Beer, Telescopes and Bonfires
A few weeks back, an old friend of mine invited me to her birthday party. She lives out of town, on a farm owned by a builder who specialises in thatched roofs, and has built a large entertainment complex of thatch-roof restaurants, gazebos, sleeping shelters and a boma. The entire thing sits empty all year around, so she colonised the facility last weekend for her celebration. But there was one extra attraction: A man with a telescope who was going to show everybody the stars and planets. And that man was me.So yesterday, on the day of the party, I arrived with wife and kids in tow shortly before sunset. The party was already in full swing, the meat had been removed from the spit and I wasted no time filling and emptying a plate, and cracking open my first beer of the day. And then to work: Scouted around for a decent spot with a clear horizon, but reasonably sheltered from artificial light. Set up the old surveyors tripod (with equatorial wedge permanently afixed), did a quick and dirty polar alignment, hoisted the telesope out of its case and onto the wedge, attached the finderscope and aligned it using the tip of a distant cellphone tower. And this was when the first person looked through the telescope: a young lad of about 11 or 12 had kept me company while I set up, and was full of questions about what I was doing and asked for a look even before the sky got dark. He was impressed with the sheer size of the telescope (it’s an old Celestron C8 Powerstar – not particularly big by current amateur standards but still an intimidating bit of hardware), but didn’t seem that amazed by his view of a cellphone tower. So I slipped in a 6mm eyepiece, and brought an individual antenna into view. That had the desired effect! Sadly, he had to leave at that point – his parents had had enough food and drink and wanted to get home while the sun was still up.
And then I popped the lens cap back on, stacked the various cases to make a table, popped the top off another beer and rejoined the party.
An hour or so later, halfway into twilight, a Swiss couple asked me if they could have a look. I took them to the telescope, and targeted Saturn. I didn’t tell them what they were looking at, though. Instead, I asked them to describe what they could see. A few other people had followed and I was a little disappointed that it was only the fourth person to look who (eventually) noticed that it wasn’t a tiny star but had some sort of features on the side… and even then it took a while for the penny to drop. Mental note: Low magnification is good EXCEPT when showing off planets. I increased the power and gave everybody a second go and this time they all saw it. A proper chorus of “Woah” and “Wow, that’s so beautiful”, and “It looks like you’ve just stuck a picture of Saturn inside the telescope!”. Most gratifying.
This set the tone for the rest of the evening. I’d socialise a bit, somebody would ask to see something, I’d pick out an object (based on what that person had already seen – everybody got Saturn first, before moving on to globular and open clusters), and make sure everybody in the group got a look. And then just kept talking about what they were seeing. And what I really enjoyed about this process was that, once they’d had a look, almost everybody wandered over freely to look again, taking their time to fully appreciate the view. They’d ask nervously for the first viewing, but from that point would feel free to take advantage whenever they saw the eyepiece was unoccupied. This wouldn’t have been possible with a larger group, of course, so I’m grateful that the informal structure meant there were only ever a few people looking at a time, so that they got to properly indulge themselves looking through my telescope.
Of course, not everything was seen through the telescope. I was able to teach a few constellations so as to show people exactly where in the sky they were looking, we were treated to a particularly long pass of the ISS, and (for my personal enjoyment) I saw my first ever proper fireball – a meteor so large that it appeared to burst into a big tear-drop shaped flame, fade away to a mere shooting star, flare up again and finally vanish. Nobody else saw it. It was mine and mine alone.
Eventually as the crowd bled away and people got in their cars for the hazardous drive home (the roads are in terrible shape, narrow and full of potholes), I packed away the telescope and made myself comfortable in the boma near the bonfire. Beer was drunk. Marshmallows were toasted. Soothingly meaningless conversation was exchanged. And through it all, the stars shining steadily and clearly through a perfectly cloudless (and only slightly light-polluted) sky. I loved it. I want to do this again. I want to do this for a living, get paid to do it every weekend. So if you’re reading this and are in Gauteng, South Africa and would like to do a bit of stargazing at your next gathering, let me know! Heck, I’ll do it anywhere in the world, if you’re willing to pay to get me there!