It was a quiet and chilly Friday night on The Hill. All was deserted, except the Alvin H. Nielsen Physics and Astronomy Building, where the bi-monthly stargazing session was bustling with people once again.
Stargazing from "The Roof" has been a UT tradition since 1987. Gatherings take place at 8:30 p.m. every first and third Friday of the month, weather permitting.
Paul Lewis, director of Space Science Outreach, has been conducting these observational opportunities for the public from their infancy.
"The department has supported observing sessions for students for longer than I have been here," Lewis said. "The program had gotten so big; we needed to have someone on a regular basis."
Operating the second telescope, Charles Ferguson, director of the East Tennessee Discovery Center's Akima Planetarium, claims he is the reason Lewis got hooked on astronomy.
"I got him started," Ferguson said. "He called me up in the early 80s saying he had a telescope and wanted to learn how to use it. Eventually the people downstairs noticed him and said, 'You're good,' and it all snowballed from there."
People of all ages filtered on and off the rooftop throughout the night. In attendance was a class of sixth grade students sent by their science teacher on an extra credit assignment.
"It's really great that all of these kids came out tonight," Ferguson said. "It's amazing what they know already. Some of them are asking questions you wish that the college students would ask."
"I had a really great time," said Gracie, one of the sixth grade students. "Looking up into space was so cool.
"I can't wait to come back and bring some more of my friends with me."
As each child stepped up to the eyepiece, Lewis and Ferguson would ask the child's name and start a conversation. Lewis, who closely resembles a certain resident of the North Pole, cracked jokes and asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. In a previous article, Lewis emphasized the importance of making astronomy accessible and understandable to children.
"If I had to say I was proudest of anything, it's my ability to communicate with kids," Lewis said. "The only evidence I really have for that is that we still have their attention at the end of the program."
Although he was first hired part-time to run the stargazing sessions, Lewis' job now encompasses many more components.
"I also give public lectures on space science and astronomy topics at venues all over East Tennessee, mostly elementary and middle schools, churches and civic organizations," Lewis said. "I also regularly give presentations in local, state and national parks, including the Tennessee Spring Star Party each spring at Fall Creek Falls State Park."
Lewis is also the planetarium director. The planetarium, added in May 2013, seats 32 people beneath a 20-foot dome where they can view the nighttime sky through a digital lens.
"The planetarium offers us the capability of showing the sky for anytime from anywhere," Lewis said. "It is a wonderfully immersive environment that promotes curiosity.
"It is a remarkable teaching tool used for both lecture and lab."
The planetarium is especially useful given the amount of light pollution in Knoxville.
"We do have a very light-polluted sky here, but that does not stop us from 'putting our best telescope forward,'" said Lewis. "The moon and planets are pretty easy targets, and there are a number of deep space objects such as nebulae and star clusters that we frequently observe."
April 15, Lewis said, will be an "especially interesting" day to have a look at the sky. That is the date of the next total lunar eclipse.
To learn more about space science outreach at UTK, visit http://www.phys.utk.edu/trdc/.