Sidewalk Astronomer

I haven't seen the moon for a while now because San Francisco has been battered by winter storms for the last several days. Tonight the Moon is waxing on its way to becoming full by the weekend. As soon as the weather clears, Ill be going out on the sidewalk again with one of my telescopes to show passersby the beauty of the Moon or glorious Saturn rising in the East in the early evening.

I have been a sidewalk astronomer for just over a year, however, I have been an astronomer for over ten years and have owned at least one telescope for most of that time. I currently own seven telescopes but thats a long story Ill save for another article. My wife and I started doing some formal astronomy programs for the National Park Service in Groveland, CA a few years ago and greatly enjoyed sharing our knowledge of the night sky with others. These programs were great fun and well-appreciated, however, they demanded a lot of work as well as traveling across the state and they only happened a few times a year.

On February 7, 2006, I purchased a Coronado Personal Solar Telescope from Scope City in San Francisco. This is an amazing telescope designed exclusively for viewing solar prominences, solar flares and surface detail of the Sun, all at an amazingly affordable price. That afternoon, I was out on the street testing out the scope and ending up showing five different passersby prominences on the sun. (Prominences are gas eruptions that shoot up for many tens of thousands of miles off the surface of the sun. They can last for anywhere from a few hours to several weeks.)

Each of these people became so excited by what they were seeing, that I, too, got excited - not only about seeing the Sun but about sharing it with others. That night, I took one of my other telescopes, a 5 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, to the local Blockbuster store a block and a half away and set up the scope outside on the sidewalk on a camera tripod showing the Moon to any one who would take a minute to stop and see.

It was amazing! I showed the Moon to 25 or 30 people in about an hours time and every one was excited and energized by the view through the telescope. I was asked many questions about the Moon and about why I was out there showing it to others. I heard comments such as Wow! I cant believe it! Its so beautiful! over and over again. The moon is always a beautiful sight but if you have never seen it through a telescope, theres really no way to imagine how it looks up close and personal through a good telescope.

But the most amazing thing about that night was that I, a life-long introvert, became really outgoing and gregarious with my little telescope by my side. I am normally very shy and reserved around strangers, yet I found myself calling out to people I had never met, Come see the Moon through a telescope! I must admit that I really surprised myself, yet in retrospect, it was really no surprise. Every time I look through a telescope or talk about the night sky, I get excited and feel like Im seven years old again, when the world was bursting with promise and surprises. Thats the great thing about Astronomy every one becomes a kid again!

And so I became a sidewalk astronomer. Several times a month, I go out to Blockbuster around the corner or take the car to other neighborhoods in San Francisco to share the night sky with total strangers (although I have made many friends along the way). A very small minority are unimpressed with the views, but Id guess 95% of my customers are highly satisfied with my community service. Im asked many questions (not all of which I can answer) and hear many kind words throughout each evening. Once in a while I get someone a little scary or strange, but the vast majority of people are kind, friendly, inquisitive and truly appreciative of my efforts.

There is an astronomer in San Francisco by the name of John Dobson (now over 90 years old) who started the sidewalk astronomy movement many years ago. Johns quest is simple if 1,000,000 astronomers each showed 6,000 people the Moon or Saturn or Jupiter through a telescope, then every one in the world will get to see these amazing wonders first hand! I had always been inspired by Johns vision but never could envision myself out there on the cold sidewalk talking to strangers until that fateful day last year. Since then, I have shown at least 1,000 people in San Francisco the Moon, the Sun, Saturn, Jupiter and even a few deep sky objects such as the Pleiades and the Orion Nebula. And each day, I find myself watching the weather forecast each day to see if that night might be a good night to take the scope out on the streets again.

Day Star
A Drop of Water
Saturn Rising