The Urban Astronomer

2010-03-18 00:00

What is an urban astronomer? We love the night sky, and we live in the city. We are amazed and awed at the scale of the universe, and humbled by our place in it. While we make occasional trips away from the city, where we can find the most glorious dark skies, most of our observing is done from our own back yards. Whether we're on a budget, or understand the futility of breaking out the heavy equipment under polluted city skies, we look through small telescopes, binoculars, or even just the naked eye.

Why do we do what we do? Because we love knowing that the universe extends beyond our own horizons, that the planets continue their dance regardless of our daily problems. We get to know that, despite our staggering insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe, we're still an integral part of it, and we can watch the whole elegant system working before our very own eyes. And it's a great way to get a peaceful hour or two to be alone with your thoughts under a beautiful sky.

How do we do it? We go outside and look upwards. We cast our gaze over the heavens and become familiar with the stars in their fixed patterns, and note how the planets have moved. We keep an eye open for meteors and marvel at them. We look through our telescopes and binoculars and watch the dance of Jupiter's moons, study the rings of Saturn, find star clusters and nebulae and galaxies that we've never seen before.

Sometimes it's a spontaneous moment, where we snatch a few minutes in the evening to glance upwards and make note of where the planets are, and track the approach of the next season by checking which constellations are visible. Other times we plan a session in advance, with star charts and catalogues of objects, compiling lists of objects to find in our telescopes and add to our collection. Sometimes we set up projection rigs, or put heavy filtering on our telescopes, and even look at the sun itself, counting the sunspots and watching their daily progress as they travel its surface. Anything that keeps us connected with the universe beyond earth counts.

That is what being an urban astronomer means to me, though I am sure others would argue. Many of my brethren in the hobby have different approaches. For them it is a social activity, an opportunity to meet with like-minded souls and share the universe. Others have a lust for seeing further and deeper than ever before, and need the biggest and most powerful telescopes they can afford. Some even attempt to photograph the sky through the orange haze of city lights, and they have the most challenging task of all. But the common thread is a deep love of the universe, an appreciation of its beauty and a need to understand its workings and where we fit in to it. And that, I think, is something we share with all human beings, whether they notice the sky or not.


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