We All Deserve to Know the Sky

The entire universe in blog form
July 25 2013 7:30 AM

Opening the Skies to Everyone

I have long advocated that the best way to hook someone on astronomy is to get them outside and get them to look up. People see the stars all the time, but they don’t see them. The sky is just part of the landscape, so to speak, and gets ignored.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

But get people to notice, get them to understand what’s out there, and you’ll open their minds to the idea that there are far bigger and far greater things in and above this world.

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Chris Arnade is a photographer who understands that. He travels around the high-crime area of Hunts Point, in the Bronx, taking pictures of drug addicts and prostitutes who work there. His "Faces of Addiction" series of photographs is an astonishing and moving collection of portraits.

But one in particular struck me. It stands out. Among the many photos of drawn and worn faces, there is a picture showing two women who are not stooped. One stands tall, gazing upward. The other is bent at the waist, but it is not from exhaustion or addiction.

She’s looking into the eyepiece of a telescope.

two women observe Saturn
Two prostitutes, Takeesha and Deja, look through Chris Arnade's telescope at Saturn.

Photo by Chris Arnade, used by permission

The women in the photo are Takeesha and Deja, two prostitutes who work Hunts Point. Arnade had befriended the two women and happened to have his telescope in the car early one evening when he saw them. So he set it up, pointed it at Saturn, and got magic.

"For me it was about bringing together two of my loves: Astronomy (I got my PhD in Physics from Johns Hopkins) and, well, addiction and prostitutes (which is my present focus).
I have to say Takeesha's reaction made my week. She truly was amazed."

He says people were a bit confused as they drove by, and that’s not surprising. However, to me, this isn’t confusing at all. I know the power of a telescope, especially when it’s coupled with Saturn.

Years ago I used to live on the edge of a rough neighborhood—it wasn’t as bad as Hunts Point, but there were a lot of kids in the area who were at risk of dropping out of school and joining gangs. Still, every Halloween, I would haul out my telescope and set it up in the driveway. My rule was that everyone got a piece of candy, but they had to look through the telescope first.

One year Saturn was perfectly placed in the sky, and I showed it to dozens of kids. It didn’t matter if they went to the private school to the east of us or were from the riskier neighborhood to the south; every last one of them was amazed to see that shining bauble with their own eyes. A few thought it was a trick, a picture I hung in front of the telescope. But when they realized what they were seeing, grasped that the light entering their eyes came from outer space, from an entirely different world, the gasps, the awe, were real.

I have no idea if it had a lasting effect on them or not, but for a moment, just a moment, they got an eyeful of the Universe.

What Arnade is doing is wonderful. He’s sharing that Universe with people who might otherwise never get a chance to experience it in this way. That picture of Takeesha and Deja is as uplifting and joyous as any I’ve ever seen.

There is so much bitterness in the news, so much noise, so much us-versus-them, that it’s easy to let it all become part of a blurred background, and people like Takeesha and Deja and all the others Arnade has photographed—and so many more—become part of the landscape too, unnoticed.

We walk past wonders in the sky all the time, ignoring them. The Sun, a million miles wide, performing stellar alchemy in its core. The Moon, battered and airless, a 4-billion-year history laid out for all to see. Saturn, a billion miles away, ringed and gaseous and attended by dozens of icy moons, a jewel of the solar system. Countless stars scattered across the Universe.

If all that can be just over your head without you even knowing, what are you missing right here on Earth? What things, what people, are right in front of you as you pass them by? The Universe is wondrous and spectacular, but very, very remote. The Earth and the people on it are right here, within our reach.

Take notice.

Tip o’ the lens cap to Emily Lakdawalla and Boing Boing.