Sunday, January 31, 2010



I’ve long been a believer in public outreach, and so have most of my buddies in the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society. Not that it’s always been easy. Did I ever tell y’all about the time a local kids’ science museum begged us to come out and set up scopes for their customers and then tried to charge us admission? But it’s mostly been ups rather than downs, and I think we’ve lit a few candles in the dark over the years, mainly by means of the two annual public star parties, one in the spring and one in the fall, we do in cooperation with the local schools.

Being conscientious sorts, we sometimes wondered whether we shouldn't be doing more, though. Actually, we had done more, but not on a regular basis. A few times over the course of a year, some group—often the Boy or Girl Scouts—would call on us and out we would go. But that still wasn’t a whole lot, and some years back we decided it might be a nice idea to add a third outreach event of some kind to our annual schedule. What suggested itself immediately was Astronomy Day.

If you’ve been in the amateur ranks for even a little while, you’ll recognize “Astronomy Day” as the annual happening designed to introduce the public to astronomy. It was started by a California amateur astronomer, Doug Berger, but was soon picked up on by the professional community and even NASA. While Doug originally envisaged Astronomy Day as a time when amateurs would set up scopes in public places for public viewing, some groups, me and my pals included, eventually drifted away from that simple and sensible concept.

We did hold a number of Astronomy Day public viewing sessions in the 1980s, which we ran just as we did our other two. We’d set up at our little observatory at a school facility, invite the public out at a specific time, show off the sky for a set period, and send everybody home. That worked OK for a while. Sometimes considerably better than just “OK.” When there was some kind of a sky spectacular coincident with Astronomy Day—a Lunar eclipse, a comet, whatever—our “audience” could number in the thousands. Which required considerable effort in planning and execution by both us and our public school employee friends.

After a few years of moderate-to-good success, we began to scale back Astronomy Day. We’d be exhausted as a group after already putting on our spring public school sky show, and it became all too easy to let Astronomy Day pass without our involvement. That is, we quit. Which eventually sent us on a guilt trip. Shouldn't we do something? Every other club would be doin’ something for Astronomy Day; why not us? Maybe something simpler and easier than one of our mega-star parties.

Our first inclination was to do as numerous astronomy clubs were doing at the time and organize a viewing session in cooperation with the brand-new Saturn auto dealership. You know: “Look at Saturn at Saturn on Astronomy Day!” We tried, but not only was the local Saturn dealership not interested, they seemed positively suspicious of us. I’m not sure if the management just didn't know the difference between astrology and astronomy and were confused as to what we were proposing, or whether they thought this was part of some nefarious plot to steal one of their—ahem—“wonderful” cars. We talked over some options, but finally settled on forgetting public observing altogether and setting up a booth at the Mall.

A booth in the mall is not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, you at least get the word out that there is an astronomy club in town. When we’d set up at the Greater Gulf State Fair one year, we’d had some modest response in the form of inquiries and a new member or two. We worked purty hard to make our Astronomy Day exhibit a success, too. Nice big tables in Bel Air Mall’s entrance foyer next to the fountain—back in the 90s, malls hadn’t yet sacrificed their fountains for more kiosk space. Made up some professional looking signs. Laid out hundreds of nice brochures. Hell, I even set up a monitor and a VCR to show a tape of PC23C video footage of the Moon and planets I’d shot.

Our reception? The folks who ran the place seemed happy enough to have us. Their customers were a different story. At the Fair, we’d had a decent number of prospects stop by and ask questions. At the Mall, just about the only inquiries we got were ones asking us if we knew where the restrooms were. We did get one memorable question concerning the sky, I recall. A fairly normal looking dude approached the table and said he was glad to see us, since he’d had a question about outer space that had bothered him for a long time: “Look, I know the Earth is a ball, but what I want to know is, do we live on the outside OR THE INSIDE of the ball?” When I picked my jaw up off the ground, I did do my best to explain the facts of the Copernican Theory.

The Astronomy Days that followed weren't much different. Minimal interest in the exhibit and little or no results in the form of new members or even inquiries about public star parties. I believe part of the problem was that we chose to hold our exhibit on Astronomy Day proper, on Saturday. We’d stay with it from nine to five, but, in retrospect, I can’t think of a worse day and time. On a spring Saturday morn’/afternoon, most folks around here want to be OUTSIDE and are at the beach or engaged in other outdoor activities. Later in the day, the Mall becomes the habitat of Teenager Americanus, who, even if they harbor a secret curiosity about astronomy, do not go to a mall to satisfy that curiosity.

After three or four years of no results for lots of effort, we called a halt to our Astronomy Day programs, and decided our spring public star party, even if it didn't always—or ever—occur precisely on Astronomy Day was enough. And it was enough for a while, but, as before, after a few years of limiting ourselves to two scheduled nights of public outreach a year, some of us again decided we should do more. Specifically, we were a-thinking “sidewalk astronomy;” this time sans the moribund Saturn Motor Company.

“Uncle Rod, what exactly is ‘sidewalk astronomy’?” Glad ya asked, Skeezix. You’ve heard of Mr. John Dobson, aincha? You’re a newbie and you ain’t heard of him? Hokay, edumacation time. John Dobson of San Francisco, California claims to not be much interested in telescopes; instead, he focuses on some rather mind-blowing cosmological theories of his own devising. Despite that, there’ve been few folks post-Herschel who’ve had as much impact on observational amateur astronomy and telescopes as Dobson. Yep, my little sprouts, that Dobson, Dobson as in “Dobsonian telescope.”

Dobson, a chemist by training, the grandson of one of the Founders of Peking University, was as a young man deeply interested in both the “what” and “why” of the universe, and in the 1950s became a Vedantan monk. The Vedantans are adherents of a Hindu religious/mystical system greatly concerned with the nature of the Universe and, even moreso, Man’s relation to it. John’s struggle to reconcile astronomy with mysticism eventually led him to build a telescope so he could actually see the Universe he was struggling to understand.

The penniless monk obviously couldn’t afford the latest Unitron or Cave finery. He couldn’t even aspire to mirror making kits and ATM parts from Jaegers. Instead, he had to make his telescope out of the simplest and most inexpensive—or free for the scrounging—parts: wood and cardboard concrete-form tubing for the telescope’s OTA, cast-off ship’s porthole glass for the mirror blank. The mount? Dobson didn’t have the resources or skill (he jokes that he was “too retarded” to build a “real” scope) to do a proper equatorial mount, which was all most of us were willing to consider back then. Instead, he put his tubes in simple “cannon” mounts, alt-azimuth mountings made of wood.

You may not be surprised to learn that quite a few Advanced Amateur astronomers of the day turned up their noses at Dobson’s telescopes. They just seemed too radically simple to work. Where was the machining? The clock drive motors? The painstakingly worked and worked-over objectives and mirrors? By the late 1960s, howsomeever, the word was getting out that Dobson’s big, cheap, simple telescopes were revolutionary. It turned out that his workarounds, mostly designed to make it possible to build a telescope for no money, resulted in a powerhouse of an instrument that could blow the doors off the most expensive Caves and Unitrons on the deep sky, which was what Dobson was mostly interested in anyway.

What made Dobson’s telescopes so superior for their purpose (incidentally, he doesn’t seem to much like them being called “Dobsonians”)? Since he used castoff porthole glass, his mirrors tended to be big by the standards of the time, 12-inches and larger. The cardboard tube turned out to be more than strong enough for the job, and had cool-down characteristics better than the aluminum or fiberglass most 1960s telescopes used. The mount was the key, though. Simple, yes, but oh-so-steady. For many of us, our first look through a “Dob” was a revelation; not just because of the increase in light gathering power, but because the mount was so dadgummed steady and easy to use. Nudging the scope along to keep objects in view was no problem; you didn’t need a drive. Plastic and Formica bearings made for movements that were buttery but precise, and vibration was almost non-existent.

Why isn’t John Dobson the chief of the Dobson Telescope Company, then? I reckon he never wanted that. What he wanted was to show people, lots of people, the sky, and to promote his (non Big Bang) model of the formation of the Universe. He’s been happy enough to see folks adopt his design and improve on it (especially if they adhere to his Simple and Cheap philosophy), but his passion has been and still is the sky, not telescopes.

How do you show the sky to all and sundry? Not by keeping your telescopes confined to distant dark sites. Or even public star parties. Dobson’s idea was to bring telescopes to the people instead of vice-versa. He’d cart a telescope out to a street corner in San Fran and, in his own inimitable fashion, invite passersby to look at “their” Universe. John has sometimes been called “the Pied Piper of astronomy,” so it shouldn’t be surprising that local amateur astronomers sat up and took notice of what he was doing, and some decided to join him on the sidewalks of their city as “The San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers (SFSA).”

Yeah, they are based in San Francisco, but like their mentor, the Sidewalk Astronomers have never been content to confine their crusade to their home town. They’ve worked for over forty years to bring their “guerilla astronomy” to everybody everywhere. Four years ago, they hit upon the idea of doing this in slightly more organized fashion. Sure, John D. had attracted a considerable number of folks to the sidewalk astronomy cause through his talks at star parties from coast to coast. But what would happen if there were an annual sidewalk observing event kinda like, well, kinda like Astronomy Day?

Thus was International Sidewalk Astronomy Night (ISAN) born, a night when, as the SFSA say on their cool website:
We invite all amateur astronomers to join us! We'll have telescopes out on the street corners, in front of movie theaters, in state and national parks, in city centre parks ... anywhere there are crowds of people, from San Francisco to Sao Paulo to Kharkov.
In typical Sidewalk Astronomer fashion, there are no rules. There aren’t any fees to pay or applications to sign. Just get out there and confront the public with their Universe. As a club, as a couple of friends, even as an individual.

One of the benefits of the good, ol’ Internet is that even us way down here in Hicksville get the amateur astronomy news at the same time as y’all more sophisticated folk. We heard about ISAN, and figgered that it might be just the thing for us. No heavy logistics and planning, no expenses, just us out with our scopes. Only buzzin’ fly in the butter? There was still the “where” question.

We do have a downtown with real sidewalks, still, and the ebb-and-flow dynamic of city versus suburbs has begun to move back in the direction of “city” from the sprawling and now somewhat dilapidated Bel Air Mall and its strip mall compadres. Our downtown lives again. Still, we weren’t sure setting up scopes there would be that hot an idea. While our entertainment district down on Lower Dauphin Street, LODA, is thriving, it really doesn’t start rockin’ (literally) until after 10pm as the younguns hit the streets. Seemed to us that wasn’t an overly efficient way of getting telescopes to the people; in LODA we’d be reaching only a narrow segment of the populace. So where-oh-where could we set up?

Almost unbelievably, after near 50 years of shopping dominance, malls everywhere, not just our own Bel Air, are on the decline. Few are being built, and plenty are dying. The trend is to open air “malls” or more traditional shopping centers. Possum Swamp’s affluent bedroom community, Fairhope, is graced with one of these fancy and upscale centers. Sure, there are plenty of lights, but that is not a huge consideration for sidewalk astronomy. I, frankly, would have preferred a place that would draw a more diverse audience—one of my worries is that we are not doing nearly enough to bring astronomy to urban minorities, and, especially, urban minority youngsters—but the lack of a roof and wide open spaces and proximity to the Interstate made The Eastern Shore Centre a good bet, I had to admit.

First thing first was to get permission from The Centre’s management to set up on their property on ISAN night. Delegated one of our club officers with some familiarity with Fairhope and the shopping center to approach ‘em. Remembering our reception from the Saturn dealer, I was a little anxious about the outcome, but I needn't have been. The nice people there welcomed us with open arms. They suggested we set up at the fountain, and even promised to do some publicity for us.

The fountain? Yep. Like many similar shopping complexes, The Eastern Shore Centre has a courtyard area that houses restrooms, a small stage used for various events, and a far more modern fountain than the one we set up in front of on that long ago Astronomy Day. Their fountain is essentially a flat concrete area with water jets shooting up. Turn ‘em off, and we had the perfect spot for a brace of telescopes. Flat, firm, and in the middle of pedestrian traffic between Barnes and Noble books and the California Dreaming chain eatery.

While the skies weren’t perfect that first year, we drew a lot of excited families and individuals of all ages, and contributed in our own small way to the tremendous success of the first ISAN. We were one of over 300 clubs who participated in over thirty countries. The SFSA estimate that at least 30,000 “civilians” got their first look through a telescope on that night. Oh, one admission I gotta make: I don’t mean “we” to include “me.” I wasn’t there. The weather forecast for ISAN Saturday was just lousy. And when the weather dudes down here say it’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain. Usually.

The night of the first ISAN found me and Miss Dorothy weekending on the Redneck Riviera in Destin, Florida; specifically, drinking at the bar of my fave beach restaurant, The Back Porch. It was raining. Hard. Water was dripping down the back of my neck as I sat at the bar due to a leak in the place’s tin roof--not that I noticed. I supposed my mates must have cancelled the ISAN expedition. When we got home, though, my buds told me that a huge sucker hole had magically opened over the shopping center, and that they’d showed the sky to hundreds. I resolved to be there next time, no excuses.

I was there for the second iteration, and last year as well. The 3rd ISAN, which was held in conjunction with the International Year of Astronomy’s 100 Hours of Astronomy event, went particularly well, I thought. Not only did we get a lot of traffic, we got most of it not because of prior publicity, but, in the very essence of Sidewalk Astronomy, because people were walking by, got curious as to what we were doing, and stopped for a look at the Moon and Saturn.

After the ISAN, I moseyed over to Barnes and Noble, and the manager, who’d been watching our activities with interest, asked if we might like to do a joint promotion with ‘em next year: astronomy books on display in the front of the store accompanied by our posters/signs for ISAN. “Sure,” said I, but the beautiful thing is it won’t make much difference if that doesn’t happen. Same goes for the ISAN announcements The Eastern Shore Center got out. Nice, but not necessary. Set up in a decent spot for sidewalk astronomy and you’ll get plenty of attention, no prior preparation or fussin’ needed.

After three successful outings, ISAN looks to be here to stay, and I say “right on!” to that. This is an excellent event, and I believe we down here have reached more people more effectively on ISAN than we ever have with our public star parties (though we continue to hold ‘em). The atmosphere is also more relaxed, with me and my fellow PSAS members bein’ noticeably less stressed by the end of the evening. Sound good? This year, ISAN will be held a little earlier than previously, March 20th. As the SFSA notes, that means it’s still gonna be a little cold for you Yanks, but the earlier date will be a big help for everybody in that it’ll get dark a lot earlier in March than it will in April or May.

What do you bring to a sidewalk astronomy outing? The type and aperture of scope ain’t important; you just want one that’s easily accessible by everybody, including the wee folk. That means you can probably leave the humongous Dob and its accompanying orchard ladder at home. You won’t need it, anyhow. In my experience, what your visitors will want to look at will be the Moon, a bright planet (Mars will be up for ISAN 4), and a bright star or two. Neither kids nor adults will care pea-turkey about the deep sky, even if you can see much of it from your light polluted sidewalk.

In addition to one that’s easy for everybody to use, you want is a telescope that’s quick to set up and tear down, and one that doesn’t require a lot of fussing. A simple Dobsonian is, not surprisingly, a good choice. I used my 8-inch f/5, “Old Yeller,” to good effect last time, and was mostly happy with it. Despite the appropriateness of a Dob for sidewalk astronomy, though, I gotta commit heresy and say a driven scope might be even better. Re-centering your target between observers becomes an annoying pain after a while.

If you intend to use a go-to scope, you’ll be happiest with one you can align on the Moon or a planet or just tell “Use last alignment.” Celestron NexStars will do both those things, and that allows you to get goin’ before there are alignment stars visible. The last thing you want is to turn folks away because it’s not dark enough to align a computer-heavy telescope. If a go-to is all you have, bring it, but computer stuff really ain’t needed in the sidewalk environment. You ain’t gonna be chasin’ PGC galaxies.

If I can find a suitable and safe step stool of some kind, I may use my Criterion RV-6, Cindy Lou, for ISAN 4. She has the advantage of superb optics that just blow you away on the Moon and planets, and she is a very simple thing indeed. A jumpstart battery and a small inverter are all she requires to track the stars. She’s also sturdy and steady and excited little hands won’t easily move her off-target.

Can I tell y’all a secret? I find I am looking forward to International Sidewalk Astronomy Night far more than I’m looking forward to our big, organized spring public star gaze. Maybe more than I’ve ever looked forward to any organized public event. I guess I just ain’t an organized kinda guy.

Great Post Rod!

Although I haven't done ISAN, I have been involved with a number of outreach through our club. One memorable one is with a group of blind kids - yes blind. They may be legally blind but they can still see light and dark. I only had one couldn't see the moons craters. (I spent several minutes with her and guided her hands over the scope to explain how it worked. I didn't want her to be completely disappointed.)

Recently a grade school principle that lives next door wanted an event with their science night. I contacted the club, but they decided to halt public events for awhile. So, I recruited my 11 year old daughter and with just two scopes we gave everyone a view. Later I was told that 3 students asked their teachers for books on astronomy -- SUCCESS!

John Dobson, sitting in booths (and talking to people who swear they have been abducted)... Sounds like we could talk for hours ;)

Oh, one last thing. I have one of those adjustable astro chairs which has a nice back (thanks Ray and Frank). I adjust it so a small kid can stand on it, hold onto the back and look through the scope. It works wonderfully.
Does anyone else set up their telescope at halloween to let the little monsters
look through it (using a crummy eyepiece because of the face paints
and eyeliner)? I've been doing it every clear Halloween for the last
13 years. I have a lot of fun doing it.

The best one was about 5 years ago. A group of 6-7 kids around 7-10
years old and their parents came around trick or treating. I had the
scope set up and pointed at the moon. The first couple of kids took
the normal 10 second look, exclaimed "Cool!", and moved on to the
candy bowl. The third little girl looked through the eyepiece for at
least 30 seconds, then looked up at the moon itself, then back in the
eyepiece, back at the moon, back in the eyepiece, for at least another
minute until mom told her to let the other kids have a turn. She
reluctantly moved aside. The rest of the kids did the 10 second look
and moved on. I was talking with the parents about the scope when all
the kids had finished. That same little girl looked at the scope,
then at me, then back at the scope until I told her to go ahead and
look all she wanted. She was glued back to the eyepiece for several
more minutes while the rest of the kids went to the neighbors house
and on. Mom finally took her to join up with them when the next group
of kids came along.

That is one of the top 5 memories related to astronomy that I have.
For me, it is worth cleaning an eyepiece, answering the same question
400 times, and freezing my XXXX off, just to see the spark of interest
in one or two people each year.
The 100 Hours of Astronomy last year was my first experience with sidewalk astronomy (I blogged about it here). I started going downtown two or three times a month, usually around the first quarter moon, and setting up a small scope in the public square. By the end of the year, I'd had 916 visitors. Now I'm just waiting for the weather to clear up so I can do it some more. It's downright addictive.
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