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Arne's CCD Course Is A Hit!

It’s 7:30 in the morning and I find myself standing in line to get breakfast in a school cafeteria, hoping I can eat and drink enough coffee to get me going before class begins at 9 o’clock. This is like being transported back in time to my college days in the 70’s! Is this a time warp or am I dreaming?

As the caffeine slowly lifts the haze it all becomes clear. I’m at Tufts University in Boston and today is the first day of the first AAVSO CCD Course. People have come from all over the globe to take part in this total immersion course that will run from Monday through Friday, 9AM to 5PM. Most of the participants have gathered in one corner of the cafeteria this first day and we’re making introductions and chatting excitedly over what everyone expects to be a fantastic learning experience.

Most of the names are familiar to me, but many of these people I am meeting for the first time. One of them, and the winner for furthest distance traveled to get here is Greg Bolt from Perth, Western Australia. I’ve been hearing of his reports of cataclysmic variable activity and time series to CBA for many years, but we’ve never met. It's nice finally put a face with the name. 

Peter Nelson is also from Australia. He hosts the BSM telescope in Victoria and is bringing another larger telescope and CCD system online for his own use. I met Peter once before in Hawaii in 2003. He’s traveling with his charming wife Gracie and we hit it off right away. They asked for recommendations for places to visit and sights to see while they are here in America for a few weeks, so I spent a few hours one night composing an email with a list of uniquely American places with links and information about each one, hoping it would be of some use to them. And yes, I suggested the Grand Canyon!

Another attendee, who speaks with that wonderful down under accent, is Phil Evans. Phil was a mystery to me before the course, since he is the only attendee who is not a member of the AAVSO. He lives in the Cook Islands, which I have to admit; I had to Google to find out exactly where that is! (They are in the southern Pacific Ocean far east of New Zealand.)

Visitng from Europe was Andrzej Arminski. Andrzej is a yacht builder from Poland who has a fascination with variable stars and astronomy. Yenal Ogmen is from Cyprus and also traveling with his lovely wife. He took the pictures used in this piece. I had never met Andrzej, Yenal or Rick Wagner, from Canada, before. 

John Pye is from Hawaii while Bill Goff, Nick Dunckel, Phil Sullivan were all from California. The south and southwest US were represented by Jim Seargent and Bill Stein from New Mexico, Brad Walter and Dean Chandler from Texas and Barbara Harris from Florida. Dick Sabo from Montana, John Centala from Iowa, Bill Perkins from Minnesota and Dan Bailey from Illinois rounded out the middle of the USA. The rest of the class might be considered “local” as they were mostly from Massachusetts and Connecticut.

So there we were Monday morning, gathered over coffee and breakfast about to embark on weeklong adventure into the intricacies of charged coupled devices, otherwise know as CCDs.

Now, I admit I had my concerns about this course. First, I was concerned whether or not I would be able to keep up with the class. I’ve done my fair share of observing with my own CCD rig and AAVSOnet telescopes, but I don’t consider myself an expert by any means. I know just enough to be productive and potentially dangerous to myself and others!

I was also concerned about whether or not Arne would be able to assemble all the material and slides for his presentations in time for the class. Adding this huge amount of extra work to his already over-stuffed plate of projects and responsibilities, in light of the fact he was going to be traveling quite a bit in the months leading up to the class, scared me more than a little.

At one point in a chat room, teasing Arne, I wrote, “Wouldn’t it have been easier to just publish your book?” To which Arne replied, “Maybe, but I HAVE to finish these slides!”

As the time got nearer the Director got less and less sleep. I was getting emails and instant messages from him from 6AM to 2AM some days. Which led to another of my fears, Arne’s endurance and physical well-being. His plan was to stand in front of the class for 7 hours a day for five days straight, talking about CCD characteristics, techniques and observing. That is a lot of work! Would his voice hold out? Would his legs hold out? 

As it turned out, my fears were completely unfounded. Sunday afternoon he was done and handed the first days’ handouts to me to copy, collate and staple for the class on Monday. Like a tightrope walker at the end of a walk across the big top, he looked satisfied, relaxed and unphased by it all.  

Arne had just begun to impress. By the time we gathered for lunch the first day the class was buzzing about how great this was going to be. Arne was actually gaining momentum as we went along. We learned about CCD detectors, software, common mistakes and issues, and in each chapter or section he provided “guidelines”. He was clear and concise, very well organized and I could tell he was enjoying the class and this rare opportunity. He smiled, cracked a few jokes and was perfectly at ease in front of the class. Arne was a rock star.

He set the bar high for the class, by telling us that his goal was to help us do better photometry than most professionals. He wanted us to be rock stars too.

The course covered all the basics the first couple days, including filter systems, calibrating your CCD system, flats, darks, bias frames, and how to record time. 

Time seemed like a simple and obvious subject, but as we learned it is a little more complicated than it appears on the surface. There is terrestrial time, Universal Time, sidereal time, GPS time, computer clock time, Network Protocol Time, Julian Date, Heliocentric Julian Date, Barycentric Julian Date, etc., etc. I know for a fact Arne was glad when he was done writing that chapter.

Whatever kind of time it was, it whizzed right by the first couple days. Arne moved from one subject to the next, often building on concepts we'd learned earlier. I began to realize I knew more than I thought I did, but best of all, a lot of things I "kind of knew" I now understood much better because Arne had placed them in context. The fact is, Arne is a very good teacher!  

It wasn’t all work and no play. Sunday evening, before the class started we met at Tufts for dinner and afterwards I was able to shuttle a few carloads of people back to headquarters for a tour of AAVSO Central. On Monday evening we were given a tour of the plate stacks and observatory at Harvard. We got to see the historical 15” refractor and view Saturn through a 6” Clark refractor. Tuesday night I met half a dozen or so attendees at Cambridge Common, a local pub known for its atmosphere, food and large exotic beer selection. Wednesday evening the class was treated to a tour of the Clay Center and their observatory.

By Wednesday morning we had settled into a regular routine. We would all meet early in the cafeteria for breakfast, then make the walk to our meeting room across campus to begin at 9AM. The campus is picturesque, and not large by university standards, but the cafeteria and meeting room were at opposite ends of the campus and the temperature hovered in the upper 80’s to 90’s all week. That’s a pretty good hike for a Midwesterner of my proportions who is used to driving everywhere. We would take a break mid-morning and then rejoin until lunchtime, when we would make the trek across campus back to the cafeteria for lunch. After lunch it was back to class for another 3 hours with a short afternoon break before being dismissed for the day.

Tuition for the course included room and board at Tufts in the dormitory as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner. Considering the cost of hotel rooms and meals in the greater Boston area, this was a great deal for the price. By the end of the week most agreed they had their fill of Spartan dormitory conditions and cafeteria food, so we may revisit the accommodations issue when planning the next class. But the course itself was an unqualified success.

The rest of the week we worked our way through topics including the atmosphere and its affects, photometry concepts, transformation, statistics, error, uncertainty, precision vs. accuracy, observing procedures, differential photometry, all sky photometry and psf fitting.

The class was so impressed with Arne as an instructor and mentor they decided they wanted to give him something to show their appreciation. We took up a collection to buy him an assortment of specialty beers and wines from around the world to represent the countries and states of the people present for this first of its kind AAVSO offering. Right after lunch on Friday we presented him with these gifts as a token of our appreciation and as an acknowledgement of the amount of work and dedication that obviously went in to preparing something like this. I hope he has had a little time to enjoy those fruits of his labor since then.

A surprising amount of camaraderie was also created through this initiation by fire, as evidenced buy the fact the class has kept in touch since then through an email list created before the course, sharing news and resources with each other for weeks now since the course ended. In fact, when Arne asked me to raise money to purchase a new all sky cloud camera for APASS in Chile, I wrote to the class attendees first, and raised enough money for two cloud cameras in 48 hours! I think that was just another way for them all to say thanks for a job well done.

The next CCD course has not been scheduled yet, but if you can take the time and afford the tuition, it is worth every dollar and every minute. Just ask any of the graduates of the first course.

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