Winding my way through the clutch of people gathered on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Irving, I might have tripped right over it. Barry Hirrell would've liked that. He'd say later, “Put your telescopes in places where people are likely to kick them over. Maybe they'll stop and take a look.” The telescope was large, but oddly unscientific in appearance, like a junior high stage prop, except that everyone who stepped up to the eyepiece made involuntary cooing noises. When his crowd thinned, which it rarely did, Hirrell would launch into a congenial barker's ballyhoo: “Step right up! Step right up! It only takes a minute and you won't be disappointed!” He said he wasn't selling anything, but he had that hustler's finesse. He reminded me of Henry Winkler. I thought he'd pass the hat, but he never did. He was just giving it away.
“The stars are free,” he said. “Just look.” I looked. Saturn leapt out of the center of the velvet-black lens — a tiny, glowing orb surrounded by perfectly discernible rings. I stopped looking. I examined the business end of the contraption, searching for a shiny sticker or a paper cutout. Hirrell laughed and repositioned the telescope, carefully explaining the astral bodies that float overhead night after night. The crowd swelled, looked, passed on, and swelled again. For hours Hirrell answered questions, the same questions over and over, as if each were the first, never tiring of the disbelief and delight shining in every new face. For Hirrell, as for Sidewalk Astronomers around the world, delight is the only recompense.
The Sidewalk Astronomers were co-founded in 1967 by master telescope builder John Dobson and two young pupils whose age excluded them from local clubs. Earlier that year, Dobson's passion for examining and sharing glimpses of the universe resulted in his expulsion from the Vedanta Monastery after nearly 23 years of devotion; cheap, accessible heavens were more important to Dobson. He began teaching classes in how to build homemade telescopes out of discarded hose reels, old doors, roof shingles, and salvaged porthole glass. The astronomy community cringed, but Dobson wasn't hoping for precision, he was hoping for curiosity. He wanted people to see that “the world which we see from the surface of this planet on a sunny day bears almost no resemblance to the universe at large.” He wanted people to ask questions and wonder. To this end, the Sidewalk Astronomers carry their telescopes to street corners where “night skies meet public places” and offer people the larger picture. The Dobsonian telescope — or Dob, as it is referred to within astronomy circles, and in magazine articles and countless books — deserves a patent, but Dobson is not that sort of man; he simply calls it a sidewalk telescope and wishes that one sat in every driveway, so passers-by would stop and gaze.
And Dobson's not the only one.
Despite a seemingly constant fog cover, the Bay Area is a hot-bed of amateur astronomy. The San Francisco Amateur Astronomers host a monthly star party on Mount Tam on the first Saturday nearest the new moon. Free dusk-time lectures are followed by nighttime observations from Rock Springs with as many styles of telescopes as people attending. Another star party occurs the following Saturday at Land's End. Large weekly star parties are held every Saturday on Fremont Peak in the South Bay, and, of course, the Sidewalk Astronomers turn up at Ninth and Irving or 24th Street and Noe whenever they can get a clear night, which is usually not often enough to assuage astronomer cabin fever.
“It can be very frustrating,” says sidewalk astronomer Jonathan Wilkendorf. “We catch ourselves arguing, and then realize we've been deprived of the stars for too long.”
During the final solar eclipse of the millennium, Bay Area stargazers are relieved of their weather anxiety. Totality occurs in Turkey, and a live Webcast is the most anyone can hope for. Local astronomers are invited to don “Ask an Astronomer” lab coats and cruise through the Exploratorium, dishing out information to the 2,500 overnight guests: If you were in a spaceship traveling 60 miles an hour 24 hours a day, it would take you six months to get to the moon and 50 million years to get to the nearest star, which is 4.3 light-years away; there are between 100 billion and 300 billion stars in our galaxy and 50 billion galaxies within grasp of the Hubble Space Telescope; if you were to build a scale model with the Earth-Sun distance being only 1/30 inch thick, our galaxy would be the size of North America.
The proportions are dizzying for Teresa Donnell, a 10-year-old who has wandered outside before the final countdown to gaze into the night sky with her mother. She asks to lie down in the Exploratorium's quiet room, which is strewn with sleeping bags and foam pads. When she arises an hour later, she tells me of a dream in which she was trying desperately to find the end of the universe, traveling faster and faster and faster with no end in sight. She woke trembling.
“I don't think there is an end,” says Donnell, her dark green eyes narrow and adamant. Dobson would agree, and likely tell her the universe is actually an apparition that is nearly as easy to comprehend as the speed of light.
“If you were a beam of light traveling at 99.5 percent the speed of light, time will have slowed by half,” explains Wilkendorf, “and continue to decrease exponentially, even while your speed seems to increase exponentially, until you feel that you are moving at an infinite rate and the universe has compressed into a single point. Essentially, you would be everywhere at once, experiencing all of existence as infinity and oneness.”
According to the space-time continuum, we view the sun as it appeared eight minutes ago and the moon as it appeared a second and a half ago. Despite this, we think the moon will block the sun for two minutes at 4:30 a.m., our time. Folks lounge on a sea of sleeping mats while Ali Akbar Khan College performers present morning ragas. Outside, under the amber glow of the Palace of Fine Arts, fire dancers and drummers celebrate the momentous occasion happening half a world away.
“It's the female principle asserting dominance over the male,” explains 22-year-old Shira Nakasis.
“'Eclipse' means 'abandonment' in Greek,” says Matthew Brune.
Belly dancers and fire swallowers take the stage inside as a friend calls me from a hilltop in France. Through the static, there is cheering. Several hours later, there is cheering here as well. The sight of the sun's greenish corona is worth applauding, even on video screen.
Two nights later, at Harbin Hot Springs, Jonathan Wilkendorf is fast at work again, explaining the sights amid the Perseid Meteor Shower. Saturn, Jupiter, the Lyra Ring Nebula … with a nearly constant glimmering shower of meteors, it's easy to forget that Wilkendorf and most of his observers at Harbin are nude. Brilliant green and amber trails chase the meteors across the sky. There are not enough wishes.
As late-night chill settles across the mountain, Wilkendorf burrows into a sleeping bag on the wooden deck beside his telescope, hoping to grab a little sleep before he must return to work in the morning. He doesn't count on it. Only an hour or two passes before someone wakes him with another question. And strangely, Wilkendorf is happy to answer. The newcomer's excitement feeds his own, and he gazes into the endless expanse of space, filled with wonder yet again.
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By Silke Tudor