I write this while standing in an open 5-acre field in an agricultural area of central Florida. It is miles and miles from the nearest store, gas station or even fast food place. It really doesn’t matter why I find myself at this location, but for the curious reader, I will soon be doing a conference presentation nearby at an astronomy gathering. I will be speaking, or so the program states, about the incredible new instrument which sits in my observatory at home, why it’s different than conventional telescopes, and how it can take amazing photos. However, my real purpose is to talk about astronomy as a tool for inspiration, especially for kids.
A majority of people in the world can no longer see the Milky Way from where they live. Whatever you may think about the political debate about whether climate change is real or “fake news,” it is immensely sad that the incredible sight of our very own galaxy is now out of reach of so many people, due mostly to civilization’s “progress” which has given us light and air pollution.
Through most of human (and pre-human) history, the sky has been the fundamental source for inspiration, fear, mythology, religion and just plain majesty. It provides the tool by which parents, relatives and friends can sit around a fire and point out what look like patterns in the sky. This in turn leads to stories attempting to find meaning in those patterns or individual objects like a bright planet. The sky provides impetus for the curiosity — a way station leading to knowledge, invention and realizations that asking and answering profound questions, ironically, leads to more profound questions.
Take away that hugely important human capacity — blinded with pollution — and we take away a driver of our own development and perhaps ultimately our own survival as a species. I’m preparing to describe to a group of astronomers how small — and relatively inexpensive — instruments readily available can be the catalyst in every school in the country to inspire kids to continue asking questions, sitting in wonder and appreciating how very terribly tiny we are as individuals, as communities, as nations and as a planet when compared with the immensity of the universe.
The wonders of deep-sky objects, even with incredible telescopes and other instruments, are generally not seen “live and in person” by people other than by watching occasional brief TV program segments carefully sandwiched between drug, lawyer and car commercials. Taking away something like the incredible night sky or being able to stand out in an open field and wonder about what our land use decisions may produce on that field in the future as it gets developed, reduces the possibilities for a child to get excited about the natural world. As a child growing up in a less-polluted time, or a public servant wondering about meeting the next organizational or personal challenge, I always found very valuable inspiration in using thoughts of natural wonders to help me develop solutions to problems and the opportunities for solutions.
An open field, therefore, can really be a source of inspiration and even hope and beauty. This is especially true if it’s in the middle of a peaceful agricultural area where the main sounds rather than horn honking might be those of insects or an occasional bird call or cow mooing. It’s a great place to relax, revitalize and then return to the challenges of day-to-day living, especially urban living, with a renewed energy and sense of what could be accomplished.
Throughout my career, nearly all of which has been in local government, I have worked hard at deliberate mindful activities to help keep a broad perspective in the face of a great many problems which seem to take up time and energy in your executive office or county administration building. That really long agenda of the next county commission meeting awaits you or a schedule full of meetings, memos or decisions. These become far less likely to harm your physical and emotional health over time when you add in occasional thoughts about nature’s beauty.
Those thoughts help me realize that much of what confronts or frustrates us in the daily conduct of our bureaucratic lives really amounts to counting paper clips. Most of our problems amount to tactical annoyances more than strategic changes. Adding in thoughts of what inspires me to imagine and dream helps me count more paper clips, count them faster and move on to the much greater fun of helping in the development of the careers of colleagues or introducing dynamic and more enjoyable long-term changes. Adding imagination to your daily routine creates a life and a career of greater joy and passion.
I have encountered many public employees and students whom I have taught over the years who project an unfortunate sadness in not knowing what they want to be when they grow up — even if they are already middle-aged or older. They reflect and are unfortunately all too able to share with others their sense of personal misery.
Inspiration is a noteworthy treatment to dissipate the sense of arrogance or despair we can find in such people. To test this hypothesis, try taking your kids, grandkids, neighbor kids — any kids — to a place where they can go to see Saturn, the Andromeda Galaxy or the Orion nebula through a quality telescope. Watch and hear how they will all say the same thing: “Wow!” Try to build on that by making more experiences of inspiration available to them.
The final thing I will speak about at this conference is what I am absolutely convinced I will discover as I walk into the room and stand in front of a group of very experienced and very smart astronomers. That is, I will see a group of mostly men in their 50s, 60s or older. Most will be homogenous in a world of diversity, and most will be talking about paper clips, such as the size of the mirror on their equipment or how to find an extension cord to power cameras and mounts to be used later in the night. Even avid participants, all of whom likely had that “sight of Saturn” experience, probably as 10-year-olds, may lose sight over time of what it must have been like 10,000 years ago, with your family struggling for survival every day to sit around a fire and look up at a clear and wondrous sky.
My belief, as hobbyist, philanthropist and as a career public administrator is that in addition to all that day-to-day activity in our short lives, we each have a duty to excite, inspire, and provoke others to dream and action to find joy, passion and fun in their own lives. To that end, I will also give away as a charitable fundraiser at this conference, copies of my latest children’s book “Evie, the Star Princess.” The protagonist bases her doctoral dissertation on creating a charitable foundation to put a robotic, computerized telescope into 10,000 primarily elementary and middle schools around the country and then study the effects on children’s interest in science.
I will be announcing at this conference the Rosenberg family’s more modest effort to create “The One Hundred Telescope Project,” working with a not-for-profit educational foundation in my home area of central Florida, to do just what Evie, the Star Princess did, only on a smaller scale. I have many times seen very positive and consistent reaction when kids (of all ages) first look through a telescope and shout out “Wow!” The real goal here is to provoke thousands of “wows” and encourage that sound to be followed up by enquiry, storytelling, mythology and more. I am convinced that those reactions will translate into great fun and perhaps the development of thousands of future scientists and inspired citizens. Want to help in the “One Hundred Telescope Project,” or start one in your own county? Just contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.