GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. Thirty-three years is a blip on an astronomers timeline, but its an entire career for Dan Brocious, and on Monday, hell see it wind down.
Brocious, 59, is the only public affairs director Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory has ever known. The complexs prize telescope looks down on Green Valley from the 8,550-foot summit of Mount Hopkins to the east, and it has been Brocious job to explain what it does in terms a layman can understand.
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory owns the complex and runs it with the University of Arizona. Its 10-meter gamma-ray telescope was built in 1968, and Brocious joined the team 10 years later as it prepared to dedicated the MMT (Multiple Mirror Telescope) in May 1979.
That six-mirrored telescope was replaced by another MMT (Magnum Mirror Telescope), which is a single mirror.
Through all the changes, Brocious has educated himself to the point that he speaks nearly as authoritatively about the mountains treasured telescopes as the world-renowned scientists who stand in line to use them.
Brocious has a bachelors degree in political science from Arizona State University and a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona. He also has some background in engineering, but I had to come to understand the work as a member of the public, he says.
That grass-roots understanding has helped thousands of visitors get their arms around supernovas, black holes and the importance of spectroscopy.
When Brocious came to the job, the visitors center was housed in a one-room 1938 WPA adobe schoolhouse in Amado. Lectures were usually pulled off with a dozen metal folding chairs near a small exhibit that hung on the wall. The small space was used as a lunchroom, conference room and staff room, and there were about 2,000 visitors per year.
The visitors center moved to its current location near Elephant Head Road in 1991, and now sees about 5,000 visitors a year. About 3,000 of them take the tour up the 13-mile road to the telescope complex, though the VERITAS project has four telescopes at whats called the base camp by the visitors center. Today, lectures fill 300 seats at the West Center, and there are 25 visitors center volunteers, most from Green Valley.
Brocious smiles when the word retirement comes up. He may be leaving, but hes not going far, at least not yet.
He will, as a volunteer, continue to represent Whipple as a consulting agency on the Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Rosemont copper mine. Brocious says the mine, which will be over a nearby ridge, could bring a lot of unwelcome light and dust.
In addition, he is preparing to sort and evaluate decades of slides and photographs for the Smithsonian Institution archive.
Ive been going through 33 years of files its amazing what you find, he says.
Brocious isnt sure how many times he has driven the narrow, mostly dirt road to the summit, but on a recent trip up, its clear that every mile holds a memory.
He shakes his head as he recalls a cement truck tumbling down the mountainside and catching fire. The driver was fine but some of the dry cement hit a spring.
Then there was the semi-flatbed that was supposed to make a delivery at the visitors center but sped by it and headed up the mountain.
The driver met his match on a hairpin turn and dumped part of his load when the flatbed tilted.
Then there are the tragic stories of illegal immigrants who make their way across the mountain and flatlands around base camp. Many, Brocious said, are sent up a ridge by coyotes who tell them Phoenix is just on the other side.
Brocious has heard all the questions but patiently answers them time and again questions about everything from extraterrestials to the value of the astronomy done on Mount Hopkins.
To the latter, he readily admits that much of the work doesnt offer practical application, but its important for humans to keep exploring and asking questions.
This is to find out how the universe works, he says of the work. Most of what exists is out there, not here.