Welcome to Punk Astronomy! Coming to you from the down-on-its-luck, rust-belt, burnt-over city of Geneva, NY, this blog is all about astronomy and how punk it is, or should, or could, be. Here’s the Punk Astronomy Manifesto:
Last autumn I set up my telescope across the street from Trotta’s Lounge on Castle. I aimed the telescope at the gibbous (three-quarters) moon, hanging over city hall. Those barmy bird recordings were blaring at me. Two guys were smoking outside of the bar, and one of them called out to me:
“Dude, can you see my balls in there?”
“No, a telescope is for big things that are far away, not tiny things close up. That’s a microscope you’re thinking of.”
I didn’t really reply that way, even if it was the best of several clever retorts I worked out about two hours later. What I did reply was said out of a total lack of talent for witty repartee, but also a transparent honest
“No, I’m looking at mountains on the moon. Wanna see?”
The guy blinked several times, and then his friend said “Sure,” shrugged, and crossed the street, leaving ball-dude looking a little foolish.
Ball-dude’s friend looked through the telescope. “You gotta be f***ing kiddin’ me…Man, get your ass over here and see this shit! You won’t f****ing believe this.”
I’m sorry about all the cursing in this otherwise family zine. But I gotta tell it like it is. Faced with some of the true wonders of the universe, people curse. Beautifully.
And it doesn’t matter about education. One evening I was showing some college students the planet Saturn (the one with rings) through the telescope. Suprita, a sophisticated and polite student from India, took one look, breathed in audibly, and came back down the stepladder. “Can I curse?” she asked. I shrugged. Suprita stepped back up and let out a string of obscenities in a discordantly lovely accent.
One night my astronomy friend Peter showed me a little piece of sky near the constellation Pegasus where you could see a group of five galaxies, like faint cotton balls. Each galaxy probably consisted of over 500 million stars. And each star sent out photons that travelled for 50 million years, hitting nothing that could block them until their journey’s end on the rods and cones of my eye. I don’t really think there are words adequate to capture this experience.
Sidewalk Astronomy, as a term for nerds letting the general public look through their telescopes, was coined in the 1960s, when a feisty Vedanta Hindu monk named John Dobson started building large telescopes out of garbage he found lying about and setting them up to educate passersby in San Francisco. The monastery, tired of him secretly grinding mirrors in the bathroom after curfew, threw him out, and like a latter day Johnny Appleseed John Dobson has been a mendicant ever since, travelling around and showing the universe to anyone who will look.
I met John Dobson at a star party in the mountains of Pennsylvania last summer. (A star party is a gathering of sometimes thousands of amateur astronomers, who all camp out on a big open field and, weather cooperating, look at the sky together. It’s a lovely nerd fest.) I asked John what he wanted people to get out of their encounter with the night sky, and he quipped, “You were not born in some little town in Western New York. You were born into a universe.”
Astronomy should be a part of every grade school curriculum, right next to the Erie Canal and how tadpoles become frogs. Alas, we are a long way off. The small cadre of ‘sidewalk astronomers’ can’t make up for our country’s failed education system, but we can make a difference
Many sidewalk astronomers are (like most Americans) convinced that there is crime all around them. So they seek out what they consider safer and friendlier venues—after outdoor classical music concerts, for example, or outside of large chain bookstores. Mostly white college educated men, they find safety among their own kind. . Yet most people, regardless of social class, race, or level of education, will still gasp (or curse) when shown the moon’s surface, the Andromeda galaxy, or the yellow and blue pair of stars called Albireo in the constellation called Cygnus, the Swan. These things are over our heads every night, and they have the power to change lives. Perhaps access to the grandeur of the universe should also be an inalienable human right. I think John Dobson would agree with that. Call it Punk Astronomy. I won’t worry about crime overmuch. A nerd with a telescope on the sidewalk is pretty disarming, and yet, far from harmless. What I show you might change the way you look at everything from that point on. And it’s okay, you can curse all you want.