2017-11-22 / Front Page

Walcott man talks stars with a star

BY RYAN GIBBS

When acclaimed astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson needed advice about celestial navigation, he followed the stars to Walcott Avenue.

Frank Reed assumed the producers of “StarTalk” remembered him from his 2012 appearance on Tyson’s podcast. That, however, wasn’t the case. They had completely forgotten about him.

“It was just a cold call,” he said. “They found me on the Internet.”

Reed will appear on the Dec. 3 season finale of “StarTalk,” the Tyson late-night talk show that airs each Sunday on the National Geographic channel. He will talk shop with Tyson alongside Irish comedian Maeve Higgins, scientific writer Dava Sobel and Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson. The episode is about the science of celestial navigation and its impact on popular culture.

“It was a lot of goofing around,” Reed said. “That’s how the show works. The combining of science with the pop-culture references is great. There’s lots of fun in that.”


Jamestown celestial navigator Frank Reed, from right, on the set of “StarTalk” in June with Irish comedian Maeve Higgins and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The show airs Dec. 3. Jamestown celestial navigator Frank Reed, from right, on the set of “StarTalk” in June with Irish comedian Maeve Higgins and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The show airs Dec. 3. According to Reed, sci-fi movies are splattered with scientific themes, but it’s difficult for the layman to know if that’s accurate science, confused science or somewhere in between.

For example, the panel discussed the Disney animated film “Moana,” which related to Thompson’s study of traditional Polynesian navigation. (The episode with Reed was filmed in June.) Reed commended the film for its accuracy, especially when the characters followed the constellation Orion, which was correctly located in the animated Polynesian sky.

“The movie doesn’t try to teach you anything interesting about celestial navigation, but at least they got the key features,” he said.

During the episode, Reed discussed basic concepts of celestial navigation, which he regularly teaches at the Treworgy Planetarium at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. The key tool for celestial navigation, he explained, is a sextant, which measures the angle between two objects. Sailors can select a star in the night sky, or the sun during the day, and use the sextant to determine its height above the horizon. This information tells them the distance they must travel to see that star directly above them. For each star in the sky, there only is one place on the Earth where it can be seen straight above.

“If you can see a star directly straight overhead, you know exactly where you are,” he said. “But if you know you’re five degrees away from straight overhead, then you have to be five degrees away from that location on the surface of the Earth.”

A star does not need to be exactly above to benefit celestial navigators, however. They also can use a star’s angle to determine the destination they plan to sail. As a result, any star or planet that’s bright enough can be used to navigate back to Jamestown from the open ocean. Some of the stars that are typically used by navigators in northern latitudes include Vega, Arcturus and Betelgeuse.

Reed said celestial navigation still serves a purpose in the modern day because it provides confirmation of the data available through GPS.

“The key to good navigation is using everything that’s available,” he said. “The most important thing is to use the electronics, but at the same time, you’ve got the sun hanging right there in the sky. The sensible thing to do is to take observations of the sun and validate the GPS.”

Reed has been interested in navigation since his childhood in southern Connecticut. He pursued it professionally following graduation from Wesleyan University, the Nutmeg State college where he finished in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in physics and a minor in astrophysics.

“It’s something I’ve been doing for most of life,” he said.

Reed has taught classes at Mystic Seaport since 2010 and moved to Jamestown soon after that. Along with the planetarium, Reed also compiles the Centennia Historical Atlas, an online reference that details the bygone geography of Europe.

Although the Treworgy course is an introductory lesson about celestial navigation, Reed also teaches an advanced course on longitude by lunar distance, or “lunars,” in which the moon is used by mariners to determine longitude. He half-jokingly describes himself as the “world’s leading expert” on that topic, which was prevalent during the 19th century and saw a revival in the late 1960s when NASA used it for the Apollo program.

“It’s a small subject, but it’s the one I own,” he said. “It was critical technology that allowed the New England whale ships to pretty much own the eastern Pacific Ocean for decades.”

The Dec. 3 “StarTalk” episode is the first time that Reed has appeared on a television program to discuss his work in celestial navigation. His podcast appearance did not prepare him for television’s elaborate production. He was anticipating an intimate set.

“It was like mission control down there,” he said. “They had boom cameras and 30 big-screen monitors. It was stressful, but it was fun.”

The episode was filmed at the American Museum of National History in New York City, where Tyson has been the director of its Hayden Planetarium since 1997. Filming for the episode started at midnight and ended around 3 a.m. However, Reed said he was unfazed by the late production. That’s because he usually works well into the night anyway. He was also happy to work with Tyson again.

“He’s just the way he seems in most respects,” Reed said. “He’s funny and he’s endlessly fascinated by science. The man never stops. He’s working all the time. He’s always looking at something that he can use for his next show.”

Tyson has hosted “StarTalk” since 2015. The show’s guests typically feature of mix of scientists, like Reed, with celebrities, including James Cameron and singer Katy Perry. Along with TV, his podcast and the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson is a best-selling author.

The episode featuring Reed will air at 11 p.m. Nat-Geo is available on channel 83 for Cox Communications customers. For Verizon users, it’s channel 621.

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