Adventures in Sidewalk Astronomy
Kevin Bourque frequently struts
line, asking intelligent questions and expressing their thanks. We talked for a while about astronomy and skateboards and other weighty topics. As they left, I thanked them for being good customers. I sent them off with a heartfelt "Dudes, you rock!" — hoping I didn't sound like a complete idiot. As I packed up, I was reminded of the old adage about the book and its cover. I'll bet they were thinking the same thing.
The majority of my encounters are wonderfully positive. I am constantly amazed at how much raw fascination the night sky holds. Night after night I witness someone brushing up against the immensity of the universe for the first time. "Yes, not only is that spot of light above the tree the planet Saturn, but you can actually see the rings! Look, here's Jupiter. See those dots out to the side? They're about as big as our own Moon, just farther away. One of them has a frozen ocean. Speaking of our Moon, it's 235,000 miles away. The light from my flashlight gets there in about a second, but we'll all be dead before it reaches that star." My payment is their amazement and enthusiasm, and I am seldom disappointed.
My goal is not to convert people into astronomers as they pass by. I don't care if they learn to tell Mars from Aldebaran. They can discover that later, if they have the inclination. What I want more than anything is to ignite that spark of awe and amazement, that sense of being connected to a universe that's as mysterious as it is accessible. I want them to understand, if only for a while, that the universe is bigger than their daily commute to work. Some may see me as a standup comic or a street hustler, but a few walk away knowing that I'm really an evangelist
When he's not prowling the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, with his telescope, Kevin Bourque (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an adjunct instructor at the College of Charleston.
his astronomical stuff to passersby.
Sidewalk astronomy is a demanding occupation. The hours are weird, the pay is nonexistent, and you have to be able to deal with literally anyone. You need to be a fluid mix of teacher, standup comic, psychologist, and street hustler. Knowing a little astronomy doesn't hurt, either.
My favorite location is a public park that gets lots of foot traffic. My first night out, I quickly discovered that people are wary of a solitary stranger with a telescope. Without an invitation, almost everyone quickly looks away and keeps walking. They need to be reassured that I'm not going to ask for money or sign them aboard the Mother Ship. "Come take a look at the Moon. It's free. I really don't want anything from you." I'll stand a few feet back, hands in pockets, trying my best to look harmless. A big smile helps.
Some refuse to make eye contact, walking resolutely forward in a sensory oblivion born of living in big cities. Others are more vocal: "No, thank you, and good night!" one woman spat out with barely concealed contempt. How dare I take her for such an easy mark?
Most stop and take a look, and that's when the real fun starts. In the course of an evening, I'll bounce off a fascinating mix of people. Many have never looked through a telescope before. The responses range from "Is that all there is?" to those who don't want to leave and even come back for another look later. My fantasy is that every thousandth customer goes home and gets seriously hooked on the hobby.
Some of these passersby are already hooked. The occasional avid amateur wanders by and always makes for good company. Most are excited to find someone on the street with a telescope, and a few will hang around and help. The really interesting subspecies is the Alpha Male, whose first priority is to impress his date. He'll serve up jargon until he finds one I can't return. "I see you have a Maksutov-Cassegrain. Is the primary spherical or hyperbolic?" If I'm feeling puckish, I'll suggest that he should go home and check his own telescope; it probably has the same design. But usually I'll let him win, and he gets to rule the roost for one more night.
I've never been concerned for my safety, but I suppose anything can happen in a public place. One night, as it was getting late, a bunch of older teenagers arrived on skateboards. They were very loud and trying their best to look dangerous, with chains, spiked hair, pierced body parts, and ominously sloganed T-shirts. For a while they orbited just beyond the glow of the streetlamps, a noisy Oort Cloud on wheels. Finally one of them did a close approach, and I invited him over for a look. Within minutes the rest of the bunch were standing politely in
February 2003 | Sky & Telescope