Saturday, April 04, 2009

Live-blogging the 100 Hours of Astronomy

I didn't think this was going to happen; until about sundown tonight the LA part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy had been more like the 50 Hours of Holy Crap It's Overcast and Sprinkling. But then the sky just magically cleared, so I took my little travel telescope to downtown Claremont, set up near the fountains, and started offering passersby a look at the moon. In two and a half hours, a staggering 144 people had a look.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with the general level of knowledge of my visitors. Several of them knew that the 100 Hours of Astronomy was going on, thanks to coverage on NPR (link goes to the IYA 2009 page about the event; the actual 100 Hours page has been mostly shut down by high traffic, but the webcast is still active). Even at low power, the moon drifted out of the field of view in about 3 or 4 minutes, and almost everyone who noticed this knew it was because of the Earth's rotation (which of course carries the telescope along with it, but not the moon). Lots of folks noticed that the view of the moon through the telescope was flipped left-to-right by the right-angle diagonal mirror in front of the eyepiece. Many, many people of all ages told me it was the first time they'd ever seen the moon through a telescope. Until a year and a half ago, I would have been in the same boat. Now I'm just happy to be able to give other people that experience.

People's responses were overwhelmingly positive. Almost everyone thanked me, lots of people shook my hand, and a handful told me it was the highlight of their evening. That felt pretty darn good.

The total number of people who walked by while I was set up was probably closer to 200. My usual greeting was, "Would you like to look at the moon? It's fast and free." It's funny, you get that many people coming by and you start to notice patterns. Here's what I observed:

1. Women of all ages were far more likely to come over for a look than men. Many couples came by because the woman wanted a look and basically dragged the guy over. I don't know if that has to do with (stupid) male aloofness vs. a tendency for women to be more personable, or a vast untapped astronomical curiosity amongst womankind*, or what, but the difference between the sexes was pretty striking. However, out of the people who actually looked through the scope I'd say the questions and complements were about evenly distributed. In parting, women tended to, "Thank you so much, that was really wonderful!", with a ten-thousand-watt smile, and men tended to a quick but heartfelt, "Thanks", with eye contact, and a handshake.

*Sadly, I'm not joking about this; I do think that contemporary society and the educational system tend to steer women away from math and science, and it would not surprise me if the pool of people who would engage with science if it were more approachable was skewed toward women.

2. Willingness to look was basically inversely related to age. I did get plenty of young people to look, from tweens up to young marrieds, but the accept rate was a lot higher in middle-aged and elderly people. I think this is because--and I say this as a former teen and twentysomething whose memory is not perfect but still too sharp for comfort--most people in their teens and twenties have their heads up their butts. It's an ailment that is usually fixed, if it's fixed, by living long enough to get over yourself. (If you find that offensive, wait until you're in your mid-30s and see if you're still offended before you take me to task. And in the meantime, get off my damn lawn!)

3. Among the ethnically diverse passersby I didn't notice any patterns in terms of who would look and who wouldn't. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, whatever, most people were curious and openly so.

4. Smart-alecks were rare, and they were all young men (to a man, as it were). And they all said the same thing.

Me (pointing to telescope): "Hey, would you like to look at the moon?"
Them (glancing skyward): "Nah, I can see it just fine."

I would have thought that would really get on my nerves, but it didn't. I was offering a free service, and if people didn't want to look, okay. If they wanted to get a quip out of it, okay, poor choice, but not my loss. Plus, it was really easy for me to be the bigger man (cuz I'm fat--ha, Mike, said it before you!) because about half the time the dude who smarted off would get dragged over to the telescope by his wife or girlfriend and end up looking anyway, and watching the battle between gratitude and embarrassment in his demeanor afterwards was, I'm sad to say, extremely satisfying.

5. Anyone who asked more than two questions would eventually ask, "How much does a setup like this cost?" And with only one exception, everyone who asked was shocked--shocked I tell you!--to learn that the scope currently goes for less than $250. The one exception was a group of starving students who were impressed by how much better the view was than that given by their telescope, which reportedly cost $30 but "didn't work". The old rule--don't buy a telescope anywhere that also sells underwear--still applies. And, yes, Toys-R-Us sells underwear. You've been warned.

Final thoughts: man, I had a blast. Any time you can single-handedly make 144 people happy in less than three hours counts as a big win (har har, obligatory Annabel Chong joke, etc.). If there are any raging egotists out there (on the internet? Nah!), sidewalk astronomy probably has the highest people-saying-nice-things-about-you-to-effort ratio of any conceivable activity. I had not considered this as a potential draw before; I just wanted to show some people the moon.

Here's the bottom line: every time I look through a telescope, I am blown away. Every. Single. Time. We spend so much time and money on devices that bore us or frustrate us or piss us off. It's nice to use one that doesn't just tickle my sense of wonder, but smacks it across the room Hulk-style. The only thing better than that is sharing the experience with others--the more, the better. That's what the 100 Hours of Astronomy and the International Year of Astronomy are all about. So happily for me there is a global initiative to do what I was going to do anyway.


Photo taken from downtown Claremont, about 7:45 PM on Friday, April 3, by afocal projection, using an Orion Apex 90mm Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope, Orion Sirius Plossl 25mm eyepiece, and Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera.

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Blogger Sarah Werning said...

Matt, this is one reason of many that I'm glad we're friends. You have earned a point, my friend!


1:33 AM  
Blogger Sarah Werning said...

Also: thoughts on buying my nephew a telescope for his fourth birthday? Recommendations?

1:34 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

You have earned a point, my friend!

Thanks, now I'm up to what, about 1?

Also: thoughts on buying my nephew a telescope for his fourth birthday? Recommendations?

I have a long writeup on this that I will deploy as a separate post soon. The short answer is to get a used Edmund Astroscan. Here's why. Someone somewhere is selling a used A'scan for $50-100, and you can find these people by Googling 'Astroscan Craigslist'.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Vultur said...

Sadly, you're right about the attitudes of young adults - I'm one myself, and it's frustrating when I try to point out a close hawk, the constellation of Orion on a good night, etc. - very few people are interested.

Is it so dumb to think everyone should be able to recognize the brightest local constellations, a few plants, a few common birds, etc.?

12:56 AM  

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