The skies were clear last night and I took my little Celestron 80-ED Apo refractor telescope over to Polk and Broadway on Russian Hill. This is a great spot for sidewalk astronomy as its very busy and most people are very friendly and appreciate. I always setup at the Northeast corner right in front of the Walgreens parking lot and just across the street from Shanghai Kellys, a cool-looking bar that always sends me lots of customers.
I had just finished setting up and had Saturn in view at about 100x when a couple walked up wearing motorcycle helmets. They announced that it was her birthday and so after a Happy Birthday wish, I invited them to look through the scope. As almost always happens, they were thrilled and delighted with the view of this amazing planet through the scope. Saturn is currently over 760 million miles away and the light takes over an hour to get here, so the view at 100 power is quite small but the rewards are huge. Its always great to see a nice Hubble image of the ringed planet, or images taken by probes visiting the planet. These photos are crystal-clear and show fantastic detail and theres no denying their appeal. However, to me and to many of my visitors out on the sidewalk, the live view is unparalleled. There are no tricks or enhancements - just Saturn it its unadorned, natural beauty and looking totally unreal.
I dont count the actual number of visitors I have when doing sidewalk astronomy, but I would guess I showed somewhere between 60 and 80 people the ringed planet last night. Of these, I can recall maybe five who took a quick look and said Thats nice or something to that effect. All of the rest gave comments like Wow!, Oh my God!, No, that cant be real!, etc. And its not what they say, but how they say it, with wonder and delight, that makes the cold night on the sidewalk more than worthwhile. To see people light up with enthusiasm and excitement is a great gift to me - and its because Im giving a great gift to them. Its just 30 seconds or so at the eyepiece, but for many of my customers it changes their whole evening. One pretty young lady said that I made her night. For a shy, middle-aged introvert like myself, thats really nice to hear! (I hear that comment almost every time I go out with the scope). Another young girl gave me a high five and thanked me profusely for taking the time to set up. But the happy, young ladies are just the icing on the cake. Last night, my visitors ranged from aged three to over 70, and every happy face and heart-felt Thank you is a very special reward for my efforts and with each happy response or comment, I always light up like a Christmas Tree.
Before embarking on my sidewalk astronomy efforts, I had done almost no volunteer work outside of a couple of astronomy programs for the National Park Service in the Sierra and one program for the Marin County Open Space District. Now, whenever Im on the sidewalk with my scope, I feel like Ive found my calling. Im always a little nervous when Im on my way to the spot or setting up, but once people start looking and sharing their excitement, the doubts disappear.
Im sharing one of my great passions - one of mankinds greatest passions - with total strangers and making friends and spreading joy and happiness pretty much non-stop for an hour or so. What a fantastic way to spend an evening! It really is better to give than receive, especially when the giving is giving of yourself, your time, your knowledge, your love of the beauty of the natural world, your passion. Im out there doing nothing less than connecting people with the Universe - I cant think of a better way to spend my time.
To learn more about Saturn, visit Wikipedia.