May 7, 2013 6:04 pm
On the ground with the Boothe Memorial Astronomical Society, a member of our nascent Cosmic Community
As many of you know, our Social Media Coordinator, Stacey David Severn, is an amateur astronomer. She’s also spearheading our StarTalk Radio Cosmic Community outreach to academic and scientific organizations, programming groups, schools and astronomy clubs that will help promote excitement and interest in STEM education. Here’s her guest blog post about local astronomy clubs in the Northeast, including her club, the Boothe Memorial Astronomical Society, which is a charter member of our nascent Cosmic Community. (For more about the Cosmic Community, or to sign up your own group, click here.)
Astronomy clubs in our area came into their heyday in the 1950s, when Sputnik was all the rage and sending people into space to discover what surrounds the earth became humankind’s passion. In 1953, the Boothe Memorial Astronomical Society in Stratford, CT completed their construction of the “Big Eye,” an enormous telescope housed under the observatory dome in Boothe Memorial Park. That same year, the Astronomical Society of New Haven, in existence since 1937, became incorporated.
The public was quickly swept up in wonder, and fueling a growing thirst to know more about what lay beyond our Earth’s horizon, the clubs quickly gained popularity. Area astronomy groups continued to thrive through the Mercury, Gemini, and early Apollo programs, but by the time the Shuttle program came around, space travel was taken for granted, and the skies were largely ignored by people outside the scientific community.
Enter John Dobson, a former monk and founder of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. In the 1960s, John designed an inexpensive, easy-to-build telescope mount that revolutionized amateur astronomy. He began a movement to bring telescopes out into the public, to street corners, National parks – anywhere there were people – and show them the heavens. Dobson, now 97, has regularly made visits to Connecticut and spent time with members of local clubs teaching, building telescopes, taking them out to the streets, and has been a fixture at the Connecticut Star Party (sponsored by ASNH) for many years.
At a time when science education is really missing the mark, members of our local astronomy groups follow John Dobson’s lead, spending a great deal of time doing public educational outreach. This involves regular observing at area parks and beaches, along with meetings and observing nights at our local observatories.
In June, Venus crossed in front of the sun (Venus Transit), an event that won’t occur again for over 100 years. Club members brought their telescopes to various public locales for people to view this special event, while my son and I chased clear skies all the way to the shore of Lake Ontario, where we set up two telescopes equipped for solar viewing in a school parking lot. In no time, much of the small town of Kendall, NY joined us to view this amazing celestial event, including a theater troupe and 3 vans of Cub Scouts.
This fall, members of both clubs joined together and set up telescopes at the annual PumpkinFest and at two local schools, where over 1000 sets of eyes were treated to views of both the sun and the night sky.
After many years associated with our astronomy club as publicist and event coordinator, it was my first time flying solo, running a telescope all by myself. I arrived with a car filled with a big blue 126-lb. telescope, some eyepieces, a chair, a smile, and crossed fingers. Since there were a lot of members with telescopes, I decided to make it my mission to find the moon and keep it in clear view all night. This is probably not a great feat for most, but for me it’s like making contact to the ball with a bat. (If you’ve seen my level of athletic prowess, you’ll understand!) I sat there proudly trained on the moon until it went down, as my friends surveyed the sky, showing our guests a variety of different celestial objects.
Just a few nights ago, our club hosted an open house to view Saturn, Jupiter, and various deep sky objects. In one night, through our combined efforts, guests were able to view many more objects than someone with a single telescope might ever see on their own.
If you want a treat, visit your local astronomy club and take in the night sky. And if you’re thinking of getting your own telescope, talk to the members before making an investment. If you decide to pursue astronomy with your own equipment, their knowledge and guidance can help match you up with the setup that is right for you; one that will yield maximum enjoyment.
At John Dobson’s 90th birthday celebration, a friend said something like, “The value of a telescope is not determined by what you paid for it. Its value comes from how many people have looked through it.” I’m feeling pretty rich right now.
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