Much ink, many pixels, and and a great deal of time and energy have been expended of late on the pressing challenge of getting the younger generation interested and participating in astronomy. Astronomy magazine editor Dave Eicher recently blogged on the topic, noting that The Astronomical League devoted a huge chunk of the March issue of its magazine, Reflector, to the topic. Eicher and Astronomy are among the partners in the Astronomy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to spread interest and enthusiasm for the hobby, particularly among generations X and Y.
All of this has me pondering the trajectory of my own interest in astronomy, considering how possible it really is for adults to get young people interested in anything, and wondering if the crisis of disinterest in science in general, and astronomy in particular, is real.
The “about” page of Seattle Astronomy notes that I “grew up following Apollo and the race to the moon, and (have) been a space and astronomy buff ever since.” I was 11 years old when humans first walked on the Moon, just old enough to appreciate the adventure and daring of the race to get there, and too young to grasp the geopolitical implications of it all. I kept a scrapbook of clippings about aerospace news, most of them from the Seattle Times or from The Boeing News which my dad brought home from work. I occasionally put some of my own work in the scrapbook. The sketch and explanation of the “Moon probe” at left may well be considered my first space and astronomy “post.” Drawing has obviously never been my strong suit, but the rocket nozzle on top of my probe bears some abstract resemblance to the NASA Lunar Orbiter, so I’m guessing that’s what I was trying to depict. The drawing is in the scrapbook amidst some coverage of the Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor, all from 1966, so this was my work at age eight.
Clearly I was a space nut. There may well have been some adult encouragement along the way. I was subscribed to a series called the “Science Service Science Program” published by Nelson Doubleday. Every month I would receive a new booklet on a science topic. The booklets were cool because they came with color sticker photographs that you licked and pasted into them; maybe the first “interactive” media. Once in a while the series included a plastic model that you could assemble; I recall building a Mercury Redstone rocket. Many of the books were about various topics of space and exploration, as it was the hot topic at the time. I don’t have any of the Science Service books in my possession. They might well still be at my mom’s house; I envision them right next to the once-priceless collection of baseball cards, reduced to dust by 45 years in a hot/cold attic. I may have to get up there and explore some day. Everything is available on eBay, though, and with a quick search of the auction site I found quite a number of people selling their science books from the 1960s. The brown cardboard cases held maybe a half-dozen booklets. According to an ad I found while searching the Internet, my dad was shelling out a buck a month for the Science Service books.
Another vivid astronomy memory from when I was a little kid involved one of our neighbors, Pete Schultz, who built his own telescope. One time he showed me Jupiter through it, and I could see the planet’s bands and moons. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen! I don’t know how much observing Pete did over the years; we lived in Renton, a Seattle suburb, and the skies were probably never all that dark, though certainly they were better in the mid-’60s than they are now.
Though I had this interest in the cosmos, I did not make much effort to look at it. I could identify the constellations—Orion seemed especially huge when he stood in the middle of our street—and would go out to look at the occasional lunar eclipse. Most of my observing attempts involved comets. I was in high school when Kohoutek came around. The father of one of the guys in my Boy Scout troop had a telescope and set it up so we could have a look. That was a major disappointment; we all remember what a dud Kohoutek was. Somehow comet West slipped right by me. I remember reading about Halley’s Comet in the Science Service books and thinking, in the mid-’60s, that its 1986 return would NEVER get here! I missed Halley, which was mostly visible in the Southern Hemisphere. Later efforts to look at Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp through binoculars were more successful and satisfying. When I was 11 we stumbled upon the Perseid metor shower at a super-dark wilderness site; our scout troop coincidentally was on a backpacking trip during the peak of the shower, and it was spectacular. That was the extent of my astronomical observing.
I can pinpoint the moment that my interest reached the tipping point, astronomy became a full-fledged hobby, and I was turned into a space and astronomy writer. It was 2003, the year of the great apparition of Mars. I was working at the University of Puget Sound, which had developed a new course about Mars exploration, and I wrote an article about the course for Arches, the university magazine. (You can read a PDF version of the article here.) After spending a few days hanging around the physics department with astronomy Prof. Bernie Bates, I suddenly found myself enriching the coffers of Orion Telescopes and spending many a late night out in the cold with my 8-inch Dobsonian and wandering raccoons. My sweetie helped push me over the edge by giving me The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide for my birthday.
That’s my story. I have been a total space geek for about as long as I can remember and was good in math and science in school. I wound up in a humanities field, majoring in broadcast journalism in college, while maintaining a passing interest in astronomy over the years. It wasn’t until I was 45 that a great astronomical observing event combined with the opportunity to hang around with the right academics forged me into an active participant in the hobby. Adequate amounts of disposable income and spare time certainly helped.
So what can we do to get “the kids” interested in astronomy? I’m not certain that anything overt will work. Few tweens, teens, and 20-somethings want to be told what to do, and it’s hard to imagine them attending astronomy club meetings. I’ve been a member of several, and the topics seem to tend more toward high-level lectures about galaxy formation or in-depth talks about techniques of astrophotography or building an observatory. There’s not often much of a WOW factor there. Many young folks may well be buying telescopes and astronomy magazines, but they’re out looking at the stars rather than going to meetings.
I think that the best thing that we can do to interest young people, or anyone, in astronomy is to simply show them something interesting. Give them a look through a telescope or binoculars, or point out an beautiful naked-eye object. This week’s close grouping of Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury will be a good opportunity for this. Comet ISON may well provide another this fall. Get thee to a place where others might be and set up. Many folks will think, “That’s nice.” Others may have no interest at all. But you never know when you might be planting a seed.
Pete Schultz, the neighbor who first showed me Jupiter through his homemade telescope, passed away back in March, just a few days after his 77th birthday. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. I don’t know if he remembered giving me my first look through a telescope. But it’s something I’ll never forget, and I hope that he knows on some sort of cosmic level that his simple gesture made a big difference to a little neighbor kid. When my “star stuff” is released back into the universe, I hope that I’ve given just one person that kind of fond memory or inspiration. The seed may not blossom for a half century, and I may not be here to enjoy the flower. But its sweetness won’t be wasted.