Poets Amazed by Starry Night

November 21, 2017

A starry night at Joshua Tree National Park.Living in the city, Melanie Rizzotti ’18 had never before seen the night sky for what it truly is: a breathtaking tapestry of a million blazing jewels.

But in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park, she finally did, thanks to a semi-annual stargazing trip organized by the Whittier College physics club.

“It was pretty indescribable,” she said. “It’s so beautiful.”

Rizzotti and several dozen other Whittier students piled into a bus or friends’ cars and trekked to the national park for the recent Star Party, where they explored, cooked hot dogs and s’mores, made memories around the campfire, and learned the stories behind the twinkling lights that fill the night sky. The overnight event is so popular, many students aren’t physics majors—including Rizzotti, who majors in sociology.

The trip presented wonders to seasoned stargazers, as well, including physics major Cassady Smith ’20. Growing up, she and her family always brought a telescope when they went camping. But for Smith, the Star Party combined that nostalgic experience with eye-opening academics, thanks to physics professor Glenn Piner sharing his expertise throughout the night.

With all eyes turned to the heavens, the students watched Piner’s green laser pointer zip from one star to the next as he explained the science and stories surrounding them, including which galaxies they’re burning in, or how Roman soldiers used to have to be able to see a particular seven stars as a test of their eyesight.

Clearly impressed, business administration major Sean Sternberg ’18 said Piner seemed to know every star in the sky.

“It’s kind of awe-inspiring, you know? There’s so much out there,” said Sternberg, who knew he had to go after hearing students rave about past trips. “Dr. Piner being there and being able to talk us through it was just—can’t get enough of that.”

Students also took turns looking through a powerful telescope at the stars and the moon, which looked so close that they could trace the contours of its craters.

“I particularly like being able to show the students the Moon and the planets, especially Jupiter and Saturn, through the telescope for the first time,” Piner said. “I think there is something important about seeing these with your own eyes as real places, rather than just as pictures in a book or on a screen.”