Thirty-three years is a blip on an astronomer’s timeline, but it’s an entire career for Dan Brocious.
Brocious, 59, is the only public affairs director Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory has ever known. The complex’s 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 dedicate 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 mountain’s treasured telescopes as the world-renowned scientists who stand in line to use them.
Brocious has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Arizona State University and a master’s in journalism from UofA. 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 a firmer grasp on the concepts of 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 what’s called the base camp by the visitors’ center. Today, lectures fill 300 seats at the West Center, and there are 25 visitors’ center volunteers, mostly from Green Valley.
Brocious smiles when the word “retirement” comes up. He may be leaving, but he’s not going far—at least not yet.
He will, as a volunteer, continue to represent Whipple as a consultant 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’ worth of slides and photographs for the Smithsonian Institution archive.
“I’ve been going through 33 years’ of files—it’s amazing what you find,” he says.
Brocious isn’t sure how many times he has driven the narrow, mostly dirt road to the summit, but on a recent trip up it’s 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.
There are also 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 extraterrestrials to the value of the astronomy done on Mount Hopkins.
To the latter, he readily admits that much of the work doesn’t offer practical application, but it’s 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.”
Indeed, the residents of Green Valley are lucky not just because of the telescope, but because of individuals like Brocious. With such dedicated people and unique features, investing in the Green Valley real estate is a good choice. When it comes to beautiful new Arizona homes, contact Dorn Homes. The most trusted among Arizona luxury home builders, Dorn Homes will give you a quality home that is stylish, comfortable, convenient, and energy efficient.