5 questions with… Charley Knox, associate astronomer in the Department of Astronomy and co-founder of the Science Fiction Marathon

Photo of Charley Knox posing with a telescope
Photo credit: Daniel Milner

It’s showtime for Charley Knox. Associate astronomer in the Department of Astronomy and a fixture at Case Western Reserve University for nearly 50 years, Knox (CIT ’74, astronomy; GRS ’78, physics) will spend this weekend inside the projection booth at Strosacker Auditorium. There, you may find him running the projector, changing film reels and otherwise keeping watch over the 30-plus hour Science Fiction Marathon, now in its 45th year. Knox is a co-founder of this annual CWRU Film Society event, which draws students, alumni and sci-fi enthusiasts from Cleveland and beyond.

This year’s movies include oldies (Aelita: Queen of Mars, 1924); goodies (Avatar, 2009); quirky selections (Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, 2001); three surprise movies; and many more titles that are sure to please the sci-fi crowd or anyone in search of something to do on the first weekend back after break.

For Knox, coming to Case Western Reserve allowed him to pursue his boyhood passion for cinema while studying physics and astronomy. “Even before I came to campus, I was fascinated by how movies work,” said Knox. “My family got an 8-mm movie camera when I was just 5 or 6 years old. I used the camera as I got older and wanted to learn more, but film was expensive. I volunteered for the film society at Case [Western Reserve University], and since 1970 I’ve been projecting movies from the booth at Strosacker.”

Learning the intricacies of how things work has always held a deep fascination for Knox. As associate astronomer, he manages the department’s ever-evolving computer technology, keeps telescopes up-to-date and teaches students how to use them.

“Technology has changed so much and will continue to evolve. It’s an exacting science and there are still many things that we are trying to figure out,” he explained.

Knox, who was born in Duluth, Minnesota, got his first telescope in the second grade and was hooked once he took his first look at some planets. When his father accepted a job at U.S. Steel and moved the family to Pittsburgh, Knox spent a lot of time at the Allegheny Observatory at the University of Pittsburgh. 

“At that age, I wanted to know about the universe. I wanted to go into space,” he said. “At some point I realized I wouldn’t be an astronaut because I had crummy eyes. Astronomy is what I wanted to study.”

Learn more about Knox in this week’s five questions.

1. What’s your favorite restaurant in Cleveland?

Tommy’s on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights. I’ve been eating there since it was just a teeny deli in the back of a drugstore. I think it’s in its third iteration now. My wife and I just ate there last Sunday. I think I had the spinach pie with vegetables and hummus. I really like the vanilla malt.

2. What’s the most difficult class you’ve ever taken?

I’ve taken many hard classes. The one that I felt the most pressure to do well in was Celestial Mechanics, taught by Sidney McCuskey. At one time he was chair of both mathematics and astronomy at Case Institute of Technology. He was such a cool old gentleman and he really wanted his students to do well, so you felt pressure to do it correctly. I still have the textbook from the class.

3. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you choose?

I would live near the Great Lakes. I grew up in Minnesota—Land of 10,000 Lakes—where there are seasonal changes and fresh water nearby. This is a great place to live. I don’t want to live somewhere too urban or too rural. Cleveland is a great compromise.

4. What famous person—alive or deceased—would you most like to meet?

Ambrose Swasey [who co-founded Cleveland-based Warner & Swasey Company in 1880]. He had a passion for astronomy, especially the mechanical parts. He made instruments that would ensure precision never before achieved. He built a dividing engine, which I saw in the Smithsonian, that was very precise. That’s what he thought was his best work.

[Note: The university still operates a Warner and Swasey telescope on top of the AW Smith building. Originally built in 1894 by Swasey and business partner Worchester R. Warner for their backyard observatory, it was donated in 1920 to the Case School of Applied Science. The telescope was housed at the now defunct Warner and Swasey Observatory in East Cleveland before moving to the CWRU campus in 1986.]

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

The students. In high school, there weren’t a lot of people that I was close to. They were very different from me. When I got here and got to know people in physics and astronomy, I felt like I belonged. Over the years, I’ve worked with many students and I’ve enjoyed helping them along as they find careers in the areas they most enjoy.

The 45th annual Science Fiction Marathon runs from Friday, Jan. 17, at  8 p.m. through Sunday, Jan. 19, at approximately 2 a.m.