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What is Sidewalk Astronomy?

By Douglas Wolfe
Published 2004-09-02 15:31:42

Every culture based its first religion on what its people saw in the night sky. There is something in the human psyche that cannot help but wonder at the stars, and which needs to impose order on the seeming visual chaos. As the ancients used the stars to outline figures of the familiar and of the fantastic, they built legends to explain how they got where they are and their relationship to each other. Different cultures fit the heroes, monsters and legends to their own circumstances, and through them each society gained the ability to experience a relationship with its own gods simply by looking up.

Today we know too much to explain the stars as shadows of fearsome divinity. The general public has access to quantities of information undreamed of a century ago. The newspapers and electronic media carry more breaking information from the world of science than the average person can digest. Every sixth grader knows something about the way heavenly bodies move, about our Sun's position in the Milky Way, about the myriad of galaxies besides our own. Popular science-fiction movies and television shows present interstellar travel and extraterrestrial life as just-around-the-corner possibilities.

If we come to think that scientific inquiry will lead us to a complete understanding, there is danger of losing the sense of the numinous which has defined and driven mankind's relationship to the cosmos since the beginning of human consciousness. Sidewalk Astronomy adds the personal quality of direct experience to our hard-won and exciting body of scientific knowledge. There is a possibility that everyone who looks can recognize and re-establish his relatedness to that which lies beyond the edges of ordinary perception.

Sidewalk Astronomers are not just people with telescopes. The presence of a big telescope on the city's streets gives us a certain appearance of legitimacy, but in a sense the hardware is superfluous. The real experience of astronomy begins when a person's mind is re-opened to the possibility of the Universe. Seeing a small crowd standing around a telescope is often enough to begin that re-awakening. People standing in line at the eyepiece will naturally look up to notice a star or planet that was there all the time, had they only thought to look. We hope he will look again the next night, and the next.

Wherever we may be found, we offer a tiny peek at what the Universe looks like beyond the interference of electric lights. We share a glimpse of the subtle beauty of the real Universe, uninterpreted by any film maker or computer program. Our reward is in seeing the delight and wonder in the public's face when they experience the cosmos for themselves