The Hoosierist: Good Heavens!

Missing firearms, snowstorm panic, and the Butler observatory. Ask The Hoosierist.

Q: What can the astronomers at Butler’s Holcomb Observatory actually see? Indy’s light pollution is so bad, I can only make out a few stars from my backyard.
Jason H., Indianapolis

A: It depends on the weather, the time, and what you want to see. If the Holcomb Observatory staff just need to impress a tour group, they can focus the giant telescope on, say, Jupiter or Mars, both of which are close enough and bright enough to punch through Indy’s light pollution.

Things get trickier if the astronomers attempt something a bit more science-y. Distant planets can be seen after 2 a.m., when most folks are in bed with their lights turned off, making conditions considerably darker. Cloud cover, which blankets about 30 percent of nights in summer and a depressing 60 percent of them in winter, poses a bigger challenge. Happily, modern technology allows the observatory’s staff to work around that, too. Holcomb’s director, Brian W. Murphy, says sensitive digital cameras that take incredibly long exposures can spot objects nearly 100 times dimmer than the human eye can see. And the observatory has a kind of high-tech timeshare arrangement with telescopes in cloud- and people-free portions of Arizona and Chile, which can be commanded remotely by Indy’s astronomers whenever their skies are gray. Who knew there was such a thing as offshore sky-gazing?

Dawdle too long and you’ll find the shelves stripped of everything but Roman Meal and that extra-fiber stuff that tastes like plywood.

Q: They say that whenever a snowstorm is predicted, everyone runs to the store for milk and bread. Is that true? And if so, what else do people stock up on?
Jennifer W., Fishers

A: Though The Hoosierist could find no academic studies documenting this phenomenon, he has seen it in action all his life. That’s why he knows better than to delay making a grocery run on a night when a heavy blanketing (or, let’s face it, even a couple of inches) of the white stuff is predicted. Dawdle too long and you’ll find the bread shelves stripped of everything but Roman Meal and that extra-fiber stuff that tastes like plywood. The same goes for the milk case, where you might discover a few half-gallons of 100 percent fat-free and a stray container of eggnog.

John Talbott, associate director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing at IU, says this stock-the-bunker mentality is hardly confined to Indiana. “In Texas, people flock to stores instantly if snow is mentioned anywhere in the forecast,” he says. “Even if it’s not in their state.”

And apparently the run on supplies doesn’t stop with bread and milk. Chocolate and booze are also high on the list. “When people think they’re going to be shut in for a long time,” Talbott says, “they buy something that’s going to make it a little easier to live with the people around them.” Something with a little more kick than, say, high-fiber bread or fat-free milk.

Q: Everybody says roundabouts route traffic more efficiently. Could someone please explain their big advantage?
Susan Y., Carmel

A: The Hoosierist has negotiated roundabouts for years, yet he still gets a knot in his stomach when he approaches one. After all this time, he’s still never quite sure he’s in the right lane—an insecurity other drivers must feel, judging by their long hesitations before scooting out into traffic and their propensity for waffling, indecisive lane changes.

But as dangerous as roundabouts seem, statistics show that they aren’t—or at least not as dangerous as the four-way stops they replace. According to the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, roundabouts not only reduce the number of accidents,
they lessen the severity of the ones that happen. In one study of four-way stops that were converted, the accident average dropped 37 percent. So the case for roundabouts is, ahem, pretty straightforward.

The next time you look up from your cubicle and think, “This is the worst office ever,” remember the folks emtombed at Methodist.

Q: When I drive by Methodist Hospital, I notice that one building seems to be encased in brown stuff. What gives?
Naomi P., Indianapolis

A: That brown material, caked on the west-facing walls and windows like so much dirty brown icing, is insulation, according to IU Health’s director of operations, William G. Ward. Apparently, back in the day (the 1980s), the five-story building was racking up substantial energy bills, necessitating a solution that was a bit more dramatic than the usual “blow some more insulation into the attic” approach familiar to homeowners. But here’s the creepy part: “The building is still needed to support hospital administration functions and remains functional today,” Ward says.

You read that right. This structure, with a wall partially covered in a thick layer of insulation that renders windows not only inoperable but opaque, still has people working inside it. So the next time you look up from your dingy gray cubicle and think, “This is the worst office ever,” remember the folks entombed at Methodist and count your blessings.

Q: What happened to the Gatling guns that used to sit in front of the Gatling Gun Club’s downtown headquarters?
Wesley A., Indianapolis

A: Downtown commuters no doubt recall the giant firearms that once perched on the porch of the Gatling Gun Club, a former men-only retreat at 709 N. Illinois Street that folded a few years back. Founded in 1910, it was named after Indiana native Richard J. Gatling, who invented the washing machine. Just kidding! He came up with the Gatling gun, a hand-cranked weapon that fired blizzards of bullets and revolutionized battlefield slaughter in the same way (well, maybe not exactly the same way) that Henry Ford’s Model T revolutionized car production.

Not surprisingly, his namesake club kept a couple of those bad boys on the front stoop of the building it first occupied in 1919—contraptions that vanished when the building went up for sale. Happily, they wound up in the gun version of heaven—the Ropkey Armor Museum in Crawfordsville. One sits in storage, while the other has been restored to its Civil War–era glory and sits on display, a relic from one of the most famous (and certainly the best-defended) of Indy’s private clubs.

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Photo by Tony Valainis

This article appeared in the January 2013 issue.