In the spring of 2009 I started taking my little grab-n-go telescope downtown and setting it up in the public square on evenings when the moon is well placed. I do that regularly now, and I’ve had hundreds of people stop by for a quick look and, sometimes, a long chat. I realized that almost everyone is interested in astronomy, but most people don’t have an easy way in.
Is 10 minute astronomy a good idea? Wouldn’t it be better for people to lay out under the stars for an hour, or spend an entire evening scanning the heavens with a pair of binoculars, or buy a giant telescope so they could get brighter and sharper views? Am I deluding people into thinking that this is cheaper and easier than it actually is?
I don’t think so (otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this). Sure, spending a whole evening contemplating the cosmos is a rewarding experience, but let’s get real. Most people have a job and kids and a thousand responsibilities. If they have to wait until they can devote three or four hours to this, or until they can afford hundreds of dollars worth of equipment, they’ll probably never get started. I’d rather have people step outside for 10 minutes two or three times a week and get a basic understanding of what’s up there and how it works.
For some people, a nodding acquaintance with the sky will be enough, and that’s just fine. I’ve got no interest in becoming a botanist, but I’d be happier if I could identify all the trees in my yard. Other people may get the astronomy bug and go on to buy a pair of binoculars or a telescope. I hope for that as well. But I want those people to do so with their eyes open and with some realistic expectations about what they’ll put into stargazing and what they’ll get out of it. To me, the worst thing to do is run to a big box store, plunk down a few hundred bucks on a computerized telescope, get frustrated with it after a few evenings, park it in the closet and give up on stargazing. I’ve had more fun sitting in a lawn chair with a printout of a free star map, figuring out what’s up there.
This isn’t about equipment. It isn’t about money, or achievement, or competition. It’s about getting out of the house, connecting with nature and with your family, and getting some first-hand perspective on our place in the universe. We can’t change what we see in the night sky–we can only be changed by it.
Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take,
but by the moments which take our breath away…
– unattributed, sadly