Eyes to the skies

An unassuming man’s backyard observatory brought him to amateur astronomer fame
Friday, October 3, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:18 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Call him crazy, call him a space geek—Doug Kniffen probably won’t mind. He says he’s felt the sky pulling at him like a magnet since he was four years old.

Kniffen, 43, built his own backyard observatory and has enough money invested in the star-gazing hobby to buy a mid-sized car.

Kniffen’s obsession is fully visible at his home outside Warrenton — about an hour and a half from Columbia. Astronomy awards and pictures of outer space crowd the walls of his living room; his two children are named after constellations Lyra and Leo.

Kniffen networks with other amateur astronomers all over the world and says he’s confident his observatory is one of a kind. He says there are probably only a dozen people in Missouri with their own observatories but the number will grow as more people switch to digital imaging.

For those who might discount Kniffen’s obsession with stargazing, he offers an analogy: “The difference between seeing pictures of the sky and viewing it, with your own eyes, through a telescope, is like the difference between seeing somebody’s pictures from the beach and actually being at the beach,” he says. “People who haven’t seen or experienced it firsthand have no idea what they’re missing.”

Situated just off Missouri U, Kniffen’s observatory looks like a grain silo except for the space-age dome on top of his backyard edifice. The observatory, dubbed Pickney Ridge, stands 25 feet at its highest point and measures 15 feet in diameter.

After failing with his first observatory because of problems with soil movement, Kniffen designed and constructed the current one with some of his own, unique innovations. He says any building where the roof must rotate or be removed presents design challenges because of high winds.

Kniffen ran informal tests with cardboard models and small fans. The final design, he claims, is round enough that it doesn’t act as a sail and pointy enough that it won’t generate lift like an airplane wing.

Kniffen built the observatory himself for less than $2,000 during the winter of 1992-93. He estimates it would cost nearly twice as much to build the structure today because of the increased prices of materials and improvements he’s made along the way.

The structure of the dome, technically called a geodesically-expanded dodecahedron, generally scares people off because of its apparent complexity. But Kniffen says geodesics are really nothing more than approximating spherical shapes with straight, flat materials.

Kniffen says he simplified the mathematical equations traditionally used in designing such a structure. Eliminating 95 percent of the math removed 99 percent of the confusion, he said.

But even when he tries to explain how it all works, it’s easy to get lost in the technical jargon. “He gets everybody confused,” his wife, Liz Kniffen, says.

Another innovation is the semicircular track Kniffen made that uses 238 rotating golf balls to turn the roof of the observatory. He says the balls have been a great feature, except when 80 mph winds unseated the dome and blew two-thirds of the balls all over his yard. Brackets have since been added to prevent this from occurring again.

Inside the observatory sits a massive 16-inch telescope. It’s the same size and has the same optical configuration as the Laws Observatory telescope on the MU campus. The only difference is that Kniffen’s is computer controlled, which makes it possible to program positional work.

Though he speaks with the vernacular of a brainy scientist, Kniffen is, by all appearances, just an ordinary guy. He lives down a winding road with his wife and two kids. He’s as laid back and approachable as a local farmer.

He wears a half-unbuttoned flannel shirt, blue jeans and boots. Large, dark aviator sunglasses cover his most useful tools — his eyes.

“This is backyard science,” Kniffen says. “Sometimes your efforts are good enough to share or may be scientifically useful, but most of the time they’re not.”

Kniffen grew up in St. Louis, where he took some college math courses after finishing high school. He soon joined the family real estate appraisal business. These days, Kniffen supports the family business by doing all the Internet technology functions and some records research.

“In either case, I’m looking though piles of information for just a couple useful pieces,” he says of his day jobs.

His work as an amateur astronomer involves the same sort of searching except on a much grander scale.

“Actually, I think you’re born with that motivation to keep pushing the limits with a very low rate of success,” he says.

Kniffen has a complex understanding of astronomy, despite the fact that he has little formal education in the field. He says he’s read a number of books on astronomy, but credits his knowledge to 30 years of practical experience.

In mid-Missouri, Kniffen says there are a number of forces conspiring against astronomers. One is the area’s unpredictable weather, which is the result of the state’s mid-continental location and atmospheric effects. These effects distort telescopic images, according to Kniffen.

In recent years, local light pollution has also become a major impediment, degrading the performance of his instruments.

“Glaring lights compromise your ability to see just like blaring music can limit your ability to hear,” he says. “And it affects everybody, not just stargazers.”

Because of the unpredictable conditions, Kniffen says the time he spends in Pickney Ridge varies but can be up to 12 hours a week.

He says wide-field photography and viewing the Aurora Borealis are no longer possible. He’s even been forced to build a 40-foot light blocker to keep his neighbors’ lights out of the dome.

It’s clear that Kniffen’s obsession is who he is. He’s not really into sports, but he considers stargazing a demanding activity.

“Instead of pushing other parts of your body, you’re pushing your eyes to the limit all the time,” he says.

Through the years, Kniffen has been published in national and international magazines, including Sky & Telescope, Amateur Astronomy, The Practical Observer, and The Reflector. His article topics range from the best type of light to use at night, designing geodesic domes, making gadgets for aligning optics and adding light blockers to his observatory.

Kniffen shares much of his original research with fellow members of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association. Val Germann, chairman of the board for the CMAA, says Kniffen contributes to the group in a variety of ways.

“No one around here has a setup as elaborate as he does,” Germann says.

The awards and certificates that line the wall of Kniffen’s living room document his numerous achievements in the field of amateur astronomy.

Kniffen was the second person to receive the Arp Peculiar Galaxies Award for viewing and describing more than 100 galaxies. The American Association of Amateur Astronomers named him a master observer. He was also the seventh person in the country to receive the Herschel II certificate for documenting an advanced list of 400 deep-sky objects.

The amateur astronomer humbly equates these accomplishments to Boy Scout badges of recognition.

Michael Benson, who coordinates seven observing awards including the Arp Peculiar Galaxies for the Astronomical League, says Kniffen has made a name for himself, having completed four of the awards Benson handles.

“He has quite a reputation, and it’s a national one,” Benson says. “Needless to say, these awards make him one of the top visual observers in the amateur community.”

Benson says there have been fewer than 30 Herschel II awardees in the five years the program has been available.

“While he uses a relatively large amateur telescope, it is still a major challenge to ferret these faint objects out and verify them,” Benson says.

Kniffen admits this isn’t exactly a mainstream hobby. He even worries about where the motivation will come from for the next generation of astronomers.

“It’s hard to get interested in something that you may never see or experience,” he says.

He says there seems to be a lack of interest in astronomy among young people and widespread light pollution is making it tougher to view things in sky.

“Our whole civilization is based on seeing the sky — our concepts of when and where are based on it,” he says.

As Kniffen points out, we still rely heavily on what we’ve learned from studying the sky. He lists the calendar and agriculture, roads, calculus, telecommunications, weather satellites and MRI’s among the technologies inspired by astronomy.

“If people lose that inspiration, I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” he says.

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