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Sidewalk Astronomy: Coming to a Street Corner Near You

August 29, 2012
By Nora Lewis Allen

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Most people are fascinated by space. Disney makes roller coasters about it.  Aptly named “Pie in the Sky” pizza restaurants exist in most, if not all, states.  Thousands of college freshman take astronomy courses yearly, only to be disappointed when their class does not take place in the Hogwarts Astronomy Tower at midnight, but in a lecture room where they learn basic physics and the gas composition of planets.  Despite a seemingly innate interest in the universe, year after year millions of people look up at the stars but rarely have the opportunity to see them up close.

 

 “Sidewalk astronomy”, an idea popularized by John L. Dobson, has popped up in many different corners of the world and offers a rare glimpse into space.  The idea is to take a telescope to different locations and show passersby glimpses of objects in space such as Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, nebulae, and the moon.  Sidewalk astronomy was made possible by Dobson’s Dobsonian telescope, which is large, portable, and low-cost. One local group, The Sidewalk Astronomers of New Haven, is led by Hamden resident Joe Alcott, an enthusiastic and dedicated sidewalk astronomer.

 

In a phone interview, Alcott talked about how he got into the idea of sidewalk astronomy after driving to a concert in New York City with the friend of a friend, Tom Hoffelder, in 2010.  After agreeing on the details of the trip, Hoffelder called Alcott out of the blue to ask him how he felt about telescopes, and specifically, how he felt about bringing one with them to New York City.  “When I went to meet [Tom] in the parking lot, he had a canon of a telescope,” said Alcott.  “I hadn’t seen one that big outside of an observatory.”

 

“When they first actually see Saturn as a planet, they’re blown away.  Then you get the people who completely disbelieve what they’re seeing.  They say things like ‘Oh there’s a sticker there’ or ‘that’s just a parabolic mirror at the base of the scope.’  But then I’ll swing the telescope over to Mars and they’ll still say ‘Oh that’s still just a sticker.’  They will absolutely not believe what I’m showing them.”

 

After his trip with Hoffelder, Alcott didn’t need much convincing when it came to pursuing sidewalk astronomy.  “I’m from New Hampshire originally and there wasn’t a city within 25 miles of my house.  It was a normal thing to go out back and play and look at the stars and watch the satellites go overhead, but I really hadn’t gotten into [astronomy] until I ran into Tom.”  Alcott has always loved NASA and can remember what it was like to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on a twelve-inch black and white screen when he was eight years old.

 

Though Alcott was instantly hooked, he’s witnessed a myriad of reactions in his time with sidewalk astronomy.   On one of his favorite haunts, the corner of York and Elm in New Haven, Alcott meets a lot of Yale students who take astronomy courses and don’t even look through telescopes.  “When they first actually see Saturn as a planet, they’re blown away.  Then you get the people who completely disbelieve what they’re seeing.  They say things like ‘Oh there’s a sticker there’ or ‘that’s just a parabolic mirror at the base of the scope.’  But then I’ll swing the telescope over to Mars and they’ll still say ‘Oh that’s still just a sticker.’  They will absolutely not believe what I’m showing them.”  Though there is the occasional disbeliever, Alcott often gets people who hang around with him all night long.  “They ask all kinds of questions,” he says, “most of which I don’t have the answer to.  I’m not an astronomer, I just love to show other people.”

 

This love of astronomy and the desire to share it motivates Alcott to continue to go out and do what he does.  He says that what excites him most are different reactions of the people, particularly the kids.  “They just gasp and laugh; that to me is the best part.”  In one instance, Alcott and Hoffelder went to New York City to see a different concert and ended up missing the entire thing when about 300 people lined up to see Jupiter and the moon in their two telescopes.  “People would look into the scope and then go to the end of the line they were just standing in and wait again,” he laughed.  “It was incredible.”

 

“That’s kind of what I want to instill in people—that we’re just a little teeny tiny speck of dust.  If they just look at other objects maybe people will start thinking more broadly.”

 

Another one of Alcott’s favorite aspects of the gig is getting to actually see all that space has to offer.  Alcott loves to find the Ring Nebula and has been trying to find the Horsehead Nebula for a while now.  Of the planets (Mars, Saturn, Venus and Jupiter are all visible in his telescope), Alcott loves to look at Jupiter because of the bands, its red spot, and four moons.  He also enjoys showing Saturn, though he notes that except for the infamous rings, the planet looks fairly featureless.

 

Though sidewalk astronomy is a hobby for Alcott, to him the value of viewing space is indispensible.  “Personally I love knowledge and reading about different things that I don’t understand…That’s kind of what I want to instill in people—that we’re just a little teeny tiny speck of dust.  If they just look at other objects maybe people will start thinking more broadly.”

 

As far as encountering one of life’s tougher questions, Alcott has an answer for that too.  After a very religious person approached him and asked if he saw the face of god in his telescope, Alcott couldn’t help but reply, “The face of God is here, it’s you, it’s the earth, it’s the stars, it’s this—creation,” he replied.  “It’s all here for us.”

 

 

 

Joe Alcott’s next location can be found on the Sidewalk Astronomers of New Haven Facebook page.

August 29, 2012 by Nora Lewis Allen & filed under LocalScience, Earth & StarsTop Stories.

 

Link to online article  http://themercurial.com/sidewalk-astronomy-coming-to-a-street-corner-near-you/