April 23, 2013 10:35 pm

What I Took Away from the Northeast Astronomy Forum

Photo of the Moon taken by StarTalk Radio fanCarlucho Paris

A picture of the Moon taken with a home-built telescope by StarTalk Radio fan Carlucho Paris. (For a video of him grinding his mirror, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBuWG32Py1A)

This weekend I was at the Northeast Astronomy Forum, along with our Social Media Coordinator Stacey Severn and another StarTalk Volunteer, Susan Ranis.

This was my first NEAF, so I didn’t know what to expect. But many of the attendees who’d been there before, some of them year after year for many years, remarked that the show had fewer attendees, and many of those were older. (Note: I have since been told that the Sunday attendance was the highest attended day since the inception of the show, and vendor sales on Saturday equaled both days last year. See Dom’s comment below.)

I did notice that the vast majority of visitors and exhibitors were men, and older, rather than younger. Yes, there were couples, and families, but not as many as I would have liked to see.

It reminded me of the model railroading shows I attended in the past. Each year, the average age of the attendees got older, and their numbers grew smaller.

Sad for a hobby. Scary for something as important as astronomy.

All is not lost, however. I met Jupiter Joe, a sidewalk astronomer from the Bronx. He’s one of the current crop of stargazers in the grand tradition of Sidewalk Astronomers like John Dobson (founder of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers and designer of the inexpensive Dobsonian telescope mount that revolutionized amateur astronomy).

He talked about how much fun he has when he sets up his telescope on a rooftop in the Bronx (not a borough known for it’s stargazing) and draws a crowd, eager to look up and see Jupiter with their own eyes or to get a close-up tour of the moon. He talked about the “aha moment” when the person looks into the eyepiece, then looks up, then back into the eyepiece, and something clicks in their brain.

The gleam in Jupiter Joe’s eyes as he described this was similar to the one I saw in Mark Rosengarten’s eyes. He’s a storm chasing, self-described “crazy chemistry teacher” at Washingtonville High School in Washingtonville, NY. Mark’s got to be something of an expert at delivering aha moments to kids, too, whether it’s through his classic chemistry songs like “Rock Me Avogadro” and “Schrodinger’s Cat Strikes Back” or his YouTube videos, which have over 4 million views.

I’m not going to get on a soapbox, and I’m not going to extrapolate the doom or salvation of our planet based on two days in an oversized gym in Suffern, NY.

But I am going to say something that I’m willing to bet most of you believe, if you’re a StarTalk Radio fan. (And why would you be reading this blog if you’re not?)

It is important for each and every one of us to do what we can to give the kids in our lives an “aha moment” when it comes to science, and to astronomy in particular. We’ve all heard Neil deGrasse Tyson’s passionate arguments that space exploration fuels education, discovery and achievement far beyond its narrowly defined parameters. But more than hearing Neil say it, we know it ourselves.

Looking up, looking out, looking beyond is not new. It was not born with the telescope and it will not end if shortsighted politicians choose to spend money on something else. It is an attribute of being human, and will remain so, as long as we pass it on to our children and teach them the joy and wonder of looking up.

What did I take away from NEAF? I bought a necklace made from a piece of the Sikhote-Alin meteorite that fell in Siberia in 1947. I also bought a couple of books filled with sky maps, beautiful drawings of the constellations along with their legends.

First I gave the books to my eight-year old daughter and she loved them. She went straight for Orion, which we had looked at countless times over the last few months.

Then I gave her the necklace. Her eyes went wide when I told her she was holding a piece of the universe that is thought to be 4.6 billion years old… maybe older than the Earth itself.

I could almost hear the click.

That’s it for now. Keep Looking Up!

–Jeffrey Simons