Keith H. Johnson
NRAO Summers. I was fortunate to be chosen to be a Summer Student at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia (though I started at the 36-foot radio telescope at Kitt Peak in Tucson) in the late 60s. In this program, students worked with an astronomer, helping with research and observing activities. I was a perrenial summer student for several years, though toward the end they were forced to change my title to "Summer Research Assistant." Some sort of regulation about term limits, I believe.
The Green Bank experience was new for most of us. Radio observatories must be located where they will not be subject to radio-wave interference, so they are usually located far from big cities. This generally means far from many forms of entertainment. So NRAO summer students had to find ways to entertain themselves. We usually spent Friday nights at a drive-in movie establishment about 20 miles down the road. The screen was the side of a barn, the rest of which had fallen down. A cow was tethered in the lot to keep the grass down. We watched class Q films, and something entertaining always happened. Reels were shown out of order, or upside-down. Once, in the middle of one movie, we were treated to an entire reel from some other movie, one we never identified. The major source of actual entertainment consisted of us summer students doing creative aerodynamics with Frisbees in the lot before the movie began.
40-foot telescope. During the summer of 1968, we had several engineering students in the group, and they wanted to get their hands dirty on instrumentation. There happened to be a 40-foot diameter radio telescope essentially in mothballs, and we asked permission to try to resuscitate it. We worked on getting the telescope moving again, and scrounged a receiver to attach to it.
I was eating lunch in the cafeteria one day, when George Muncaster came storming in to announce that they had succeeded! They had managed to detect the Sun (which is by far the brightest object in the sky at radio wavelengths just as in visible light). I suggested that we should publish. He opined that it was unlikely we would be able to publish an article about the detection of the Sun. So I suggested we create our own journal.
JOPCAS. One article for a new journal seemed deficient, so several of us wrote additional articles of a similar nature. I contributed one on the strange proper motion of the star 34 Tauri (which turns out to actually be the planet Uranus, though I did not reveal that in my article).
We then assembled the journal, and named it the Quarterly Journal of the Pocahontas County Astronomical Society, largely because we could then easily adapt the title page of the Royal Astronomical Society (this was long before the days of digital editing and publishing, of course). The acronym became JOPCAS. We cut and pasted articlesliterally, with scissors and glueand started making copies of the journal on a government photocopier late at night.
We had a deadline. There was a small conference of astronomers working on galactic structure meeting at the observatory, and we wanted to get the journal out before the conference ended. We managed to get it done very early Saturday morning, having disabled one NRAO copier and finishing on a second, and while the astronomers were at lunch, set out a copy at each place in their meeting room. We then ensconced ourselves in the adjacent library, and listened for developments.
There was a long period of silence, broken only by the occasional chuckle. Finally the chairman, Gart Westerhout, announced that they would definitely have to find out how this remarkable publication had arisen, but that they had to get back to work.
A second issue of JOPCAS was published later that year; a third in 1969. Publication thereafter has been somewhat irregular, but then, the journal itself is rather irregular. For instance, the first volume was labeled “Volume 14 No. 8,” while the second was “Volume 8 No. 14.” The third issue was labeled “No. 15,” and the fourth “Volume 69 No. 1” (and the cover page for that issue read “JOPCAS: The Astrophysical Lacisyhportsa”; and again, they were using physical cut-and-paste to do it). I even wrote a letter to the editor about the numbering problems, and the letter appeared in the fourth issue.
Risk. But we couldn't devote all our time to JOPCAS. We were all staying in an old farmhouse called the Hannah House. At some point we fell into the habit of spending evenings playing Risk tournaments (Risk is a board game of world domination).
We also enjoyed a trip on the Cass Scenic Railroad, which included getting actual cinders in your teeth at no extra cost. Realism unchecked!
Summer studentship has apparently become more organized since those early days. Now you can even download a "users' guide" to the summer-student program, and NRAO has other ways for interested folks to experience the observatory and its work. But it was us early roustabouts that made the users' guide necessary!