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Big city scopes

Join the grass-roots #popscope movement to bring stargazing to metropolitan areas all over the world.
ChapleGlenn
Urban astronomy. Now there’s an oxymoron! Light pollution. Limited open space. Why would anyone bother to set up a telescope in places like New York City, Philadelphia, or Boston? Everyone knows the night sky is a playground exclusively for folks in suburban and rural locales.

Fortunately for city dwellers, there are dedicated souls who do what they can to bring astronomy to metropolitan areas. In the 1970s, John Dobson and the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers routinely set up telescopes at strategic spots in the Bay Area and treated the locals to views of the night sky. For decades, Herman Heyn has put on one-man star parties in Baltimore. Dobson’s and Heyn’s urban outreach efforts are mentioned in my October 2010 column “Creating a community.”

And now we have a grass-roots movement called #popscope. As its website (popscope.org) notes, “#Popscope is an urban movement that aims to reconnect communities to the night sky — and to each other — by hosting free, ‘pop-up’ astronomy nights in public spaces.”

#Popscope began when Viva Dadwal and Michael O’Shea — civil servants and astronomy enthusiasts in Ottawa, Ontario — decided to set up a telescope in the city’s downtown and offer passers-by a view of Jupiter. The year was 2012, and the event was a huge success. “We were encouraged by this positive outlook and enthusiasm for astronomy, and we wondered what could happen if we extended the opportunity to look through a telescope to other residents across Ottawa,” O’Shea notes. More of these pop-up events followed, and within two short years, #popscope was born.

ASYGC1018_01
Security guard Aftab Arif takes a moment to peek through a telescope during a #popscope event held on a pier in Dubai’s historic Al Seef district, located in the United Arab Emirates.
Photo courtesy of #popscope (Viva Dadwal)
In 2014, Dadwal moved to Baltimore, where she established another branch of #popscope. Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of an army of volunteers, #popscope chapters exist in Ottawa, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Jacksonville, New York, and Boston — and they have not gone unnoticed. For example, the Baltimore chapter, which hosts multiple events each month, has secured several grants and awards, even a letter from the city’s mayor voicing her support of the program. Fledgling chapters are forming in Chicago, San Diego, and Montreal. Each group is run by volunteers with support from local civic organizations and astronomy clubs.

The aim of #popscope is threefold: encourage social interactions that challenge norms and spatial boundaries; contribute to discourse about how public spaces are used and allocated; and educate diverse communities about science and astronomy. The last is a key objective because many minorities dwell in urban environments where opportunities to explore the night sky are limited. The organization is also blind to social class; #popscope offers the passer-by — whether a homeless individual or a wealthy businessperson — the same opportunity to view the Moon, Jupiter and its Galilean moons, or Saturn and its glorious rings through a telescope.

#Popscope conducts outreach in a variety of ways. Besides evening pop-up events, daytime solar viewing sessions are conducted at local schools. Since these events are free to attend, they are an extremely valuable asset to cash-strapped school systems.

Before setting up a #popscope event, chapter members coordinate with community leaders to select sites that are both inclusive and safe. The events are then publicized through #popscope’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.

Can #popscope help bring true peace and harmony between people of different races, religions, or economic backgrounds? Perhaps not, but it can help bring people together under trying circumstances. In the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died of injuries while in police custody in Baltimore, a #popscope event was held in Penn Station. “One evening, equipped with a telescope and a splash of humility, we decided to ‘pop-up’ at the train station,” Dadwal wrote in a blog post that appeared on The Huffington Post website. “Hoping to find some common ground and inspiration, we invited passers-by to look beyond our differences and into the shared universe.” 

What can you do to help the movement? If you live in one of the aforementioned #popscope cities, contact a member and offer to join the team. If there is no chapter, start one! Most cities are home to at least one astronomy club. Each club should make #popscope an integral part of its outreach program. For more information, check out its website or engage with them on Twitter (@bmorepopscope).  

Questions, comments, or suggestions? Email me at gchaple@hotmail.com. Next month: We explore the asteroid Juno. Clear skies!

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