they always had their hands full getting things ready for the night of observing.

"Now that Scott's here as a full-time public information coordinator, we're already seeing a huge difference in our ability to accommodate the public's needs. And I think public visitors are beginning to see the difference as well."

Kardel can be reached in his office on the mountain at (760) 742-2111, or better yet, by e-mail at wsk@astro.caltech.edu.