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The Late Show

Where to go when you want to see stars—and planets, nebulas, galaxies...

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As appealing as such retreats might seem, most would-be observers are stuck in the city and forced to make out a few stars through bright skyglow. But urban dwellers sometimes have the advantage of enthusiastic amateur astronomers who set up telescopes in prominent downtown areas. The most famous of these roving bands, the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, made their debut in 1967. Legend has it that two prepubescent pupils of telescope-making guru John Dobson were denied membership in the local astronomy club. In protest, Dobson helped Bruce Sams and Jeff Roloff set up their homemade scopes on the corner of Jackson and Broderick streets. Thirty-two years later both the sidewalkers and Dobson (now 87) are still going strong. You can find them on the Friday or Saturday night nearest the first-quarter moon. These days they usually hang out at the corners of 24th and Noe, 24th and Sanchez, or 9th and Irving. “Our only reason for being is to show the sky to people,” Dobson says.

Another such group, the Toronto Sidewalk Astronomers, can be found encamped along Lake Ontario on many Monday nights. Chris Burns admits that he and five friends like to go out and “bug people to look through our telescopes.” The Toronto group, which started in 1992, tries to have at least three members out along the shore on any given night. Two of them operate the telescopes and one serves as “designated theorist” to answer questions. As befits such informal gatherings, the scopes have comical names like Rocky and Bullwinkle. Most of TSA’s members are graduate students at the University of Toronto, whose astronomy department offers free public stargazing on the first and third Thursdays of each month. The staff uses an eight-inch refractor atop Burton Tower on the St. George campus.

Sidewalk astronomers love to treat unsuspecting passersby to views of the moon and planets. “We pick mostly beaches,” says Burns, “because they’re prime dog walking spots.” Barry Hirrell, one of the San Francisco group’s members, adds, “We put our telescopes in places that you’d most likely kick them over.” But tracking down a sidewalk troupe’s whereabouts can be tricky—call ahead before setting out. The same advice holds for rooting out observing activities in any locality, which often go unadvertised, and for this task Internet searches can prove invaluable. One online directory, maintained by my employer, Sky & Telescope magazine, boasts listings for more than 2,000 planetariums, observatories, and astronomy clubs throughout North America and Europe (www.skypub.com/resources/directory/directory.html).

Wherever you manage to find one, a star party will inspire you to appreciate the night sky in a new way. Dobson’s philosophy is simple: “We amateurs have a responsibility to show others what our universe looks like through a telescope.” And while the legions of amateurs are far short of satisfying his mantra—“A telescope in every driveway, on every sidewalk”—they stand ready to offer satisfying glimpses of the cosmic beyond.

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