I first read of sidewalk astronomy in 2007 when I read about the work done by John Dobson and the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers . I have been wanting to do it and the dream died a quiet death as I began working. Lucky for me that someone else had also been thinking of doing the same and set up a page on Facebook for the event which was to be held across Mumbai.
Sidewalk Astronomy involves setting up a telescope on a sidewalk with the idea of showing the public the night sky through the telescope. Since these events happen in a city and we’re faced with bright city lights that drown out the fainter objects, this event seeks generally to look at brighter objects – usually the Moon, the planets and if one is lucky, a few bright stars.
The first sidewalk astronomy event in Mumbai was to be held at various locations – Nariman Point, Worli Sea Face, Shivaji Park, Bandra and Thane. I went to the Shivaji Park event to volunteer.
The event was slated to begin at 7 o’clock. At half past six, the venue was clouded out. I was joined here by Henna and Arpit Gada. Henna was organising the event across Mumbai and Thane. Phone calls at this point seemed to suggest that other venues too were clouded out. We took a round around Shivaji Park to look for a nice place to setup the telescope. We ended up selecting a spot opposite the Cafe Coffee Day at Shivaji Park.
We got curious eyeballs as we began setting up the telescope at the spot. People walked upto us and asked if there was a special astronomical event that we were out to observe or if we were doing a specific research. An old couple had also come reading about the event published in Daily News & Analysis, the newspaper. Unfortunately, it was still clouded out.
We had spotted the Moon a couple of times as we walked around Shivaji Park as it played hide and seek. We spotted glimpses of the Moon and began showing late evening walkers the Moon through a pair of binoculars. We had setup a telescope but it was too rickety to show anything through. We used three pairs of binoculars to show the Moon.
As we began reaching out to people, asking passersby if they wanted to see the Moon, we were helped by a few people who had come to see and had seen the Moon. I was tasked with seeing to it that nobody robbed the binoculars and began counting the number of people who were watching. I lost track at a 110 where a huge crowd of people came in and there were small lines.
That number may seem small but we were doing this between 8 o’clock and 9 o’clock at night as India was batting in the finals of the T20 World Cup that was going on. We’d also chosen a less crowded spot since this was everyone’s first experience.
People who watched the Moon through the binoculars loved it and expressed interest in wanting to do it more regularly. We promised to come back in May if we could before the Monsoons. It was a wonderful experience for many. Struggling with the binoculars, their weight, then getting a grip and then learning to focus and then the wonderful sight of the Moon. Some even spotted Jupiter which was hanging around near the Moon this night and were curious to know what object that was. A few people enquired about getting binoculars and costs and where one could get them. Some were reliving their childhood experiences of going out with Khagol Mandal and similar amateur astronomy groups in and around Mumbai. A couple even went home and got their kids back to the spot to see through the binoculars. We got a few people who were quite afraid of even taking a peep through the binoculars and then wouldn’t leave it after they saw the Moon through the binoculars.
This is the real joy of astronomy. Sharing a sight with people who miss this. I wish we had spots within the city that were as dark as villages so that people get a chance to see galaxies and planets that are now invisible. But, for now, people wanting these sights have to travel quite far to catch a glimpse of some of the wonders of our universe.