Day Four: Gemini Telescope, La Serena — Father Picetti at his labs

This morning the outreach team from CTIO took me to meet Father Picetti at his educational labs at the seminary school in La Serena. He is a small, rather spry 90 year old with a face that beams goodness. He doesn’t speak English but Juan Seguel kindly translated for those of us with rudimentary Spanish.
Father Picetti’s passion for astronomy, physics and teaching has affected generations of Chilean scientists. His creativity knows no bounds and he has invented a number of brilliant teaching devices, which have been replicated in other countries. For example, he has rigged up a small telescope to focus on a star chart two classrooms away, so that it looks like you are looking at the night stars through a telescope. The information is relayed to a computer monitor so that the child has the experience of being a telescope observer. Another impressive invention is a large tank, which you stand under, pulling a periscope down towards you and peer into it. Above you is a sealed metal tank in which a small model of the moon is illuminated by a bulb and as you swivel the periscope around 360 degrees, you get different illuminations of the surface of the moon.
In some cases, Father Picetti uses antique paraphernalia to physically demonstrate complex scientific principles. A number of these are housed in a museum near his labs. He uses everything at hand to explain science — the children measure and note the length of the shadow of the building in the courtyard over the course of the seasons to make calculations about the sun and the orbit of the earth. He has antique theodolites, voltmeters, vacuum tubes and much more. He even has a camera obscura room and an ancient X-ray machine which he happily demonstrated for us on his own hand bones but he pointed out that the dose of radiation put out by the old machines wasn’t so healthy — we all backed away from that one! He also has a locked cupboard of stuff that puts out serious radiation — there is a lovely early photograph of Madame Curie (perhaps as a warning for those using the materials in the nuclear cupboard?)
The overall impression from the extensive tour was that we were in the presence of Saint Picetti of Chilean Astronomy. His warmth, intelligent inventiveness and passion are inspiring and it was a huge honour to meet him and tour through his labs, museum and office area in the lovely French colonial building (1848) which houses the seminary school.

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