Watershed teacher shoots stars, becomes one
CAMDEN — Students at the Watershed School know Pete Kalajian as a boot-camp science teacher whose freshman class in natural observation requires stargazing at 5 a.m., in the winter. That Kalajian often joins them on those predawn missions earns the instructor a lot of props. But Kalajian gained even more respect when students learned that he's also the inventor of a specialized telescopic lighting device now used by star photographers all over the world.
His invention, called the Flip-Flat, is considered the industry standard for photographers who shoot through a telescope to capture dazzling images of far-off galaxies and supernovas. In October, the Camden resident delivered a speech at the Advanced Imaging Conference in San Jose, Calif., where he is something of a ... star.
Kalajian downplays his celebrity status in the world of astrophotography.
"They trot me out every few years," he said, in a news release. "There are a lot of really smart people at those conferences, and to be among them is enjoyable."
The Flip-Flat solves a long-standing problem for astro-photographers: Image degradation caused by the long exposures required to capture distant celestial bodies.
"There is almost no light in space," Kalajian said. "So in the process of photographing a star that is light-years away, you'll also capture every speck of dust in front of the telescope."
In addition, light passing through a telescope drops off around the edges of the lens, causing vignetting during long exposures. And tiny imperfections in the camera itself, which would go unnoticed in conventional photography, can distort space photos.
"To correct for all that visual noise you need to apply what's called a flat field, a uniform light source in which every pixel is exactly the same," he said. "But it's difficult to find a light source that is truly uniform."
Kalajian had a brainstorm in 2009 when he realized that electroluminescent panels might work. Such panels — flat sheets of plastic embedded with phosphorescent materials that glow when exposed to a small electrical current — are used in signage, toys and building illumination. But no one had ever employed them to create a flat field for astrophotography.
"It came to me in a flash," he said. "I tried it, and it worked."
The teacher, who holds science degrees from Cornell and Swinburne University in Australia, partnered with Phil Gaudet, a retired local electrical engineer and amateur astronomer. With Gaudet designing the electronics and Kalajian working up the mechanical system, the pair developed a device that fits on a variety of telescopes and can be robotically controlled. The Flip-Flat got glowing reviews from the astrophotography world, and sales spiked.
But Gaudet had already retired and Kalajian was moving his family to Mexico for a two-year sabbatical from Watershed to teach at a high school in Guadalajara. So the partners sold their company, Alnitak Astrosystems, to a Michigan manufacturer of optical devices, which continues to produce the Flip-Flat at retail price of about $500.
"It was a no-brainer for them," said Kalajian. "They had the physical plant and the production capability. They were able to tool up in about a day."
Although no longer involved in the company, Kalajian said he's proud that the Flip-Flat has become the standard for astro-photographers, many of whom have won awards for their images using the device.
Back home from his Mexican sabbatical, Kalajian is now busy teaching at Watershed and pursuing his own new projects. Last year he built a zero-net-energy home two blocks from the school (it will eventually house his family but is currently being rented), and he's now working with the town to redesign Camden's streetlights for better night visibility, energy efficiency, light pollution control and a reduction in blue-spectrum illumination, which has been shown to interrupt human sleep patterns.
His Watershed students are currently helping the town measure existing light levels to establish a baseline.
"I hope to get across to my students that it's important to follow your curiosity," he said. "And I think my own projects give them a better sense of what it looks like to be continually learning, even as an adult."
Will Galloway, director of the Watershed School, said Kalajian is no outlier among the faculty.
"We seek out teachers who demonstrate lifelong learning and who are pursuing their own careers outside of school," he said, citing a math teacher who is a former physician; a geography teacher who works as an environmental consultant; a Latin teacher who has written textbooks; and an industrial design teacher who is an award-winning professional designer.
"Many of our teachers also teach at the college level," he said.
Kalajian has taught college but says he prefers high school students, citing an appropriately scientific reason:
"High school is such a formative time in human life; the gross capacity and speed at which brain development is happening is absolutely fabulous to watch,” he said. “So at Watershed I don't have to be just the science teacher — I can be a mentor to young people during their time of greatest growth. Plus my style doesn't work so well with college students; they don't like teachers to be constantly in their business."
The Watershed School attracts students who are seeking a demanding intellectual environment in the context of a small and supportive learning community. The 12-year-old school is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and is a Maine State Approved School.
Max Alexander is president of the Watershed board of directors.