Q&A: Garry Noland, volunteer astronomer at Marble Springs Historic Site

Noland will present a free lecture, “Stellar Evolution and Mass Confusion,” this weekend as part of the stargazing series held at Marble Springs, the historic home of Gov. John Sevier. Noland has also taught as an adjunct for the University of Tennessee’s astronomy department.

Does a person need a telescope to stargaze in Knoxville?

Sooner or later you’re gonna want one, but to get started you really just need your eyes and a planisphere—one of those wheels where you set it to a date and it gives you an idea of what’s in the sky.

How many usually attend?

Oh, 30-60 or maybe 90. Most are children, which is really good. Most have never looked through a telescope before, so it’s really good that way, too. I bring an 8-inch portable telescope, a C8 Celestron, and I have other little scopes I bring and set up.

Can everyone get a turn at the telescope?

Yeah. They have to stand in line, though. I also have a green laser pointer. I’ll say, “This is Jupiter, here,” and shine a finger of green light to the sky and point it out.

Is Jupiter visible now?

Yes, Jupiter will be one of the main attractions this Saturday, weather permitting. And I hope we’ll be able to look at the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. They are B-type stars—very big stars we’re talking about here. As a general rule, the bigger the star, the shorter their life span.

How short of a life span?

We’re talking 200,000-300,000 to a million years or so. Really big stars are probably going to blow up into a supernova one of these days.

That’s part of the lecture?

Yes. Also, people who come, if they have telescopes and bring them, we’ll help them set them up. A lot of people can’t get their telescopes to work. What happens oftentimes is they might have a usable telescope, but the eyepiece has really high power, and it makes what you see blurry.

The stronger eyepiece makes it hard to work a telescope?

Yes, it’s generally wrong to use a very strong eyepiece, especially beginners. It’s like you’re in a dark basement—what do you need, a strong flashlight or a really strong magnifying glass? The mirror gathers light for you; the eyepiece only magnifies. The other thing to worry about, generally speaking, is the mount. It needs to be steady or the best optical equipment can’t work.

How’d you start in astronomy?

I lived in Washington state, and there was a really clear summer sky. In 1958, I mowed lawns and got a spyglass that magnified times five. I could look at the moon, and see some craters, and see Jupiter.

And you’re mostly self-taught?

Yes, and I also make telescopes—I’m a lens grinder and mirror maker. I do like they did last century—slowly, and by hand.

How come there’s an extra “r” in Garry?

I was born a twin, and my brother’s name was Larry.

The lecture and stargazing is Saturday, Nov. 19, starting at 7 p.m. at the Marble Springs State Historic Site (1220 W. Gov. John Sevier Highway). For more information, call 865-573-5508 or visit marblesprings.net.

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