California stargazer turns city streets into outdoor observatories.
Seeing Stars: Astronomer Brings Planets to the People
Saturday night at 8 is community crunch time in Old Pasadena, Calif. Streets and sidewalks are jammed. Restaurants are crammed. It's SRO in bookstores, cafes, and movie theaters.
Into the humanity jam comes a T-shirted man in shorts and sandals. Next to a parking meter in front of Boulevard Footwear and Bootery, he unfolds what could be a grenade launcher or a bazooka and aims it at the eastern sky. Amid quizzical looks from startled shoppers, he drapes a sign over his ominous contraption that at once signals his mission and evokes a sigh of collective relief: "Telescope viewing. It's free! JPL Astronomy Club."
Known as the "Sidewalk Astronomer," Dave Doody, an engineer at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has made it his personal quest to bring planets to the people. Wielding a 200-millimeter Tinsley telescope on loan from JPL's Telescopes in Education project, Mr. Doody focuses the enormous instrument on a flash of white light about 30 degrees up and 20 degrees south of due east.
Tonight's feature: Jupiter, complete with streaks of red and brown on the planet's surface and four of its 18 moons. Immediately, a line forms halfway around the block. One by one, people of all ages peer through an eyepiece that juts out of the scope's lower end.
Sharing the sky
"Why are you doing this?" asks a reporter from local Channel 9 who has stopped to do a feature for the 10 p.m. news.
"Because this is where the people are," says Doody.
He is not the first stargazer to share his heavenward visions with those who can't make it to the mountains, where most high-powered astronomy scopes peer through the slits of observatory domes. A San Francisco group has long taken telescopes to Death Valley, Yosemite, and other spots for people to view, and there are accounts of $1, "buck-a-peek" setups from New Orleans to Maine. There was also amateur astronomer John Dobson, from whom Doody got his idea a decade ago.
But by most accounts, Doody has been one of the most successful. His sheer audacity in setting up in the midst of crowds and city lights attracts about 1,000 people a night - each willing to wait in lines stretching a city block and farther. In the process, he has won accolades coast to coast for breaking down the walls between the rarefied world of science and the common man.
"People think that because of light pollution you can't really get a good look at anything unless you are at an observatory way out in the country high on a hill," says Garry Tomlinson, coordinator of Astronomy Day for the American Astronomical Society. By focusing on bright planets and moons during the right atmospheric conditions, Doody has been able to do what many observatory officials - for reasons of remoteness - have not.
"They flock to him in numbers we never see," says Mr. Tomlinson, who is a scientist at Chafee Planetarium in Grand Rapids, Mich. "We are quite jealous of such success."
Getting people to look up
Scientists say that Doody's success is not necessarily an outgrowth of high-profile headlines of major missions such as Pathfinder, which sent back live pictures from Mars a summer ago. Rather, the crowds are a reflection of deep interest in the cosmos that exists within most people.
"NASA and the media have generated so many fabulous pictures from spacecraft that it has reached the point where people don't realize you can see these things with your own eyes," says Steve Edberg, a coordinator for JPL's Cassini Mission, which is tracking a spacecraft that will reach Saturn in 2004.
"Dave is proving to a wide variety of people that they can go out to eat, see a movie, and look up and see Jupiter the same night. They find they can participate directly without waiting for someone else to deliver them pictures."
The excitement is as palpable as the jazz riffs coming from a street saxophonist. "I can't believe I just saw Jupiter in my own sky," says Jeff Henner, a Pasadena-area teenager. "Spots and moons and all. I feel like I just discovered a new neighbor."
For Doody, who got his first telescope at age 7 and has never stopped looking up, such comments are a welcome, and natural, response. "It's not that hard to figure out," he says. "It's just the natural response to the biggest question of all: Are we alone?"