Stargazer Gatherings

The Amateur Astronomers Association has helped New Yorkers look to the night sky and see dramatic events there since the early 20th century  

By Laura Dattaro

If you had walked through Central Park at dusk on October 20, 2012, and looked up at the sky, you probably wouldn’t have seen much—maybe a few faint dots, the faraway light from stars penetrating the haze of light pollution emanating from Manhattan’s skyline. But had you been in the center of the park, at Sheep Meadow, you might have been surprised to see red and green lights flitting about like fireflies: glowsticks, hundreds of them, some flashing, others burning steady.

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Evan Schneider aims his telescope to view the transit of Venus on June 5, 2012, from Riverside Park on the west side of Manhattan. (Stan Honda/AFP)

The glowsticks belonged to the members and guests of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. The occasion was the yearly Urban Starfest, and the flashing red glowsticks were designed to guide over 700 attendees to the scientists who operated telescopes and answered questions. And had you made your way to one of the flashing red lights, put your eye to a telescope, and gazed up again, you would have seen things normally seen only in textbooks and on posters: planets, nebulae, galaxies. And, maybe, you would have been inspired.

That, anyway, is Marcelo Cabrera’s hope. As president of the association, he aims to continue the organization’s 85-year history of educating and exciting the public about science, astronomy, and astrophysics. Through partnerships with the American Museum of Natural History, NASA, city park rangers, and others, the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York works against the assumption that night sky observation in a massive city is fruitless. The organization shows city dwellers that the night sky is there, that it can be seen and enjoyed by all.

“Some people like it,” he says. “Some people are like, ‘Oh, I get better pictures on the internet.’ Yes you do. But it’s not your eyes. It’s some camera out in space. It’s not the same thing.”

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Public interest in the stars is what gave rise to the organization in the first place. In the early 1920s, the American Museum of Natural History played host to excited crowds who wanted to view two separate astronomical events: the Mars opposition of 1924 (when Mars is closest to Earth) and the total solar eclipse of 1925. It was also around this time that the idea of building a planetarium at the museum gained traction. So the head of the museum’s astronomy subdivision, Dr. G. Clyde Fisher, led an effort to start an astronomy organization as a means of testing Manhattan’s excitement about the stars and planets. The first meeting was held on May 10, 1927.

Since then, the group and its members have been party to some of the biggest scientific events of the century. It’s rumored that Albert Einstein once gave a lecture to the association, and that it inadvertently inspired a riot. It was the height of the excitement over the discovery of relativity and a film explaining the theory was showing at the American Museum of Natural History. At the first screening, on November 6, 1929, more than 3,000 people showed up and many could not get in. On January 8, 1930, the association showed the film again and, according to Cabrera, rumors flew that Einstein himself would show up at the screening.  Chaos broke out. The crowd rushed the hall. Police were called. Passion over science proved very real.

Almost two decades later, members of the association (which has always been largely composed of New Yorkers) became critical observers of another important moment in history. It was the morning of October 13, 1957, on the rooftop of the RCA building (now Rockefeller Center’s GE building), and members calling themselves the Moonwatch Team peered through telescopes to catch the first manmade object ever launched into space: the Russians’ Sputnik 2. In the midst of the Cold War, the government tried to ease panic by downplaying the importance of the launch, but the Moonwatchers wanted to see it. Mary Churns, a 21-year-old Brooklyn clerk spotted it—the first New Yorker to do so. It “passed right through the handle of the Big Dipper,” Churns recalled in an article in the November 30, 1957, edition of the New Yorker.

In those days, membership in the Amateur Astronomers Association numbered in the thousands. Space was pertinent, relevant, real. But the group has seen its numbers decline in recent decades, Cabrera says, due to both fading enthusiasm for science and the increased amount of information available on the internet. Amateurs no longer need professionals to explain what they’re seeing in the sky. They can Google it.

The association still has over 500 members, more than 90 percent of whom are New Yorkers, by Cabrera’s estimate. And as Cabrera sees it, the group’s number one goal is to help create the coming generation of scientists.

“We got a lot of people inspired in science just because of the space race,” he says. “So we need another space race. Maybe not as aggressive, maybe not as politicized, but we need to wake up. Being a nerd should be the cool thing. If you’re a nerd, you’re the cool kid—that’s what it should be. Yeah we’re nerds, we’re geeks, but we like that. We think it’s cool.”

The moon above the city. (Photo by Mike Boriello, courtesy AAA)

The moon above the city. (Photo by Mike Boriello, courtesy AAA)

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