When CWEnder Joel Allen, aka the Sidewalk Astronomer, invited me to look at Saturn through his telescope last week, I couldn’t imagine a more constructive way to take a break from the incessant bad news we’ve been experiencing lately and find some peace.
I first learned about Allen through his occasional posts on NextDoor CWE inviting anyone interested to stop by The McPherson Lot (at Walton Row) when he sets up his SkyQuest Intelliscope, above.
Turns out the heavens aren’t exactly peaceful either. We city dwellers don’t see much in the night sky but, upon closer inspection and with Allen as a guide, there’s a whole lot more to explore than can be seen with the naked eye.
“We just missed the International Space Station by 2 minutes,” Allen said as he glanced at the western sky and checked an amazing app on his phone called Sky Safari (available for iOS and Android), which enables you to track the action above from wherever you are.
Next he pointed to Arcturus, the 4th brightest star, and explained that it played a role in the opening of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Coincidentally, it was at the time of the invention of the first solar cell and the light from the star was zeroed in on the cell which in turn lit up the Fair. For more fascinating information, read this: The Curious and Confounding Story of how Arcturus electrified Chicago.
In the photograph above, Allen is calibrating his telescope so we could view Saturn, which is apparently in “full expression” right now.
Allen fell in love with Saturn at age 4 when his grandparents introduced him to astronomy. His parents fostered his interest by giving him a basic telescope. His love of the night sky eventually inspired him to become a geologist. When his grandparents died, they left him a little money he used to purchase the telescope you see in the photo. That telescope completes the circle as Allen uses it to teach others to love astronomy as well.
Allen took a circuitous route to get to St. Louis where he is teaching science at The Chesterfield Day School. Along the way he taught science in high school and at Denver’s Arapahoe Community College, and later helped opened a school in Kunshan, China, a suburb of Shanghai. There he taught biology, physics and astronomy.
In 2007 Allen worked as an astronomer with the National Park Service’s Night Sky Team in Bryce Canyon and the Arches in Utah, where the stars are endless.
Once the telescope was set up last Monday, Allen invited passersby to take a look. The reaction was not surprising. Some people were hesitant when a stranger—even a friendly-looking one like Allen—asked if they wanted to look thru a telescope, and others wondered if it cost anything. Most people, however, responded the way I did and were eager to take a look. When each person viewed Saturn, the reaction was always a “wow.” We learned we were looking at the backside of Saturn which is visible only 2 months of the year. We could also see two moons outside the planet’s rings.
A visitor with a British accent, above, said she had just arrived in town for business and was staying in the neighborhood. She said that the neighborhood was so lovely, and an invitation to look at Saturn made her visit an even better experience.
After everyone walked away Allen suggested he train the telescope on the moon, see above. He said it’s much better to view when it isn’t full, as it was that evening, as then you can see the peaks and valleys of the moonscape on the rim. It was so, so beautiful, absolutely stunning. The peaks looked like they had wisps of whipped cream on top.
Photo above from Allen’s Facebook page
As Allen dismantled his telescope that evening, we brainstormed about how to get more people out to experience what I was so fortunate to see. One idea Allen is exploring is pairing a night sky event with a wine tasting at The Vino Gallery (across the street from The McPherson Lot). In the meantime, check out the Sidewalk Astronomer’s Facebook page, Starwalking with Annie Jump Cannon. or NextDoor Central West End for notices about viewings. These will always be last minute due to weather conditions. For more info, contact Joel Allen via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t miss the opportunity to take a tour of the night sky with the Sidewalk Astronomer. I can’t explain exactly why, whether it was learning something completely new, or getting outside and leaving the news behind, or both, but the experience was really exhilarating.
P.S. – The term Sidewalk Astronomy began with John Dobson, a Buddhist monk who lived in San Francisco. Dobson made telescopes he would then give away to schools. Not only that, he gave away his plans too. The mount on Joel Allen’s telescope is called a Dobsonian mount. And Allen has adopted Dobson’s moniker as his own.