Monthly Archives: January 2012

Dr Filippenko’s Dedication of his SJAA Talk

Before too much time slips by after Dr. Alex Filippenko’s talk at last Saturday’s SJAA meeting, I would like to provide a recap of the exciting event.  But I will do that separately; right now, I’d like to let you know that Dr. Filippenko dedicated his talk to a close friend and colleague of his who recently passed, Weidong Li. Weidong was described by Alex as instrumental and invaluable to his research. Alex also mentioned that Weidong’s family is now struggling financially and could use some assistance.  He said that a web site has been established in Weidong’s memory and to manage donations. The SJAA would like to make a respectful request to its membership that if it’s at all possible, please help Weidong’s family by making a donation at the web site above, either by sending a check or using PayPal.

Dr. Filippenko wrote the following about the time he was able to spend with Weidong.

Weidong and the Lick Observatory Supernova Search
by Alex Filippenko, Professor of Astronomy, UC Berkeley


In 1996, my team at UC Berkeley completed the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT) at Lick Observatory, a 0.76-meter robotic reflector whose purpose was to discover and monitor supernovae (exploding stars). Dick Treffers (my chief engineer) made most of the hardware work correctly, and Michael Richmond (my graduate student) had written much of the software several years earlier. We found our first supernova (SN 1997bs) in April 1997; see

But progress on our Lick Observatory Supernova Search (LOSS)  was slow; I didn’t have anyone dedicated full time to the project. So, I advertized for a postdoctoral researcher and was delighted when Weidong Li, a young graduate at the Beijing Astronomical Observatory, applied for the job. I knew that Weidong led a team that found SN 1996W and several other supernovae using a telescope quite similar to KAIT. (I think this makes him the first Chinese astronomer to discover a supernova since 1054 AD!) I offered him the position and was delighted when he accepted.

Weidong arrived at UC Berkeley in September 1997, and though it took him a few months to improve the software enough, in March 1998 he found SN 1998W and SN 1998Y, and LOSS really got going. The rest, as they say, is history: LOSS became, for about a decade, the world’s most successful nearby supernova search, responsible for about 40% of those found each year; see

In total, it discovered almost 900 supernovae, many of which were quite young and thus scientifically most valuable. All of this was due to Weidong’s incredible dedication, knowledge, ability, and enthusiasm. I have rarely met anyone as driven and passionate about their work; whenever there were problems with KAIT, for example, he would drive up to Lick Observatory and try to fix them, sometimes spending several days on the mountain with little sleep. If a really time-critical and  exciting event came up, like a gamma-ray burst, he would stay up late at home, making sure KAIT conducted a thorough set of follow-up observations of the optical afterglow. I greatly admired him for all that he did.

Weidong became my right-hand man, leading LOSS and also collaborating with me on a very large number of research papers. I trusted him completely with everything KAIT did, and gave him nearly full authority in running LOSS. He also played a large role (and in many cases the leading role) in mentoring many dozens of undergraduate students who checked the KAIT supernova candidates each day, as well as some graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in my group. For example, he was the main advisor to Jesse Leaman, whose PhD thesis was the supernova rate in galaxies as derived from LOSS. Weidong and I were very proud that he played such a major part in developing the careers of so many young new scholars.

In public and technical presentations, I highlighted Weidong’s enormous contributions, joking that my main goal each year was to secure his funding, and also that KAIT/LOSS would completely fall apart if he were to be “hit by a bus.” I always worried that he might be lured away from me by another research group, or by a higher paying nonacademic job… but I couldn’t imagine that the world would lose him so suddenly, forever.

Weidong was a great astronomer and a wonderful friend. In many ways he was irreplaceable, and my  research team will never be the same without him. He was also a very warm, generous, cheerful person who wanted to enrich the lives of others and make them happy. He had amazing spirit, and was tremendously excited about astronomy.  It’s difficult to believe that he is no longer with us, and his unexpected, tragic departure has created a hole in my heart that will never again be filled.

Farewell, my dear Weidong. We had an amazing 14 years doing science together, and I’ll always cherish your memory.

Posted in Blog

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Now that the year has come to a close and another has already begun its limited engagement, on behalf of the SJAA, I would like to take a look back at the year now done and recap the accomplishments of the club.

In January, our loaner program took a much needed revamp as we took receipt of seven new Orion Dobs, all of the XT Classic variety, ranging from a six inch to a ten inch model.  Once those scopes were assembled and made available for loan, they were all quickly snatched up by members eager to give them a try. They all have been out on continuous loan since.  I’d like to give a big Thank You to Dr. Lee Hoglan for continuing to run our valuable loaner program and ensuring that these new units are available to our members.

In the fall, the board took up the discussion again about the club acquiring a solar scope, with an intention of creating a Solar Observing program.  A solar scope committee was formed, and after thoughtful deliberation, the decision was made to put in an order for a 100mm Lunt Visual Package.  This telescope will be the keystone of the new Solar Observing Program, which is being spearheaded by SJAA member Michael Packer.  More information will soon be on the Announce mail list, but let me give a preview by saying that the solar scope will be set up for public viewing on a roughly monthly basis at a regular location, most likely at our base of operations, Houge Park.  We will also bring it to outreach events such as art and wine festivals and other community events to further our educational mission.

Speaking of Michael Packer, he is not only a member of the club, but he is now the newest member of the SJAA Board of Directors.  At the December board meeting, Michael joined the board in a special vote to fill a vacancy left by departing board member Gordon Reade.

Also speaking of outreach activities, we have been trying to raise the visibility of the SJAA in the local San Jose and south bay community.  In 2010, we manned a booth at the Celebrate Cambrian festival, an event put on by the City of San Jose to bring residents closer to local business and community organizations.  In 2011, we did it again at the same event, with an estimated 700 people stopping by to take a peek at the sun through a properly fitted solar filtered telescope.  We had so much interest that this past September, for the first time and on very short notice, we were provided with a chance to have a booth at the Almaden Art and Wine Festival in San Jose. A call was put out to the SJAA members, and a very generous handful of individuals stepped up to work a couple of hours at the booth, again, providing information about the SJAA and nice late summer views of the sun.

This year, the SJAA has developed a Mentoring Program to help members who are new to astronomy get into the hobby.  Dave Ittner is driving the effort and making himself available as the charter mentor, and is looking for people who are interested in being mentored as well as more experienced people who can play the mentor role.  More information will be forthcoming to both the Announce mail list as well as the website about the Mentor Program, but if you can’t wait, please contact Dave directly.

On another outreach front, the SJAA is working with the Santa Clara County Open Space District to support their Starry Nights program.  The program is the brainchild of SJAA member Chris Kelly, a docent at the Open Space District, and involves providing the public a chance to view the night sky from a relatively dark site in the south bay area, the District’s Rancho Cañada del Oro preserve.  Beyond Chris, the SJAA has been represented there at least three times throughout the course of the year, and we are working on making this site available, under certain conditions, to the SJAA.  If you are not familiar with the Open Space District, please visit their website and plan a trip to their preserves, and be sure to keep a watch for the next Starry Nights event at Rancho Cañada del Oro.

What also needs mentioning is the school star party program.  Almost every weeknight of the school year, dedicated volunteers with the SJAA, led by long time member and two time Gregory Award winner Jim Van Nuland, are out at a local south bay area schools, showing the night sky with a variety of telescopes.  What keeps them going are the Oohs and Aahhs coming from the students, teachers and parents as they see, for the first time, Saturn’s rings or the craters of Earth’s moon or the Galilean satellites of Jupiter.

The Dr. A. B. Gregory Award is the formal SJAA recognition of a member of the local amateur astronomy community who has demonstrated “Outstanding Contributions of Time and Effort to Others in Amateur Astronomy”.  In 2011, the award was presented to Rick Morales, a long time ranger at Fremont Peak State Park who was instrumental in helping to establish the Fremont Peak Observatory. A very well deserved congratulations to Rick!

Finally, the club has continued to support its mission to provide educational opportunities to the public by organizing and hosting beginner astronomy classes and monthly speakers.  We have had a fantastic line up of speakers come throughout the year; the list of past speakers and their topics can be found at this link. We have a good pipeline of speakers for 2012 already, and leading the pack at January’s General Meeting, which is coming this Saturday, 7 January, is the very engaging and entertaining Dr. Alex Filippenko.  This is a lecture not to be missed, and I expect we will have a full house!

Of course, the SJAA will continue its tradition of hosting Friday night public star parties at Houge Park.  The 2012 calendar (not available) has been developed and is available for review, which includes not just our Friday night events but the General Meetings, our annual auction and swap meet, and all of our regular events.

Be sure that you are signed up for the SJAA Announce mail list, or at least check the website regularly for upcoming events.  Looking back at 2011 makes it obvious that the SJAA is a vibrant and engaged organization that meets its educational mission in a variety of ways.  And there are more ways and other ideas too!  If you have an inkling to get involved and be an active part of the SJAA, we would love to help you get started! Don’t hesitate to contact me, Rob Jaworski, or any member of the board.  Or, drop by any of the SJAA Board meetings, which are held at the same location and about 90 minutes before the start of the monthly General Meetings.

Have a great 2012, and we look forward to seeing you in the dark!

Posted in Articles, Blog, Programs