I’m weaving through a tattooed crowd outside of Toad’s on York Street one November night, trying to reach the York-Elm intersection before the 20-second crossing period ends.
But before I can cross, I’m approached by a stranger — a middle-aged man of average height with a red windbreaker on. His forehead wrinkles like a topographical map when he begins to speak.
“Hey, do you want to take a look at Jupiter tonight?” He twists the “a” in “at” so that it sounds like two syllables instead of one. Looking behind him I see a telescope set up and a young girl rearranging the eyepiece for me.
Four … three … two … one. The crossing time runs out. Cars begin zooming through the intersection. I’m stuck.
“Sure. Why not?” I tell him.
Joe Alcott, Hamden resident and self-proclaimed Sidewalk Astronomer of New Haven, explains that I’m about to see the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest in the Milky Way. I look through the telescope lens and eye an orange Creme Saver 500 million miles away from me.
Alcott stands outside Origins most Tuesday and Saturday nights, gathering crowds of up to 50 people after Toad’s ends. Although sidewalk astronomy is not his primary occupation (he is a truck driver and a father of three) and although he bought his first telescope just two years ago, he has brought a long-standing tradition to New Haven.
Sidewalk astronomy has been popularized in the past 40 years by John Dobson, eccentric cosmologist and ex-monk, who founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers in 1968. Dobson, now 97, is bent on reconciling religion and science — he spent 23 years in the San Francisco Vedanta Monastery trying to figure out how he could give everyone the chance to look up at the stars and “see where they were born,” as he says. He designed a more cost-efficient and user-friendly Newtonian reflector scope, the Dobsonian telescope, but because his experiments detracted from his duties as a monk, he was eventually asked to leave the monastery.
Penniless and homeless, Dobson carried his telescope out the back door and began sharing his contraption with passersby, usually buoyant children, on street corners in San Francisco. He quickly attracted a following and with the help of his most devoted fans built a 24-inch telescope that he could transport on highways throughout California to allow increasing numbers of people to see the stars.
Sidewalk astronomy has spread across America and the world. “It is a natural concept for anyone with a telescope who wants to share the beauty of the heavens with his fellow earthbound humans,” said Tom Hoffelder, who co-founded the Sidewalk Astronomers of New Haven with Alcott.
Yet Dobson’s unorthodox cosmological philosophies (he doubts the validity of the Big Bang Theory) have been ridiculed. Hoffelder, an astronomer with a BS in aeronautical engineering and a former engineer for Pratt and Whitney, has met Dobson twice and “consider[s] him to be a wonderful person with lots of good ideas … but if he started talking his cosmology, I would find someone else to talk to.”
Sidewalk Astronomers of New Haven began when Hoffelder met Alcott about two years ago on a trip to New York City and asked him if he would be interested in setting up a telescope on a street corner one weekend. “Saturn and its rings are going to be beautiful this fall,” he said. Alcott had a brief inner monologue, rife with amusement and a little excitement: Is this guy serious? What can you really see in the city?
The first time they showed the moon to onlookers in New York, they amassed a crowd of 300 people. The success encouraged both men — one an experienced astronomer, the other an amateur — to try the same in New Haven.
Hoffelder moved to Maine this past spring to pursue clearer skies, and Alcott is, for now, the sole Sidewalk Astronomer of New Haven. He hopes to expand the group and increase his following at Yale and in New Haven. “Right now we’re kind of small, and we’re hit and miss as far as weather goes,” he says.
Alcott still loves debunking people’s misconceptions about telescopes and outer space. “We sometimes have to show people there’s actually not a picture inside of [the telescope],” he says. “People think it’s a hoax.” He especially enjoys telling people that when they see Jupiter through his scope, they are seeing it eight minutes in the past because of the time it takes for light to travel from space to their eyes. “The look on their faces is beautiful shock,” he says.
That beautiful shock is what Sidewalk Astronomers is all about: asking people to stop for just a moment in the hustle of life to appreciate the vastness and profound splendor of the universe, to give everyone on earth the chance to see the stars for a moment on one night of their lives.