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The universe is his oyster

SHS student has a passion for astronomy

By VALERIE ABRAHAMS

Zack Gelles spent his summer chasing asteroids at the Summer Science Program at Colorado University at Boulder

 

School’s out for the summer, but some kids just can’t leave the classroom behind. Scarsdale High School senior Zack Gelles spent his summer chasing asteroids at the Summer Science Program at Colorado University at Boulder.

He and 35 other students from around the world took college-level classes in math, astronomy, physics and computer programming during the intensive, six-week program.

“One focus was learning how to determine the orbit of an asteroid,” Gelles said of the work he did using a research-grade telescope. He also wrote software to measure the asteroid’s position and calculate its orbital path — including the chance it would impact Earth in the future.

“Near-Earth asteroids could pose a threat,” he said. “That’s not likely but scientists do have to monitor them because an impact could be disastrous.”

A Fox Meadow resident who moved to Scarsdale from San Francisco with his family in 2011, 17-year-old Gelles has spent most of his free time pursuing his interest in celestial science. Along the way he managed to teach himself how to operate a planetarium.

Opportunity knocked after Gelles saw a show with his father at the Hudson River Museum’s planetarium in Yonkers. Gelles, a ninth-grader at the time, contacted the museum to ask about opportunities for high school students to work at the facility.

Gelles became an intern, collecting tickets, carting boxes, organizing planet tutorials for young students with Play-Doh and doing other volunteer work.

He asked questions about the planetarium and observed its operators during live shows, hoping he might get more involved.

“It was not very clear how I could do that,” he said.

So he taught himself — by reading manuals and guidebooks on his own time after school — to use the controls and operate the planetarium’s digital Sky 2 operating system with a Megstar IIA projector.

“It took about 18 months to get to the point where I was able to become an operator,” he said.

By December of his junior year, Gelles was proficient enough to operate the equipment and present live shows in the 110-seat theater — and get paid for it.

Working two Saturdays every month, Gelles produced three shows a day, one for little kids to watch a movie, such as “Sesame in the Sky,” and then two back-to-back 45-minute planetarium shows for ages 8 and up.

While operating the system, he discussed constellations, composition of the universe and theories on extraterrestrial life.

“I talk about what I find interesting and what I think current astronomy is focused on,” he said. “I try to give the public a view of why it’s important and what they can see in the night sky.”

In addition to becoming an operator, for the past year and a half Gelles has been working to incorporate Spanish-language programming at the museum.

“I was seeing a lot of Spanish-speaking families going to the museum, but the museum didn’t have any outreach,” he said.

Gelles came up with an idea to purchase and show Spanish-language movies related to astronomy and to present Spanish-language planetarium shows. Drawing on the methodology he’d experienced at a summer program in Colorado, he would be the operator and Spanish-speaking narrator, telling audiences about the museum and what they would see in the sky that night.

Once the museum’s education director and planetarium manager were on board with the idea, Gelles forged ahead.

“The museum wanted to reach as many people as possible, and we had no one on staff who could do a Spanish program,” the museum’s former education director, Jennifer Patton, said. “We would not have been able to do this if not for Zack; he has both the scientific knowledge and the Spanish language skills.”

Gelles said his biggest challenge was connecting with local groups and getting them to spread the word in the community about the planetarium’s new Spanish programming.

Gelles’s Spanish teacher at Scarsdale High School helped him write letters, which he sent to dozens of Hispanic organizations and schools in the area.

The response to his emails, calls and letters was positive, giving Gelles momentum to launch the program.

Local organizations spread the word and some sent their constituents to the planetarium, including a group of Spanish-speaking immigrants from a safe haven program for teen migrants based in the Bronx.

Though Gelles is fluent in Spanish, getting his script right — with all the astronomy related terms and vocabulary — was another challenge to overcome.

Gelles’ mother said he puts in more than 100 hours a year at the museum, working every weekend and one day during the school week, presenting in English and Spanish.

Gelles said it’s rewarding to share with an audience a field of science he finds inspiring and to motivate groups of people who otherwise might not become inspired by astronomy.

“I know they’re inspired because they ask so many questions,” he said of his listeners.

Gelles said he has always loved science. But he discovered a passion for astronomy and astrophysics in seventh grade after he read a book about the origin of the universe.

That book, which he just happened to pick off a shelf, was his aha moment.

“It was completely amazing,” he said about his discovery of cosmology, which deals with where the universe came from and how it’s evolving.

Apart from the Colorado programs, Gelles previously attended summer programs at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University for college-level courses in astrophysics, and at Stanford University for classes in physics, quantum mechanics and relativity.

Closer to home, Gelles assists a professor at Iona College analyzing data from NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii about the atmosphere of Mars.

Not surprisingly, Gelles plans to continue astronomy research and possibly study physics in college.

“I’ll see how far I can go with it,” Gelles said.

More than likely, the sky’s the limit.


Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

 

August 12, 2016