Sunday, October 24, 2010


Public Outreach with Ben Weaver

Every astronomy club I’ve belonged to has had at least one Ben Weaver. You know, the mean old man from The Andy Griffith Show who always wants Ang to throw the poor mice of Mayberry in jail on Christmas Eve for jaywalking. Doesn’t like kids—oh, no. And if he’d been an amateur astronomer I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have liked public outreach. Why not? The reasons I hear from our Ben Weaver wannabes are these, the official Astronomy Curmudgeon Top Ten:

"You say this is the way we recruit new amateur astronomers? I don’t want any more amateur astronomers. The club observing field is too crowded now!"

"It’s too much trouble to organize dadgummed public star parties."

"We don’t have anywhere to hold a public star party."

"The place where the club is having the public outreach stuff is too light polluted, and there’s gonna be a fat moon in the sky on the date the idiots have chosen!"

"The kids ask too many questions."

"It’s too boring."

"I’m too busy."

"Those nasty tykes with their lollipop-sticky hands and teenagers with caked-on makeup will ruin my expensive eyepieces."

"Today’s kids are out of control. First thing that’ll happen is one will run helter-skelter into my beautiful AP refractor."

"They won’t be interested anyway; they hate science. All they like is them consarned video games."

OK, Mr. Weaver…let’s deal with your objections one by one:

You say this is the way we recruit new amateur astronomers? I don’t want any more amateur astronomers. The club observing field is too crowded as it is. I’ve yet to be a member of a club where the observing field—or even the monthly business meeting—was “crowded.” But even if yours is, there are still reasons to bring new amateurs into the fold.

Look around at the next meeting. Are your colleagues’ heads as gray as yours and mine? I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see my club continue on down the decades of this new century. My desire for new blood ain’t all altruistic, either. It will be nice for me and my fellow officers to finally turn the work of running the club over to a new generation of amateur astronomers. One curious thing? Many of the folks who look down on public outreach are often the same ones pontificating about “the graying of amateur astronomy.”

None of that strikes a chord? Well, you like gear don’t you? Plenty of new telescopes, and eyepieces, and widgets of every description to drool over and sometimes buy? Imagine how much more of that there would be if we had twice as many amateurs as we do now.

It’s too much trouble to organize dadgummed public star parties. Getting one together can be a lot of work—but only if you let it. Most of the time you and your buddies won’t have to do any organizing work at all. You can do as we do and hold your star parties in conjunction with the local school system or a similar outfit. They handle the venue and the publicity and all we have to do is show up with our telescopes.

We don’t have anywhere to hold a public star party. As above, you let somebody else find a spot for you. That is, you set up on the grounds of your sponsoring organization: in the schoolyard, the back forty of the children’s science museum, the parking lot of the church, whatever.

The place where the club is having the public outreach stuff is too light polluted and there’s gonna be a fat moon in the sky on the date the idiots have picked! Yes, the elementary school playground is probably ringed with sodium vapor streetlights. But so what? It really doesn’t matter. The public, kids and adults, don’t care pea-turkey about looking at NGC 7817, your favorite 12th magnitude galaxy. They want to see the Moon, a planet, and maybe a bright star or two. The combination of the public and lots of telescopes is one that goes better with a little ambient light, anyway. You don’t want little Suzie braining herself on the pier of your AP1200 GEM, do you? Don’t answer that, Ben!

The kids ask too many questions. They do ask a lot of questions; that’s what little folk do. My years of doing public outreach and teaching astronomy to college freshmen have taught me that not only are they full of questions, but that youngsters have a sixth sense for asking the very ones you don’t know the answers to: “But how big is Callisto, mister, how big, huh?”

The solution? If you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of a horde of six-year-olds, decide in advance which objects you will show, and bone up on them. It is not going too far to suggest you put some facts and figures on note cards. If you have a go-to scope, the hand control probably has plenty of information about whichever object you are sitting on, and the small folk will enjoy reading (or listening to you read) the facts of the matter off the little computer.

It’s too boring. I have never, ever found teaching astronomy to kids to be boring. They are always full of surprises, and most often I mean that in a good way. There is nothing at all boring about their looks of wonder when they see the marvels of the night sky through a telescope, your telescope, for the first time.

I’m too busy. I’m busy. You’re busy. We’re all busy. You mean to tell me you can’t get ONE NIGHT OFF from whatever you do to bring astronomy to your community? You don’t seem to have any trouble taking off a couple of weeks every summer and heading to the Texas Star Party. It could be argued that showing the public the sky is, in the larger scheme of things, more important than you doing the TSP Crazy - Hard Object List every single year.

Those nasty kids with their lollipop-sticky hands and teenagers with caked-on makeup will ruin my expensive eyepieces. I’ll admit I wouldn’t want the eyelens of my 13mm Ethos coated with teeny-bopper mascara, either; even if no permanent damage were done. But that’s no excuse for not getting out there with the public. If you’ve been in the game for a while, you undoubtedly have a drawer full of inexpensive Kellners and Plossls that will perform more than adequately. Worried about your scope, too? If you don’t have a second and less fancy instrument, it’s inexpensive to pick-up a used rig for use with the kids. They will be just as happy with a 6-inch Orion Dob as they would be with your prized AP 150 caviar-refractor.

Today’s kids are out of control. First thing that happens is one will be running helter-skelter and will knock over my telescope. Translation: YOU KIDS GET OFFA MY LAWN! As we get older, it’s tempting to blame the younger generation for all the things we perceive as wrong about our culture. Our parents did it…theirs did…and on and on.

What we are really feeling is the melancholy that comes with knowing that the torch is being passed to the next generation(s), and that we are no longer the end-all and be-all of existence. That’s particularly difficult to face for us spoiled baby-boomers. Most kids are well behaved; it’s usually the parents that cause problems.

They won’t be interested, anyway, they hate science. All they like is them consarned video games. The ground truth? Kids are a little different today. They grow up in families different from what you remember from Leave it to Beaver (actually, the Cleavers hardly represented the average 50s family). But they are smart. At least as smart as we were, if not smarter. And I see one thing semester after semester: computer games or no computer games, kids are still interested in the Great Out There. They don’t have a manned space program (much of one, anyway) to light the fire as we did, but they are every bit as excited about getting a look through a telescope as we were.

Still skeptical, Ben? The idea of showing the stars to 300 kids is still—admit it—a scary one? No need to be afeared. Let me take you through a typical public star party run, one me and my mates in the PSAS, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, did a couple of weeks back.

Not only do we hold our star parties in cooperation with the local school system, we’ve been lucky enough to be able to hold them at the same, excellent public school venue for over two decades. It’s no secret to anyone inside or outside the state of Alabama that education is strapped for money here. It always has been, with public schools never having been the highest priority for our politicians. Nevertheless, the county schools down here in Possum Swamp have, by Herculean effort, managed to build and hold onto an Environmental Studies Center in the suburbs. Oh, the (elected) schoolboard has tried to shut this “frill” down a time or two, but the Center, its dedicated staff, and we--the PSAS--are still here.

Honestly, I can’t think of a better place to hold a public star party. While the “ESC” is now in the midst of plenty of suburban street lights, the lighting on the beautiful, park-like grounds is sparse and sensible, so ambient light is not a problem. It’s certainly worth putting up with the general light pollution to have a modern classroom/laboratory building at hand (with its all important bathrooms and coke machines). Having the ESC folks available to handle all the logistics is another huge plus. Most of all, though, every adult Possum Swamp native has visited the ESC during their schooldays, so it’s a warm and friendly place they are eager to return to with their kids.

To misquote Forest Gump, “Public star parties are like a box of chocolates; you never know how many kids will show up.” I expected a largish crowd this time, since conditions were just about perfect. Dead clear skies, a nice crescent Moon, Jupiter on the rise, and temperatures in the 50s. Only thing that might tend to keep the numbers down was that we’d had to schedule the event for the beginning rather than the end of a semester, so we wouldn’t get the kids desperate for the EXTRA CREDIT the science teachers give for attending an “ESC Sky Watch.”

Telescope? As I have said before, I believe simpler is usually better—up to a point. I leave the goto rigs at home. Thing is, as soon as the Sun is down—or even before—your “customers” will begin to arrive and will want a look at the Moon right away. Some go-to scopes can skip alignment or be aligned well enough on the Moon so they at least track, but what’s the point of having a go-to rig if you do that?

How useful will go-to be, anyway, even if you do have time to get the mount properly aligned? You ain’t gonna be hunting 14th magnitude galaxies on a public night. A computer scope is also more time-consuming to set up and is festooned with cords, buttons, and switches that may prove irresistible for little fingers.

The remains of Pine Lake Observatory. We never used it.
How about a Dobsonian? I’ve used Dobs at public outreach events, but have never felt they provide a good experience for the lollipop brigade or for me. I spend too much time re-centering objects between observers, and a Dobsonian is way too easy to move off target by the small, eager hands that will inevitably clutch the focuser despite my pleas of “Look, don’t touch!” A really big Dob? Fuhgeddaboutit. Do you want seven-year-olds climbing your orchard ladder in the dark?

My scope of choice? My trusty RV-6 Criterion Dynascope Newtonian, Cindy Lou. This 40 year old trouper has everything you need for a public star party: excellent optics, a clock drive, and an interesting appearance. I do have to provide a stepstool for the wee-est of the wee to reach the eyepiece, but that is not a big problem. Usually, thanks to the scope’s tube rings, I can position the eyepiece so most of my young observers can observe flatfooted on the ground.

It’s not just ergonomics, either. Point an old Dynascope or other Newtonian refugee from the 1960s at the Moon, and not only will your audience be gobsmacked, you will be too if you’ve forgotten what a beautiful job these antiques can do. Don’t have one? They, and especially the Dynascope RV-6es, are often no farther away than a local Craigslist ad, where they can usually be had for a song.

First thing I noted after I’d got the RV-6 out of the car and set up? The ESC had finally got around to tearing down the PSAS’ old roll-off-roof observatory. In truth, it was time. Our little observatory was pretty dilapidated after enduring two decades of Gulf Coast summers. We’d kept it painted and in repair for many years, but lately? Not so much.

We’d originally intended to use it for public outreach with our 12-inch Cave Newtonian, but that never worked out. Kids had to climb a ladder to reach the eyepiece and, as with a bigdob, you don’t really want them doing that. Also, most members wanted to use their own scopes at public nights rather than open the observatory, sweep the spider webs away, get the humongous 12-inch going, etc. I have preserved the big Cave GEM mount for possible future use—a tornado strike on the ESC did-in the OTA some years ago, alas.

Hokay, status check. We had six telescopes set up and ready to go. I figured that might be barely enough. The last thing you want is too-long lines, though short ones actually seem to increase excitement and anticipation. If we were deluged with kids, I had Anita, the ESC’s newest and very enthusiastic teacher and also a brand-new PSAS member, standing-by with an old Meade white-tube Dobbie.

By the time the Sun was down, I had the RV-6 on Luna, she was delivering an absolutely beautiful image, and a line was forming at my scope. Not because the ESC staff had herded the kids and parents into a line; they organized themselves. Our customers were polite and well-behaved, and that has been the norm over the years. The only times things have gotten dicey in that regard have been when we were completely overwhelmed during special events—Lunar eclipses and Comet Hale Bopp. In those cases, the fault was ours. You simply cannot handle crowds approaching 1000 comet-crazy civilians with ten telescopes; we should have been better prepared.

My targets? I stayed on the Moon most of the time, since that, again, is what the kids and their elders most want to see. I did shift over to Jupiter for a while, though. The seeing wasn’t good enough to allow Jove to really strut his stuff, but our guests didn’t much care. They were enchanted by the Galilean moons (one tot, not surprisingly, asked me which moon was the biggest and how big that was, but I was PREPARED) and by “Jupiter’s ring” (the NEB).

I suppose it would be nice to have every telescope on the field on a different object, but in light pollution with a Moon in the sky, you really are restricted to the “biggies”: planets, Moon, a bright star (Vega this evening). Having the scopes at distinctly different magnifications seems to satisfy our patrons’ desires for “different at each telescope.”

As the evening began to wind down and the youngest observers were trundled off to bed, I did aim at a couple of deep sky objects, M13 and M57—if for no other reason than to prove to myself that I can still star hop with a small finder in a light polluted sky. The RV-6 did a very nice job on both the Great Cluster and the Ring, but, predictably, the response from the kids was ho-hum, “Can’t we look at the Moon some more?”

By 8pm, I was on the road back to the Old Manse with the RV-6 and sure didn’t feel like I’d foolishly sacrificed my evening on the altar of public outreach. I’d had a good time, as always. Would I like to do once-a-month public star parties? I don’t know about that, but twice a year is simply not a huge imposition, and I believe, frankly, that we’ve done some good for kids and for amateur astronomy over the last twenty years.

So there you have it, Mr. Weaver. Wasn’t so scary was it? No scopes were trashed. Plenty of excited kids looked at the Moon and Jupiter. One day, as you (and me) run aground on the shoals of old age, you may even find yourself looking through the giant computer-festooned telescopes of kids who got their start as amateurs on this night.

Thinking back to those old Andy Griffiths, by the end mean old Ben Weaver always showed he really had a Heart of Gold. It’s been this old boy’s experience, muchachos, that at the end of a public outing most astronomer-curmudgeons can’t stop talking about the look on that six-year-old girl’s face when she saw the craters of the Moon for the very first time.

This is just great stuff, as I've come to expect from reading your words. About two months ago, I sent out a note on the spur of the moment to our neighborhood email list and to fellow Chicago Astronomers. We set up three scopes in the tiny park by our house under a street light in the middle of Chicago. With less than a day's notice, we had about 15-20 kids and 10-15 adults over the course of three hours. It was a blast and the kids were terrific. Funny, engaged, curious, imaginative, and surprisingly knowledgable. We would all do it again in a heartbeat! And they didn't care too much when a question didn't get answered. "I don't know but I'll find out" was good enough, and then we were off to the next question.

We set up in public all the time, but this one had the most kids I have witnessed at one. They did bump my scope one time, but waited patiently with good humor while I realigned. Go kids! Here's a link with pics.

And if crabby curmudgeon doesn't want to participate, to each his own. Sad for them, but life can be that way.
Outreach is not for everyone and if someone does not want to do outreach, then that does not make them a 'crabby curmudgeon', or a 'Ben Weaver'. I am not particularly interested in doing outreach but I am certainly not a 'crabby curmudgeon' (as the previous commenter, Patrick, has put) and I feel offended that I'd be thought of as such!
Patrick does not have to be 'sad' for people who don't want to do outreach, as he says himself it's each to his/her own, and to be 'sad' for them is just condescending.
Great blog, Unk, I always enjoy reading it.
As usual, I enjoyed the commentary! I find I have become that curmudgeon, albeit unintentionally, and I am still on the south side of my 40s. What happened to me? It ain't that I don't like kids. Hell, I don't even belong to a club since I moved from TN eight years ago. My daughter did get me to come to her school some years ago and do an astronomy presentation for her class. I guess I did okay because the kids were willing to skip recess and keep going if I was willing to keep going as well. It was rewarding to get that much interest, especially when it wasn't mandatory. I keep thinking to myself that I would maybe like to work with the local school to provide an Astronomy program that could one day evolve into a class for science credit BUT....that is as far as I get. I used to drive 90 miles one way to a monthly astronomy club meetings and even much farther to our public observing sessions so what happened? I just ain't really sure....maybe there is an affliction called curmudgeonism?
Over the past few decades (OK, more than a few), I've enjoyed public star parties from formal huge affairs to small spur-of-the-moment, hey-come-look through-a-telescope events. I've been the guy doing all the planning and administration as well as a telescope operator. I don't know a lot of things for certain, but I do know running a telescope and sharing the view is the fun job!

I really enjoy the impromptu events more than the big formal affairs. Whether I'm setting a scope up in the yard and inviting all my neighbors over for a look or setting up in a public place and letting lucky passersby look at the Moon or a bright planet, I know I'll share a great evening and maybe even make a new astronomy friend or two.

Now, although I love sharing the view, and my flowing silver hair and a very dark night lend me an air of benignity, it's an illusion. I'm a card-carrying, flinty, all sharp corners, pissed-off curmudgeon. I have the tee-shirt and coffee mug to prove it.

Public events, large or small, aren't every amateur astronomer's cup of caffeinated beverage. It's not curmudgeonness, it's that we all come to the hobby for different reasons and we all look for different rewards for the time spent out on a muggy night with skunks curled around our ankles, opossums hanging from the telescope tube and clouds of mosquitoes whining love songs in our ears. I find it hard to gripe about my fellow celestial explorers who follow the solitary path.

I do think, though, all of us should, at least once, join in on an event to share our telescopic views. It doesn't have to be a big, whiz-bang celestial entertainment extravaganza. The next night when the Moon is keeping you from squinting at faint fuzzies, set up a scope and go knock on your neighbors' doors and invite them out for look. You'll have fun and you might be surprised at how clearly you see when you look at the sky through other's eyes.


I appreciate this post. I've only done outreach to those beyond "friends and family" in the last 4-5 months or so. I can honestly say that the reasons I didn't do it had little to do with most of what you posed as questions. It had more to do with my own fear of "What should I expect, and what if I can't handle it?"

Oh sure, I'd written plenty of night-sky articles for my local newspaper, but then they decided that me offering to write them for free cost them too much (in space, I suppose), and don't accept them anymore.

Turns out that actual person-to-person outreach has been very easy to do, and although I do need to brush up on some of my facts and figures, the vast majority of people are extremely thankful for the view through the scope, and yes, there's nothing like hearing that gasp and exclamation when they say, "OH! I see it!! WOW!!"

I've since been MAKING time to do public outreach. My next step is to tackle light pollution at the local political level. Methinks that one will take a little more time and skill. But it's the next logical step, the way I see it.
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