Space and time on Isle au Haut

Astronomy is, among other things, the study of history. The light from the stars of the Big Dipper, that most ordinary of formations, take most of a human lifetime to reach us. The Andromeda Galaxy’s glow we see tonight left 2.5 million years ago, when man’s distant cousins were barely using stone tools on Earth. As we look up at the heavens, we watch history arrive at our small outpost.

The stars tell a human history, too. Mankind has used them for practical, spiritual and recreational purposes since our earliest days.

All of this history is easier to see in some places than others.



Six miles off the coast of Maine is Isle au Haut, a rocky, forested, 12-square-mile piece of heaven. Sparsely occupied in the peak of summer, and even emptier through the brutal Maine winter, it is mostly land that is part of Acadia National Park.

For at least ten thousand years, locals have plied its waters for fish, oysters, crab, bird, lobster and seal. Its prominent hills have likely always been something of a sanctuary from the mainland, providing a lookout that scans dozens of miles and hinting at the origin of its European name: high island.


Today, that sanctuary is from tourists. The mainland portion of Acadia taxes the patience of even the most nature-minded with its summertime crowds and congestion. Isle au Haut is empty by comparison. There are only five campsites, reserved months in advance. A small number of day hikers join campers on the daily mailboat from Stonington, Maine.

It remains an ideal lookout, of sorts. Isle au Haut, an isolated island off of one of the east coast’s least light-polluted spots, is an exceptional place to observe the heavens. I was thrilled to learn in April that my reservation request for the 2015 season was approved and my preferred dates were available, coinciding with a new moon, the darkest sky and the annual Perseid meteor shower.

My son and I spent our first day on the island hiking and savoring the persistent smell of spruce and ocean. Every trail led to incredible vistas. A nearly cloudless sky gave way to a spectacular sunset just yards from our campsite and promised exceptional astronomical viewing overnight.


We used the day’s last light to gather, cut and split more firewood and watched the stars appear overhead, one by one. Vega was first, then Altair and Deneb, forming the classic summer triangle. We sat and talked by the fire until light turned to dark. From a passing glance up only an hour after sunset, the heavens  revealed more stars than I’d see on the darkest night at my suburban Connecticut home.

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My son turned in early, so I knocked back the logs in the fire, grabbed a blanket and my binoculars, and sought a flat spot away from the embers’ glow. I rolled up a sweatshirt for a pillow and prepared for nature’s showtime in a near-total darkness unlike any I’d ever experienced.

At home, the quest for dark observing spots leads to absurd machinations, like finding a tree or bush to visually block a streetlight, or shielding the view of the road with a trifold school project board. On Isle au Haut, it involved walking ten steps away from the campsite. My prime observing location was rewarded nearly instantly with an Earth-grazer…an almost horizon-to-horizon Perseid meteor burning up in a long trail of fire and smoke. Then another Perseid. And another.

The sky was glorious. The Milky Way cloud band, stretching up from the south, peaked overhead in Cygnus and extended across the sky. Every passing minute revealed more detail as my eyes acclimated and sky grew darker.

You can see the cloud band in Connecticut when conditions are right; I have faintly observed it along the shoreline, and brighter in the extreme northwest and northeast corners. During the great power outage of October 2011, I saw it from my normally light-polluted front yard. However, it had never looked like this. I could easily discern the Great Rift in Cygnus and the shape and structure of the band. Through binoculars, it showed pinpoints from a sea of stars, so close together it looked like a quilt of light.

Over the course of the next hour, I saw a dozen or more bright Perseids, dozens of satellites, and countless astronomical objects from my mental checklist. The North America nebula? Visible to the naked eye; I had never been able to observe it at home. Messier 101, which I’d only observed in my best telescope as a faint spiral arm? It was a clear fuzzy circle through my binoculars. Andromeda? Larger than I’d ever think I could see it, and vaguely oval-shaped even to my unaided eye.

Typically, I am task-focused when observing; I go out to find specific things. Here, the pure joy was how much I could see when I was looking for nothing.

I had, more than once, considered leaving the binoculars at home for this trip. They are image-stabilized Canons; wonderful optics, but heavy. When you carry on your back all you need to live for a few days, extra weight is judiciously chosen. The binoculars were the perfect tools, allowing for wide, sweeping scans.

Trees to the south blocked my view of the horizon and our galaxy’s dense core, so I put on my red headlamp, grabbed my phone and binoculars and headed off for a short stroll to the rocky waterfront. The tide had rolled in considerably since sunset, and what had been a fairly easy walk in the day was a cautious, slow, slippery, rock-by-rock journey once I cleared the treeline. I hugged the narrow band of shore as it curved to the west, and after climbing over one large rock formation, there it was: Scorpius, Sagittarius and the cloudlike center of our Milky Way, stretching down to the horizon.

I had only dreamed of seeing the summer Milky Way from a truly dark sky sight, and it was every bit as spectacular as I’d hoped. Now horizon-to-horizon, the cloud divided the sky in a glowing, white path.

Credit: Christopher Georgia. More information at:

Credit: Christopher Georgia. More information at:

The Milky Way is pivotal in the heritage of cultures worldwide. It’s often described as the path to the gods, and understandably so once seen in its full glory. On the rocks, with waves crashing near me and our galaxy stretched above, it was easy to imagine our ancestors in this same spot, a hundred generations prior to the Europeans, looking up with the same sense of awe as they pulled their boats up high, cooked oysters on the rocky coast and made shelter for the night.

The miles of ocean to the mainland shielded me from any nearby light pollution but also showed its threat. A small glow, probably the town of Rockland, Maine, cluttered one small part of the western horizon. It detracted from the sky only in the sense that I knew what it was.

Photo credit: Jessica Hendelman photography (

This is NOT Isle au Haut, but IS Acadia, and very representative of the views I had. Photo credit: Jessica Hendelman photography (

I made my way back to the campsite and returned to my blanket. There was no noise, no light, just near total-darkness and the expanse of heaven overhead. A jet or two passed by on their way to Europe, and satellites crisscrossed the night, mixed in with Perseids, none quite at spectacular as the first I witnessed. Minutes turned to half hours and then hours, and after the third startled awakening from a buzzing insect, I realized it was time for bed. I made my way to my sleeping pad and kept looking to the sky. One last look. No, another. Ok, next satellite, and then I’m done, until one particularly bright satellite caught my attention, flared up a bit and then disappeared. I took it as a sign.

I stretched my hand out to the heavens, outlining it against the cloud band in what must have looked like a feeble attempt to connect, and went to bed.

I slept soundly, a rare thing for me when camping.


On our last morning on Isle au Haut, we took a short hike over a low ridge, surrounded by wild blueberry bushes that visitors had missed all summer. I asked my son, “If you take your kids here in 30 years, what do you think it will look like?” He thought about it for a few seconds and said, “Well, I think it will look about the same, because it’s a national park.”

That’s the right answer, for all intents and purposes. The trails across this gorgeous island will probably be about the same…maybe rerouted around erosion, or shifted by the crashing of the remorseless ocean.

The fundamentals will remain. The night sky will not.

There will never be another night quite as dark as August 13 and 14, 2015. Stonington and Rockland will always get a little brighter in the distance, one light bulb, grocery and mini golf at a time. Other towns will grow. The spread of humanity, as unwavering as the ocean, will eventually blot out the night. It may never spread fully to Isle au Haut, and it may not even change much in my son’s lifetime, but it will advance. At some point, certainly within a handful of generations, we will cover the sky nearly in full with our light.

We will call it progress, and who can argue with the spread of light, of technology, and of electricity.

That progress does not come without a cost. For all but the last 200 years, what I witnessed on Isle au Haut was all mankind understood the night sky to be. A two-million year shared experience, across cultures and continents, gone in the comparative blink of an eye.

We’ve changed the balance of nature and with it, disconnected ourselves from the glory and magnitude of the heavens. It’s only when you see the night sky in its full expanse that you realize what a tragedy it is that we can—and so thoughtlessly—erase our own history.

The good news is that the history is still plainly visible in the most humble of places if you look, including a small rocky outpost on the surface of another one, both tiny specks in a mighty sea.






Check Your Sources – Remembering John Breen

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Courtesy of the Journal Inquirer)

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Credit: Journal Inquirer)

An icon of my life died this week.

Professor John Breen of the UConn Journalism Department left us far too early but also left a trail of students honoring him in their thoughts and posts.

More than anyone I’ve ever encountered, he taught me to love words. No matter my title or place in life, I will always be a writer deep in my soul. I have struggled to find ways to honor the man. Besides the obvious (there is a scholarship established in his name at the UConn Foundation), I have decided that the natural and right way to do so is through writing.

But first, I need a drink, and so a toast to him—a glass of Irish whiskey—sits beside me.

That I feel the need for a little alcohol-induced ease of mind tells the first part of the story about why John Breen mattered.

He was uncompromising. In the days before Microsoft Word marked all of your errors in red or, even worse, auto-corrected them, John Breen accepted nothing but quality. In one of his classes, he established a rule for assignments: for every typo, you lost a letter grade. Not a circle on your paper. Not a “fix this.” No silver star for “nice try.” He assumed you cared enough about your readers that you wouldn’t insult them. I feared the man and feared my grade. The lesson I carried with me was simple: quality matters. The small things matter. Detail matters.

I partly need the calming drink next to me to even comprehend the act of writing something about John Breen, for I know that this would probably end up with a ‘C’ if he graded it. That a grown man, a professional in matters of writing, can still feel this way should tell you something.

He taught me to be cynical. That’s usually a perjorative word, but I don’t mean it in that sense. Having bombed out of the engineering program, a 19-year-old me found myself in Professor Breen’s Journalism 101 class. On the first day, he told us that to be a reporter, you had to question assumptions.

“If your mother tells you that she loves you, check your sources.”

He said that. He really said that. It’s a remarkably cynical statement, but it is also remarkably true. I don’t think he literally meant that you can’t trust your mother, but the lesson I carried from it is held deeply today.

Question assumptions.

Assume nothing.


Dig deep.

Check your sources.

I know it is the trend today to talk about the decline of a liberal arts education; STEM education will rule the future. There’s some truth to that, I suppose. But can there be a better lesson for life, or a better education (in the philosophical sense of the word), than “check your sources?” With more information available to us than ever, can there be a better requirement for critical thought than “question assumptions?”

Lastly, John Breen taught me the beauty and grace of words. He taught me that my writing will touch people and that there is an awesome responsibility in the act of writing about them. This doesn’t mean that, as a reporter, you should go easy on your subjects. It means you should be fair.

He was a man who seemed to me to be out of place in the modern world, even in 1990. He smoked at his desk. He used a manual typewriter. If he could have worn a fedora with a small piece of paper on the band that read “Press,” he would have. He was more or less straight out of central casting for “All the President’s Men.” With stacks of newspaper everywhere, his office space always seemed to be one poorly thrown cigarette butt from a towering inferno.

I loved that.

The world is worse without John Breen in it. Today’s journalism students—while bright, smart and so capable—are poorer than I was. He last taught me more than two decades ago, but I feel him around me every time I write something.

And although I haven’t spoken to him since the year I graduated UConn, I suddenly miss him.

Critical Thought and Astronomy

Had such a great time talking about astronomy to the 5th grade class at Plantsville Elementary School today.

Kids get the wonder of the universe easier than adults, I think, because they haven’t yet been trained to spend 90% of their days worrying about car payments, jobs, stress and all of the things that keep adults from stopping, looking up and saying, “Woooowwwww.”

I have done these presentations for three years in the Southington schools, and also have done stargazing nights at the local YMCA camp for about that same length of time.

There’s something amazing about watching a kid just GET the massive concepts that are involved with astronomy. There’s something amazing about having a kid look through your telescope, see the rings of Saturn and realize that it’s REAL. Not a video game screen, not something you see on TV, but real. That dot up there…it’s got rings when you look at it closely.

To me, the highlight of today was one particular student, an otherwise quiet girl, who raised her hand when I asked the class why Galileo’s observation of Jupiter was so important.

She said, “He saw the moons.” I told her that was right, and then asked her why that was so important. She said she didn’t know, and I said, “I think you do, if you know that he saw the moons. Why was it important that he saw moons?”

You could see she was really puzzled. I went to another kid with his hand up, who didn’t know. Finally, the girl literally jumped up and said, “I remember! It’s because if Jupiter has moons, Earth isn’t in the center of everything.” Gave her a big thumbs up and she was beaming. Truly, it was incredible.

A 5th grader comprehended something that complex so easily. It’s not amazing until you realize that thought was the basis for massive, societal understanding, just a few hundred years ago.

I got my telescope for free from a friend, who told me that the price for it was that I use it to show the heavens to kids. Every time I do one of these presentations, I think how much I truly owe him myself.

The Power of our Peers

Spent the last few days at the CASE District 1 annual conference in Boston. What an honor to be able to present the work that we’ve done at UConn with student philanthropy, and I’m so proud of the team of people who worked on it. From my co-presenter (the brains, the driver of the process and the hardest worker ever) to our data team, our background support, our talented student marketing worker, and even the group of peers who evaluated the presentation in advance…not much to say but that there is amazing talent all around me. Truly blessed.

The presentation itself went great, with one small technical hiccup at the end (curse you, PowerPoint), but the in-person reviews were positive and the follow-up questions were great. In fact, I’d say that we received more questions than any other session I had been in.

So, that was great.

It was also an incredible conference for a little “small world” experience. But, first, a little background.

About a month ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from a person I did not know, who informed me that I had been recommended by someone (let’s call him David) to present at a conference in March. I didn’t know David’s name, and a quick Google / LinkedIn search revealed no obvious direct connection to him. But, I like challenges, so accepted the offer and didn’t think much more about it.

Flash forward now to the conference. I pop into an interesting-sounding session at CASE and just am blown away by how great it was. I found myself thinking, “These presenters GET IT. How awesome.” It’s about my loves…analytics, marketing, data-based decision-making, social media. Just great stuff. And then I see that it’s David co-presenting!

I introduced myself after the session and start with a sheepish admission that I don’t know how we’re connected or why he’d recommend me.

He says, “You presented in New York in 2012, right?”

“I did.”

“I was in your session, and I left there thinking, ‘Wow, UConn is doing great stuff in this area.'”

So, the presentation he gave, that I randomly stopped in for, was inspired by our very own from two years earlier.



The lesson is that we’re not alone in anything we do, and our peers build us up, make us who we are, and turn us into better professionals and people. We’re all in this together.

An Explosion in M82

A star just exploded nearby, in one of the galaxies in our “Local Group.” It’s all relative, of course. The galaxy, M82, is about 11.5 million light years away, so the tiny dot that is the supernova is light that left M82 right around the time the Amazon River was forming, and long before people existed.

It’s humbling to think about, which is one of the reasons I love astronomy so much. Your own life is so fantastically insignificant in the big picture that it staggers the imagination we care so much about it.

Many people think that the reason we’ve never encountered intelligent life from other planets is that supernovae like this one have wiped them all out over time. Possible, I suppose. It’s as good a guess as any I’d have. Another reason for humility at our plight here on this little rock orbiting the sun.

Big questions, but right now the biggest question for me is how many cold nights I can take looking at the supernova. I saw it tonight, and it’s clearly visible, lighting up the little blur that is M82, far brighter than all the billions of other stars in that galaxy…combined.

It’s an amazing universe, and all we need to do to see that is look up.

Leadership in the Snow

Spent the snowy weekend in the woods, working with young people on their leadership skills or, more precisely, watching them learn those skills themselves.  The formal curriculum was the Boy Scouts of America’s Introduction to Leadership Skills for Troops, but the lessons were learned as the groups worked together for the non-formal parts of the day.

And isn’t that exactly right?  Because there are a lot of “leaders” out there who sit through an awful lot of trainings like that (not to mention offer those trainings)!  And there are a lot of MBAs churned out annually. How many are truly leaders, in the sense of being able to work in a team, inspire others, and put the group above self?  Not many.  Not a huge percentage.

But what I saw in this group of 12- to 16-years olds was largely leadership. Like cooking dinner on a propane stove for their small groups, when it was snowing and their hands were cold and the wind was blowing.  Or making sure that the group assumed responsibility for cleaning the site and leaving it better than we found it. How many politicians or CEOs would do that?  Would they even call it leadership?  Would they recognize it?

And why not?  And if we answer that question, have we identified what is wrong with so many of our major societal institutions today?

It didn’t all go well. Some meals were barely meals. Some food was ruined. Some stoves took a long time. Not everyone pulled their weight. Tempers were frayed. Relationships strained.  Part of the lesson.  But, overall, I walked away impressed at what we show when we don’t know what we’re supposed to.  Leadership and integrity come when no one is looking, or when you don’t know enough to care whether someone’s looking.

Just a thought.

Student Philanthropy

My favorite work project has been our success with student philanthropy at UConn.  Part of that is because I have been able to work with some great people on the initiative, but I also love it because it highlights the eternal role of philanthropy in life.

The idea germinated from an alumnus who looked back and realized the power of philanthropy in shaping UConn, as well as the need to build a culture of giving in today’s students, who have benefited so much from the support of others.  By offering challenge matches for students, he’s encouraging them to give, and we’re helping to shape that through a competition that is really focused on allowing them to give to what matters most to THEM, not us. And that is, typically, the club or cause or program that they’re part of at UConn.

The word philanthropy comes back to its roots of meaning “the love of man,” and I cannot think of a more empowering task than educating people about how philanthropy allowed for their success and how their own philanthropy is showing their support for those who follow.  It’s all good stuff.

More info on the Ignite competition at:

Thank You Video Contest

Behold the power of the crowd!

I was proud to help shape a very successful first student video contest for UConn. Thousands upon thousands of Facebook likes, shares and comments were received, and in the end, a great set of three finalists represented the University well.

The winner was excellent and produced by two UConn engineering students.

One of the main lessons learned? That there is tremendous talent out there; you just have to find a way to channel and tap it.

More information at:

Comets and Change

Up at 5 AM to attempt a rare feat, seeing three comets in one observation.

Two of the three were easy: Comet ISON was definitely brighter than even a few days before and had a noticeable tail. Comet Lovejoy was incredibly bright but had no tail that I could make out.  As Mercury and Saturn rose above the horizon, racing with the sun, I was hoping to see Comet Encke down near Mercury and make it 3-for-3, but couldn’t make it out. Still, it was my first time seeing two comets in one day, so that was noteworthy and quite cool.

The ancients thought comets were the bearer of news from the gods and brought major changes with them. Life’s been so crazy lately…maybe the ancients were right!

Messier 76

Check off the Little Dumbbell Nebula (Messier 76) from the observation list! Using my Orion UltraBlock NarrowBand filter, I caught a good glimpse of what is often considered one of the hardest Messier objects to spot.

To my eyes, it wasn’t as glorious as this photo, but it had a distinctive shape to it, and, per usual, the facts behind it made the fuzzy blur all the more exciting.