April 24, 2019

Lights in the dark

Virgil astronomer explores the universe

Photos by Katie Keyser/contributing photographer

Richard Berg at the computer controls of the 12-inch diameter telescope in his Virgil Observatory.

The skies of Virgil are very dark — and that’s good, when you are studying the stars.

Richard Berg, a retired astronomer, built an observatory on his 60-acre property, a small building with a 7-foot diameter AstroHaven dome that opens to the sky, allowing him to observe the stars and galaxies and take photos through his Meade reflecting telescope.

“We lived in Washington, D.C., before we came here. It was a great place for us to raise kids. There’s so much noise there — 24 hours a day of news, traffic, lights, neighbors, politics. When my youngest son graduated two summers ago, we decided we would move to some other place,” Berg said.

He had worked at the University of Rochester as an associate professor. His wife, Christine, graduated from Cornell University.

“We both love this country very much. We like the climate, the change of seasons, the Finger Lakes area.”

A ‘modest’ view

They chose Virgil for their next home, because it’s rural, but close to a grocery store. He’s got a 2.7- acre field on the 60-acre lot lot on Route 392 with a 1,400-foot elevation. His telescope is “modest” in size. It has a 12-inch diameter mirror, with a focal length of 3,000 mm. Observatories elsewhere can have telecopes with a 100-inch diameter mirror, he said.

Stiles Contracting of Virgil built the structure, which consists of two 10 by 16 foot buildings joined together, in the summer of 2017.

The fiberglass dome, which weighs a few hundred pounds, came from California. It opens completely to give the telescope inside 90 percent access to the sky, according to Berg’s website, virgilobservatory.us.

Richard Berg outside his Virgil observatory, built in 2017.

His camera can take photos to the 18th magnitude. The eye can see to the sixth magnitude.

The 18th magnitude is “extremely faint, 25,000 times fainter than the faintest star you can see with the unaided eye,” Berg said. The cooled CCD camera can take photos from .001 seconds of exposure to 900 seconds, or 15 minutes.

Chicago to the moon

“I fell in love with astronomy as a 4-year-old, 5-year-old,” Berg said “It was always fascinating to me. I had a small telescope as a young teen. I grew up in Chicago, in a suburb. If you were there today, you wouldn’t be able to see the stars. When I was growing up, in the ‘50s, it was dark.”

“I loved going out in the backyard and puttering around until all hours in the morning, not to mention going to school,” he added. “I can remember lying around on the chaise lounge, in the grass and staring up at the stars, watching the stars go by.”

He got his bachelor’s degree in astronomy from the University of Illinois, and worked for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a government agency in St. Louis that made maps for pilots to negotiate the skies and even mapped the moon in anticipation of the Apollo missions.

“I had a very, very small hand in that work,” he said. “That was the kind of place I was working at.”

He went to graduate school at the University of Virginia for astrodynamics, studying the movements of satellites around the Earth, for military application.

“But it was astronomy for me,” he said. He wrote a dissertation and got his doctorate in astronomy in 1970.

“I really wanted to do observational astronomy, looking at things, measuring objects in the sky,” he said.

‘It shows a passion’

He nixed the government job and went into teaching for eight years, the last five of those at the University of Rochester, before going back to work for that government entity in 1978, and staying there until 2001.

“In Washington, I built my own observatory, from the ground up,” he said. It was a 6-by-8-foot structure with a roof fastened onto a garage door track that could roll off one end, to reveal the sky.

“It was very economical,” Berg said.

Berg would return to the work force, to work at Booz Allen Hamilton and then for MITRE Corp, retiring again in 2015.

Berg and his telescope in his observatory.

Southworth Library Director Diane Pamel, who has a mechanical engineering undergraduate degree from Cornell University, invited Berg to give a talk this month about astronomy at the Dryden library.

“We are one in 50 sites in the country that is a NASA at My Library Site,” fostering space study, thanks to a grant from NASA and the American Library Association, Pamel said. “We are all about space.”

The first Apollo missions that got that view of the Earth from space in 1968, “when everything was going backward and sideways” in society — sent a clear message, she said. “You realize how inconsequential our differences are.”

She was impressed by Berg’s observatory: “And that he can see things from little ol’ Virgil. It shows a passion on his part, which came through in his discussion at the library.”

On a clear night

According to www.go-astronomy.com’s 2019 Observatory List, New York has 21 observatories, featuring telescopes used for astronomical research.

Three are in Ithaca, one at Ithaca College and another at Cornell University. Kopernik Observatory is in Vestal. Syracuse University has Holden Observatory. And there’s another at Tupper Lake. Not all are open to the public.

Berg’s observatory, not on the list, is private. He’s a semi-professional now.

“The data I collect can go to others who are doing research and need certain observations of what I collect,” he said.

He’s interested in eclipsing variable stars, stars that exist in space as pairs that are bound by gravity.

And he studies pulsating variable stars, single stars that push matter out from a nuclear reaction on the inside and then are pulled back by gravity.

“These kinds of data are useful for other people who worry about how stars age, how they are created,” Berg said.

“I have always liked these kinds of things. Here in this part of the country, they are easy objects to observe. They don’t depend on perfectly clear skies 365 days a year,” he said.

This area has about 90 clear nights a year, he said.

‘It makes you feel mighty small’

Berg can operate his telescope remotely, from his home computer, as well as from his iPad, “anywhere in the world,” he said.

“I am a very patient person, by nature,” he said. “Not a lot of things bother me.”

Because he’s spent a lot of time outside, watching the stars go by, he’s used to contemplation.

There are 3,000 to 4,000 stars that can be seen in the course of a year, he said.

But there are 100 million stars in the Milky Way galaxy. And there are 100 million galaxies, he said.

“It makes you feel mighty small,” he said.

“Odds are too great we are the only intelligent species in the universe,” he said. “We will probably never know.”

And no, he has never seen a U.F.O.

“I have never seen anything I couldn’t identify.”

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