Getting Personal: Jim Kaler

Getting Personal: Jim Kaler

Getting Personal is a Q&A with a local personality. This week, a chat with 75-year-old Champaign resident Jim Kaler about the full lunar eclipse starting April 15. Kaler is an astronomer (retired but still active), teacher and writer who has always been fascinated by the sky and wants to tell everybody about it.

So ... what's new with you?

I'm working on a new book, one on the sun and stars, developed from my Osher Lifelong Learning Institute courses at the University of Illinois. I am also planning a couple more. I'd like to do one on water in the universe. I just started voice lessons; I want to learn something about classical singing before I get too old to do it. Maxine and I travel a fair bit. We just got back from some time in Florida and did a nifty tour of France last year.

What is a full lunar eclipse?

Like you and me, the Earth casts a shadow in sunlight, albeit a big one. A couple times a year, as the moon orbits Earth, the full moon is aligned so as to move through the shadow. Direct sunlight is then cut off, and we see an eclipse.

When's the best time to see it in central Illinois?

The show starts the morning of April 15 at 12:58 a.m. Central Daylight Time when the moon first hits the dark part of the Earth's shadow. Total eclipse (the moon completely immersed) begins at 2:07 a.m., the central eclipse is at 2:46 a.m. and totality is over at 3:25 a.m. The moon finally leaves the dark shadow's edge at 4:33 a.m.

Do you recommend any places to go to?

Your backyard is fine. Just look up. It's hard to miss the moon. Even when the moon is in full shadow, it's visible, usually a dull red, because of light sneaking into the shadow from the Earth's illuminated atmosphere. The brightness of the eclipsed moon depends mostly on the amount of obscuring volcanic activity we've had as well as global cloud cover. If you want company, if it's clear, the Astronomy Department and the University of Illinois Astronomical Society will host a viewing at the Observatory near the Quad, where you can watch the progress of the eclipse through telescopes, including the historic and restored 12-inch refractor. (You might also get a good look at Saturn.) If you are at home, try binoculars for a lovely sight.

What about safety?

While solar eclipses can be dangerous to watch without proper filtration because of the brightness of the sun, eclipses of the moon are perfectly safe. The moon is nowhere near bright enough to be dangerous, even if you are using a telescope, and the eclipse only dims it further. You can get good pictures with an SLR in manual mode and a telephoto lens. To get the bright part of the moon, practice your speed and aperture settings before the eclipse. Good pictures of the darkened portion will probably need a tripod and time exposures.

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

During the week, I like to get up before 6 to go for a run, a bike ride or a walk. I've been running for most of my life, though I am done competing. Then I have breakfast and head for the office. I do everything later on the weekends (except go to the office).

What do you consider your greatest achievement or accomplishment?

First, having great kids and grandkids. Professionally, it would be my popular books on various aspects of astronomy. At home, learning to cook and bake. Then there was waterproofing my basement in Urbana and pounding up the old garage floor with a sledgehammer.

What do you regard as your most treasured possession?

My family. As to things, probably my 110-year-old Benson guitar, handed down from my grandmother and mother, and my 65-year-old Martin Committee trumpet, both of which I still play. I might also add my large set of popular astronomy websites that include Skylights (weekly sky news) and the Star of the Week.

Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?

Singing bluegrass in the car and eating a bowl of graham crackers and milk at midnight.

What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?

I'm currently reading a couple of crime novels. It's hard to name a favorite ever. "The Bright Star Catalogue"? How about almost anything written by Bill Bryson.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

I guess Antarctica because of the beauty I've seen in photographs, not just of the ice but of sunlight playing off the air.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

It was probably the parakeet we had when I was a boy. My grandmother taught it to sort of talk. After that, it would be the family dog, Cocoa, in Urbana, who lived to be 18. She didn't talk but smiled when she got loose. Yes, we actually moved from U to C; that's where the house was.

What's your favorite sports team?

Need one ask? The Cubs of course. I do wear a San Jose Sharks hockey cap, which is a great conversation piece.

What would you order for your last meal?


If you could be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?

Yet another astronomer. If not that, maybe an opera star. Or maybe both.

Who are your favorite musicians and why?

I'm mostly a classical music and jazz fan. Let me hear a mezzo-soprano and I'm gone. Kiri te Kanawa comes to mind, as do the jazz and cabaret singers Cleo Laine and Ute Lemper. Then there is the jazz-classical great, Wynton Marsalis. Maxine and I hang out at Krannert and a couple of the local jazz venues.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

There are so many. One was watching the evening parade at Disneyland with Maxine, my parents and our four kids, who I held up so they could see. It was magical.

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite? What would you serve?

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the conductor Seiji Ozawa and Michelle Obama. They would love my fabulous meatloaf and potato bread.

Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?

As an astronomer, William Herschel, the 18th-century discoverer of Uranus and of so many other things, who was also a fine musician and composer whose works are still played.

What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?

Arrogance and meanness to others, especially to those in difficult circumstances. In myself, impatience and forgetfulness.

What's your best piece of advice?

Persist, persist, persist in what you want to do. As a professor, to kids looking at colleges, it's not where you go but how hard you work that will determine your success.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

I cleaned floors in a large hospital for 90 cents an hour. Then I graduated to the laundry crew. I learned a lot.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

There were two, one when my grandmother got me to look at the stars, which gave me a lifelong direction, and when I was asked to write a popular version of one of my research publications for an astronomy magazine, which moved me from research into science writing and popular lecturing.

Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?

Not really. It's been great, with good things yet to come.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

With more stress? I guess by working through it to get the job done.

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