Obscene Astronomy and Street-Smart Stargazing

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image by NASA / courtesy of nasaimages.org

Last autumn I set up my telescope across the street from Trotta’s Castle Lounge in Geneva, New York. I aimed the telescope at the gibbous (three-quarters) moon hanging over city hall. Two guys were smoking outside the bar, and one of them called out to me.

“Dude, can you see my balls in there?”

“No, a telescope is for big things that are far away, not tiny things close up. That’s a microscope you’re thinking of.”

I didn’t really reply that way, even if it was the best of several retorts I worked out about two hours later. What I did say, I said out of a total lack of talent for witty repartee but also a transparent honesty.

“No, I’m looking at mountains on the moon. Wanna see?”

The guy blinked several times, and then his friend said “sure,” shrugged, and crossed the street, leaving ball-dude looking more than a little foolish.

Ball-dude’s friend looked through the telescope. “You gotta be fucking kiddin’ me . . . Man, get your ass over here and see this shit! You won’t fucking believe this.”

I’m sorry about all the cursing in this otherwise family publication. But I have to tell it like it is. Faced with some of the true wonders of the universe, people curse. Beautifully.

One evening I was showing some college students the planet Saturn through the telescope. Suprita, a sophisticated and polite student from India, took one look, breathed in audibly, and came down the stepladder. “Can I curse?” she asked. I shrugged. Suprita stepped back up to the eyepiece and let out a string of obscenities in a discordantly lovely accent.

Sidewalk astronomy, a term for nerds letting the public look through their telescopes, was coined in the 1960s when a feisty Vedanta monk named John Dobson started building large telescopes out of garbage he found lying about and setting them up to educate passersby in San Francisco. The monastery, tired of his secretly grinding mirrors in the bathroom after curfew, threw him out, and, like a latter-day Johnny Appleseed, John Dobson has been a mendicant ever since, traveling around and showing the universe to anyone who will look.

I met John Dobson at a star party in the mountains of Pennsylvania. (A star party is a gathering of amateur astronomers who camp out in a big open field and, weather cooperating, look at the sky together. It’s a lovely nerd fest.) I asked John what he wanted people to get out of their encounters with the night sky. “You were not born in some little town in western New York,” he said. “You were born into a universe.”

Astronomy should be a part of every grade school curriculum, right next to the Erie Canal and how tadpoles become frogs. Alas, we’re a long way off. The small cadre of sidewalk astronomers can’t make up for our country’s failed education system, but it can make a difference.

Let’s start with the Milky Way galaxy, the huge island of stars of which our own solar system is a part. It’s shaped like a spiral pinwheel, and our sun is on one of the arms, about three-quarters of the way out. It has anywhere from 200 to 400 billion stars in it. Scientists don’t know for sure. Let’s take the upper figure for our model.

To get a sense of how big the Milky Way is, get one of those cylindrical cardboard cartons of Morton’s salt. The one I use has a historic label on it from the early 1900s. I always point out that we didn’t even know we lived in a galaxy then, let alone that there were billions of other galaxies in the universe.

There are about 15 million grains of salt in one carton. Scientists don’t claim to know the exact number here, either, though junior high teachers have tried to answer the question by making students count grains in small portions and extrapolate from there. (Is it any wonder people don’t like science?) Anyway, count them if you think I’m off.

Now, to create a scale model of the Milky Way galaxy, you’ll need to go out and buy 26,000 cartons of salt and a giant piece of velvet cloth. Spread out the cloth and arrange the grains of salt so that each one is about seven miles from its nearest neighbor.

I’ll let that sink in. By the way, don’t really try this at home. You’ll need a piece of velvet many times the size of Earth.

Many sidewalk astronomers (like most Americans) are convinced that there is crime all around them. So they seek out what they consider safer and friendlier venues–after outdoor classical music concerts, for example, or on the sidewalk in front of large chain bookstores. Primarily white, college-educated men, they find safety among their own kind. Yet most people, regardless of social class, race, or level of education, still gasp (or curse) when they are shown the moon’s surface, the Andromeda galaxy, or the yellow and blue pair of stars called Albireo in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan.

These things are over our heads every night, and they have the power to change lives. Shouldn’t everyone have the chance to see them? I think John Dobson would answer yes, so I’ve decided to try to reach as many people as I can. I call it punk astronomy. I don’t worry about crime so much. A nerd with a telescope on the sidewalk is pretty disarming. So come on over, and don’t worry: You can curse all you want.

Doug Reilly blogs at www.punkastronomy.com. Excerpted from Geneva13 (#7), a “zine of the local” from geneva13press, which publishes zines and videos, co-produces a yearly film festival, and runs an alternative theater troupe in Geneva, New York. www.geneva13.com

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