Ace of Space
Lifelong star geek Vic Maris gave his first star talk to campers in 1974, his first year as a state park ranger and naturalist. Since then, he’s been teaching anyone who’ll listen about how cool the stars are. He even helped built a big telescope in a state park. A few years ago, he retired from the state-parks job, but only to start working two jobs to get people fascinated with the heavens. For years, Maris has taught a two-day class called “The Majesty of the Night Sky” for the Learning Exchange. He also started his own company, Stellarvue, which makes high-quality telescopes that are easy for beginners to use.
How did you start stargazing?
When I was 16, I looked up at the night sky and became inspired. I wanted to learn more, and the funny thing is my dad bought me one of these cheap, department-store telescopes, and it just didn’t work. I got frustrated. It had a wobbly mount, terrible optics. I couldn’t see anything. And this guy, this astronomer, took me under his wing and showed me how to make a telescope, and I did. That began a lifelong love affair, really, with the night sky.
Later, you got into business?
As I neared retirement, students at the Learning Exchange kept asking where to get a good, inexpensive telescope. So many of the telescopes out there are from China, and they just don’t work. So, I would be at a loss, and they encouraged me to start a company that makes telescopes, since I’ve been making telescopes since the mid-1960s. They finally talked me into it, and three years ago, I started Stellarvue. I design the telescopes, and we assemble them right here in Auburn. We’re one of the very few telescope companies in the United States anymore.
What’s good advice for someone starting out?
Get some books. Learn the night sky. Before you buy a telescope, you really need to understand what’s going on up there. Use binoculars.
What do you teach in your class?
We have a lot of fun. A lot of people are concerned that they’re going to get some boring science lecture with a lot of math. I’ve always looked at myself as an interpreter, not a teacher. I have a term I always use: My job is to “attach the miracle.” So, what I do is start with an audio-visual presentation that’s more inspirational than educational. Then, we talk about astronomy, a little bit about the history. Then, halfway through the class, I have an out-of-body experience where I summon the spirit of Galileo into my body and quickly dress in a Renaissance scholar’s outfit. Students have the opportunity to ask Galileo about astronomy. And then I release the spirit of Galileo and become Vic Maris again. We continue into the modern day and some of the recent discoveries. Then, I introduce people to using binoculars and telescopes. Then, the following Saturday night, we go up into the Sierras, where we actually observe with telescopes.
How much of Mars can you see in the next few weeks?
A lot, if you have a well-made telescope with accurate optics. Mars is going to be historically close, larger than normal. You have to wait until it’s high in the sky because the atmosphere distorts it so you can’t see anything. The most prominent thing you can see is the polar cap, so it’s like looking at a little world. If you’re lucky during the opposition, Mars won’t cloud up, because Mars has tremendous dust storms that can obscure the entire surface so you see nothing but a ball.
What night is Mars brightest?
That is a real misnomer people have about Mars. They keep saying it’s August 27, that that’s the big night. That’s not the big night. The big night is right now all the way through October. It’s gradually getting bigger and bigger.
What’s a cool secret that would get someone interested so they turn into a—
Star geek like me?
The most inspirational thing you can do is leave the city and go somewhere you have a dark sky and a good view. You’ve got to get out to where there’s a clearing. It can’t be during a full moon because the moon will wash out the sky. Under a dark sky, you can really see a lot, even with your naked eye. Lay on your back. As you look up at the heavens, don’t imagine that you’re looking at a bowl in the sky with a bunch of dots on it. Instead, imagine you’re floating in space with a 7,900-mile-diameter backpack on called the Earth, and you’re floating. Eventually, it’ll hit you that you really are floating in space; you just have a big, round ball on your back. You begin to connect to the universe.