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Sidewalk Astronomy

(March 5, 2007)

It is five degrees below freezing - a typical winter evening in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. In front of a busy shopping mall, a small car pulls up to the curb, the driver's door opens, and a witch steps out. Dressed in a long black robe, and wearing a tall pointed hat, the witch opens the trunk of her car. But instead of a typical witch's broom, she lifts out a five foot long white tube, one foot in diameter, and obviously quite heavy. Struggling with the awkward, mysterious object, she gently lays it on the sidewalk, and begins to pull other strange looking things out of her car.

A curious crowd starts to gather as the witch begins to fit all these strange objects together. Finally, someone can't stand the suspense any longer, and asks the witch what she is doing, and in a voice that sounds very unlike a witch, she replies that she is putting together a telescope. For it is Halloween, and the witch is a member of the Okanagan chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, volunteering her time, and braving the freezing cold to share the wonders of the Universe with her fellow Humans.

She points the telescope at the sky, and people begin to line up for their turn at the eyepiece. The witch smiles, and suddenly the night doesn't seem quite so cold, as she hears the inevitable exclamations of Wow! and Oh my God! and I can't believe it! as people see things they've never seen before. Things they didn't even know were up there. Things of unspeakable beauty, and wonder, and mystery. Things that make them think. Things that make them smile. Things that make their own personal problems go away, for a few moments at least. Things that help them begin to appreciate the immensity and grandeur of the Universe around them, and their small yet significant place within it all.

The best part is the kids. Seeing the excitement on their faces as they see the rings of Saturn, or the craters of the Moon for the first time. You know that you've opened their minds, and changed their perspective on the world around them, and their lives will never be quite the same.

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After looking at the incredible rings of Saturn, a group of teenagers decide it is much too spectacular to be real, and think it is all a hoax. A Halloween trick, to entertain the young and the gullible. Of course, they are much too smart to be fooled. Only after the witch lets them control the telescope, and point it in different directions, and look at other things, are they finally convinced that what they are seeing is real. In the end they are so impressed they stick around half the night, and bring the witch a steaming cup of hot coffee to ease the chill.

As usual there's always one or two people that just can't seem to get into the spirit of things. Like the woman, who, after a quick glance through the eyepiece, haughtily proclaims that she can see much better pictures on the internet, and marches off. And the drunk, who is more interested in things amorous, than in things astronomical. Thankfully, he too, eventually stumbles off into the night.

But most people are very impressed, and very grateful that someone would make the effort, on a cold winter night, to come out and give them the opportunity to do something so exciting, and entertaining, and educational, that they would otherwise never find the time or inspiration to fit into their busy lives. And they thank the witch, over and over, and it warms her heart.

For despite the pointed hat, the lady out on the sidewalk with her telescope is no witch. She is more of an angel, come to Earth to enlighten, and to inspire the mortals around her to open their minds, and look beyond themselves, and hopefully start to treat each other a little bit better. For once someone has caught a glimpse of the infinite, they are not so easily drawn into petty quarrels and fights.

So the next time you see this little lady with her big telescope out on the streets of Kelowna (with or without a pointed hat), stop and say Hi. Her name is Colleen, and if there were more people like her, the world would be a much happier and safer place.

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