By Ponta Abadi
When Star Trek came out, Jerry Oltion and his brother would do almost anything they could to see it. They usually watched on a black-and-white television set that had an outdoor antenna. The best way to get any kind of signal was by physically touching this antenna. So even in Wyoming’s harsh winters, the two little boys would take turns sticking their hands out the window and gripping the ice-cold metal to get a clearer look at the Starship Enterprise.
Forty years later that geek of a kid would be a highly acclaimed science-fiction writer, designer of telescopes, astronomer and proudly — still a geek.
Oltion is the most prolific contributor of fiction to famous sci-fi magazine Analog, he’s designed the trackball telescope and his novella “Abandon in Place” has won the prestigious Nebula award — a prize also won by writers such as Vonnegut, Asimov and Orson Scott Card; Oltion accepted his Nebula standing next to his hero Poul Anderson.
Oltion’s obsession with astronomy grew from his love for science fiction. His work building telescopes started thanks to a Christmas gift he and his wife Kathy bought for themselves. They randomly decided to buy a telescope just to see if they’d like looking at the stars with it. They did.
“It was totally a bad ‘scope,” Oltion said. “But in a way that was responsible for us learning about telescopes. I was trying to figure out what was wrong with this thing and so I learned quite a bit.”
Oltion got deeper into astronomy, but soon noticed something that bothered him. The popular Dobsonian telescopes were difficult to maneuver to look at the stars straight overhead. That’s exactly where stars are the clearest because there is less atmosphere between the observer and the star, so it’s unfortunate that someone trying to see them through a traditional telescope would almost literally have to bend over backwards. That hard-to-see spot is called the Zenithal Hole or Dob’s hole.
“It just bothered me that current telescope design made the best part of the sky the most inaccessible part of the sky. I got to thinking about a design that might turn that on its head.”
So Oltion created the trackball telescope that features a large spherical base in a socket, which allows the viewer to rotate the eyepiece and the base to look at any point in the sky comfortably.
Oltion decided not to patent the product partly because he wanted to make sure anyone in the world could build the design for themselves and have fun with it.
“John Dobson came up with the idea and just gave it to everyone. And I just kind of thought, that’s what I want to do. I want to give it away like John Dobson did.”
The Oltions got sucked into looking at the stars. They are now a part of the Eugene Astronomical Society, which meets monthly for star parties in the Friendly Area Neighborhood at College Hill Reservoir.
Along with the astronomers’ group, Oltion is a part of a group of writers in Eugene who call themselves the “Wordos,” but in the 15 books he’s written and 150 stories he’s had published, some of his best critique comes from Kathy.
When Oltion first writes something, he reads it out loud to Kathy. He watches her face carefully to see what she thinks and to see if she laughs in the right places or in the wrong places.
“She’s my first audience and probably my best audience for a story,” he said.
The Oltions first met in a creative writing class at college in the ‘70s and their love for each other — and for tie-dye — is as strong as ever. Kathy now works in Eugene as clinical laboratory scientist but has a long list of hobbies including playing the guitar, stargazing, gardening and writing.
Kathy has helped her husband come up with many story ideas and has written stories with him. She loves her husband’s work and loves being a part of it.
“His stories are always so positive,” she said. “And also a lot of his stuff has little love stories in it and I’m all for a good love story. His stories are full of people that I want to be around, I always enjoy reading his stories and having them read to me.”
“I enjoy doing that too,” Oltion replied with a smile.
That little boy holding the freezing metal antenna to watch Star Trek hasn’t changed in many ways. He’s still doing everything he can to do what he loves — his hands are just a bit warmer now.
“I’m kind of where I like to be and doing what I like to do. I’d like to just do more of it.”