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With help of 'Sorcerer's Stone,' dead astronomers come to life

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 | 10:09 p.m. CDT; updated 11:31 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 30, 2013
The MU Department of Physics and Astronomy held its haunted observatory event Wednesday at MU's Laws Observatory. Columbia parents and children were invited to visit the "Hogwarts Astronomy Tower" where they could meet staff and students who were dressed as dead astronomers, including Galileo, Einstein, Sir William Herschel, and hear about the discoveries they had made while they were alive. Other faculty and staff members dressed up as "Harry Potter" characters, including Professor Snape, Luna Lovegood and Hermione Granger.

COLUMBIA — "Harry Potter" characters and dead astronomers mingled with Columbia residents Wednesday night in Laws Observatory, temporarily named the haunted "Hogwarts Astronomy Tower" for the evening.

The night's event focused on teaching the public about astronomy while celebrating Halloween. Children donned their Halloween costumes, and MU students dressed up as famous dead astronomers and "Harry Potter" characters. After learning about a famous astronomer, device or planet, children checked the item off a scavenger hunt list.

Eight-year-old Hasan Malik asked the muse of astronomy, Urania, if the stars in Africa looked the same as those in Columbia. Satisfied with postdoctoral fellow Lanika Ruzhitskaya's answer, he proceeded to search for a model of the moon.

"The moon is not going to be in the coffee machine," his mother, Kiran Choudhry, told him.

Ford Stanton, 11, said he liked looking at maps of Mars, Uranus and Jupiter that were in the observatory.

"It would be cool, though, if it weren't so cloudy, and we could see the planets and stuff," Stanton said.

He said it was hard for him to pick out his favorite character at the event.

"I like Sir Isaac Newton because he is older, like from the 1700s, and I like Snape because I like his character from 'Harry Potter,'" Stanton said.

Graduate student Hannah Groom said she has wanted to be an astronaut since first grade, and on Wednesday night, she stepped into the role of one of the most famous: Neil Armstrong. In preparation, she looked up facts about the astronaut, asked former astronaut and MU professor Linda Godwin for her flight suit and then stuck on a fake mustache.

"I was really excited to wear Linda's flight suit because it's actually been in space," Groom said. "I've been wearing it all day. ... It's really hard to go to the bathroom in this."

At the event, she stayed in character, telling a group of children that as Neil Armstrong, she went to the moon in July of 1969.

"I just died last year, the day after Hannah Groom's birthday," Groom said as Armstrong.

Groom said she would have loved to attend an event like this one when she was younger.

"It's good outreach for the community to learn about physics and astronomy, maybe get younger generations to pursue physics choices or astronomy choices as a career or hobby," Groom said.

Angela Speck, the director of MU's astronomy program, thought to host the astronomy-based event after the Museum of Art and Archaeology couldn't host its Haunted Museum event because it is closed for renovations. She hopes to continue the astronomy-themed event next year and talk about light pollution in Columbia. 

Groom said there is another draw to the event that isn't immediately obvious.

"You get free candy," Groom said. "What little kid doesn't like free candy?"

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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