Date: August 25, 2010

Title: Can I Look Through Your Telescope?


Podcaster: Rob Berthiaume


Description: Its a lot of fun to look through telescopes, and even more fun to share and let other people look. But what should you show them? How should you do it? This podcast gives a few ideas and tips.

Bio: Robert Berthiaume is working towards an MSc in atomic physics at York University in Toronto, Canada. When he can get away from making measurements of local gravitational acceleration, he rides his motorcycle when the sun is up, and shares the stars with the public at the observatory when it’s not.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Toronto Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.


Hi there. I’m Robert Berthiaume bringing you the August 25th edition of the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast from the York University Observatory in Toronto, Canada. Today I’ll be sharing a few thoughts on how to share the heavens with people when you’re out with your telescope. I’ll start with a disclaimer that these tips may not be applicable to all people nor all the time, but I’ve found that they generally hold true.

There are very few people in this world who won’t be interested in looking at a planet or star or galaxy through a telescope. But there are also very few people in this world who have long attention spans and lots of patience. This means that viewing experiences have to be done, not necessarily quick, but definitely in an expeditious manner. No one wants to be waiting around while you find the next object, and lets face it, at that moment you’re there to show off the stars, not to be searching or tinkering. Try to minimize the time people might have to stand around; this includes making sure you already have a short list of objects in your head to show off, being familiar with their locations, having your finderscope or laser pointer well aligned. People will kick your tripod and you will have to re-center the object, being prepared will minimize the time people are standing around.

Speaking of attention spans, I find it’s better to keep descriptions and commentary shorter rather than longer. I personally have great difficulty with this; I can easily drone on and on about whatever we’re looking at, but pretty soon the eyes glaze over, people stop paying attention, and everybody is lost in what you’re saying, and not in the good way. What I try to do more and more now, is after every couple of sentences, I’ll do a “boredom/understanding check” of my audience. If it looks like people get what I’m saying and are into it, then I might continue, if not, I’ll ask if there are other questions and qrap up the topic. There’s no real harm in saying too little, if people want to hear more, they’ll very likely ask that you tell them more.

When people do ask questions, you’ll quickly start to see that most of the questions fall into one or more of three categories:

1. Numbers questions: “How many stars are in the galaxy we’re looking at? “

2. Current events/happenings.: “I heard scientists discovered gamma rays coming from 4 billion light years ago. Are we going to die?”

3. Exotic and popular topics: This includes, but is not limited to, anything having to do with black holes, the moon landings, 2012, the Sun exploding, the Mars-will-be-as-big-as-the-moon-and-brighter-than-the-Sun-this-August or whatever e-mail, and the new favourite since 2006, Pluto not being a planet anymore.

There will be other questions, but you’ll satisfy most of your inquisitors if you do three corresponding things. Know a few characteristic numbers about objects you show to people, like how far away they are, how old they are, how big they are, etc. Try to follow space-related news at least enough to be aware of any significant space missions, meteor showers, or new discoveries. And read a little about the popular topics and misconceptions in astronomy that will come up over and over again.

Another important thing to realize when you’re commondereing your telescope with an audience, is that while you’re the expert at that time, you’re not an encyclopedia. Repeat after me: “I don’t know, but I can find out for you”. “I don’t know, but I can find out for you”. Feel free to use this phrase whenever you are faced with a question that you’re really not sure of. People will not lose your respect, and you won’t at all look stupid. There are enough misconceptions about astronomy that filter through the public, it’s best to not introduce any new ones. And if you do actually follow up later on, you’ll be forced to do a little research, and not only will you uphold your promise of answering the question, but you’ll learn your new thing for the day while you’re at it.

So those are a few tips for preparations and explanations, but what about actually looking at stuff? What kinds of things are people going to have fun looking at?

Well if you know your audience, or maybe you have a few strangers that aren’t shy, they may be able to figure that out for you. Always always ask for requests. People are going to have the most fun and be most interested in seeing things they already know something about. Maybe they have a favourite planet that you can show them. Maybe years ago they did a project on the Andromeda Galaxy and they’d like to see it for themselves. And of course, as much as us astronomers despise the confusion between our science and the other similarly-named pseudo-science, astrology does create opportunities to connect personally with people and pass along to them some real, factual, non-coincidental information about the stars above.

Using zodiac constellations as a launching point is not only personal, but it is very relatable as well. I find it useful to use three “R’s” to pick things to show off and describe. I try to make sure the objects are easy to relate to, recognize and remember. Show them the coathanger cluster or the teapot in Saggitarius, or colourful doubles. People have a lot of fun with with shapes and colours and the like, and they’ll be much more likely to recognize the constellation later or remember exactly what they looked at when they tell their friends about the evening at their next dinner party.

People like stories. That’s why bookstores and movie studios will always be in business. If you’re looking for a short lineup of objects to showcase, but don’t know where to start, think about telling a story. Take people on a trip through the life of a star by looking at a nebula, then a star, then a planetary nebula or supernova remnant. Or take them on a trip through space starting with our closest neighbor, the moon, then off to a planet, then a star, and finally off into intergalactic space. You can always tell a story about the different kinds of objects that are out there, animating your narrative with views of a planet, a star, a galaxy, a cluster, etc.

You’ll read an audience pretty quickly. Sometimes, most of the time, you’ll want to show off the best and brightest we have to offer: the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter. These things all require little imagination and are always satisfying. But sometimes you’ll get someone who wants to use their imagination, so don’t be afraid to show them a star with a known exoplanet or a faint, far-off galaxy. While most people may say “that’s it?”, remember there are a few out there that will respond “wow! I can’t believe what I’m looking at!”

It doesn’t hurt to work under the assumption that the people stopping to look through the eyepiece are interested, but that they’re on their way to somewhere else they need to be and that they aren’t dressed for the weather. If they take a peek, and say “neat” and then walk off hurriedly, don’t take it personally, they just have different priorities than us astronomers. And that’s OK. Nobody’s perfect.

One short note about younger audiences: They have shorter attention spans, earlier bedtimes, higher expectations, and so on. So everything I’ve said in this podcast, emphasize 10x when you’re intereacting with kids.

The last thing I suggest, and implore you do any time you’re in any capacity to educate people about astronomy, whether you have a telescope or not, is to explain, discredit, and quash the annual August Mars e-mail. It seems like that e-mail will live on forever, but, call me crazy, I have hope that if enough of us spend enough time, we can kill it.

Now I’ve only been doing this for not even a decade, and I’m sure there are other ideas and tips that many of you more experienced observers have. If you’d like to share, please do, my e-mail is . I hope everyone listening can take something away from this podcast, and maybe had a little fun. Thanks for listening; until next time, this is Robert Berthiaume wishing you all clear skies and good times.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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