Becoming a Street Astronomer

People have always called me an alien. They’ll joke and say I only had three weeks to read up on Earth before they dropped me off. And for whatever reason, even from cloudy NorthEast Rochester or bright and crowded Philadelphia, I’ve always been tempted to look at the sky with my binoculars.

Stare at the stars long enough, and you will realize you are floating through space, on a rock that slowly spins and orbits in clockwork cycles. Galaxies seem to go on forever, and that asteroid hurtling through space appears as still as stone, because it takes 100,000 centuries to cross the galaxy. But light pollution is growing faster than GDP or population growth, and so lately, when humans look up the sky, all they see is haze.

In cities, light pollution from buildings, streetlamps, and cars smear out the light coming from the stars. As we illuminate our habitat, the Universe disappears from the sky. In most cases, only our own solar system is barely visible through the dulling haze.

At my University, you can find the drunks crossing Genesee River footbridge connecting the school to the neighborhoods on the other side of the river. This arching quarter-mile long bridge elevated you slightly above the terrain. The Genesee, flowing North, parted the houses and the trees from the landscape to provide a superb and unobstructed view of the Southern sky. This is region of the sky where the Solar system dwells.

One day, without any real cosmic purpose, I brought my binoculars to the crest of this bridge. Splaying out the tripod, I deployed a scientific instrument in my own neighborhood. Without any detailed knowledge of how to navigate the skies, what would I point it at?

The binoculars are a Celestron 12×50 Granite model. Their 50 millimeter lenses magnify the sky twelve times. That doesn’t seem much, but it is enough to forever change one’s perception of the moon. I bought them because I was going to Italy with my architecture professor. I knew the buildings were tall in Italy, so I bought a pair. At our first site visit, the professor asked to try the binoculars. “Oh wow”, he said. 20 years of giving his tour, and he had never seen the bricks up there.

I didn’t even know what I would see. To the human eye, the moon is overwhelmingly bright in the night sky. There are some discolorations visible, the once molten Mare, but it appears flat upon an invisible dome above us. But what do you see, up close? I studied optics in my courses, I had grown up on images from the Hubble Space Telescope. But what could I see?

I couldn’t believe it! At 12X magnification, you can immediately identify that the moon is a Ball. Not flat. 3 Dimensional. My pupils embraced the terminator line – the boundary between daytime and nighttime on the moon. The jagged line revealed textured mountains, taller than the alps. They appeared as shiny cystalline dots. The craters – I could see inside the craters. It was dark inside them, because the crater rims are cliffsides and sunlight doesn’t reach within. The moon is not, as Aristotle said, an incorruptably perfect smooth sphere. It was a place, a real place, somewhere else than Earth, with mountains and cliffsides, and, for a brief moment, astronauts.

It made me feel small, but at the same time, like something was giving me a big hug. You immediately realize, from this nearby object, the infinite size of the universe. You become small, feel loved, and embraced by a mystery that we have all been born into.

Who better to share this with than blissfully college students?On their minds: did they get a keg of Genesee Cream Ale, or just Pabst Blue Ribbon. Are there cute guys and girls there, or is this party dead? Certainly they had no reflections of cosmic significance as they turned off the footpath and onto the bridge. Here was my plan: I would show them something beautiful. Launch them out of the moment, and bring them to a different world.

I would show them something beautiful, and they would shriek, just like I did. A small group, 2 men and three women, approached the crest of the bridge. The volume of their voices betrayed them, they had pregamed before visiting my impromptu observatory. How would I tell these people that the Universe is on display tonight?

I would have to solicit them. “Hey, do you want to see the moon up close?” Of of the men stepped forward.

“Hold my beer”. He didn’t really say this, but his body language screamed it. He wanted to act like a clown with me, maybe to impress the girls. I smiled and presented him the binoculars. He clapped his hands together, rubbed them, crouched down in a powerful stance, and peered through. The women giggled.

“THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE! YOU CAN SEE THE CRATERS”. His ego was shattered. He wasn’t too cool for whatever game I was playing. He was amazed. He gripped the binoculars harder, as if he was about to fall off the surface of the Earth. I’m sure that his blood alchohol levels served to enhance the experience. Just as I had, he was seeing all of this for the first time. He shook my hand and thanked me.

“That was great man. The universe is lit.”

I try my luck on the next group. They laugh and walk past. But as they pass, one woman hesistates. She looks at me, then up at the moon, then back at me. I smile and repeat my invitation. She smiles wide and steps forward. Then she grabs the binoculars from the wrong side and licks one of the lenses! I followed her all the way down the bridge shouting at her. “Why would you lick my optics! The Universe will never forgive you!”

A friend drives his bicycle to our spot. An open can of Genesee cream ale sits in the cupholder of his 1980s steel frame bicycle. A yellow crescent hangs low over the treeline on a warm Rochester spring day. The spectacle feels like a celebration of life itself.

Now comes the climax of the night. The moon now looms high overhead, and students begin to return from their parties, back across the bridge, now greatly inebriated. If I didn’t get them before, their inhibitions were low, and I would get a second chance. Many groups, skeptical at first, now joined me on their second pass. The frat party was their pregame to the star party.

Another person wanted to look, then another, then another, and so begins a process would change my life forever.

That first night was endless fun. It was a kind of social ecstascy. That cosmic thrill I felt, the first time I looked at outer space, I could share it with other people, and experience it again and again, through them. As a hybrid of a street performer and a science teacher, I could guide their observations. They stand in Galileo’s shoes and discover the shadows in the craters. They discover the universe in an unexpected place. I set my rule to invite every single person, no matter my impression of them. I had to go again.

After a few nights of this “Street Astronomy”, I noticed a contradiction. The University of Rochester is known for its astronomy program, known for its optical engineers. Supposedly, some of the brightest users and makers of telescopes learned their basics here. One research team here helped repair the Hubble space telescope. So why have so many people never seen the moon like this before? Why aren’t we looking up?

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