Bicycle Astronomy: Project Background

One of the great rewards for supporting Bicycle Astronomy on kickstarter: hand-printed Field Notes brand journals. Made in the USA.

The Bicycle Astronomy project is about to launch on kickstarter.com. It should begin by July 1 and run through mid-August. Here’s a little bit of background on why I created the project.

I ran a series of star parties in Geneva starting last August. A ‘star party’ is what astronomers call it when we set up our telescope, on a sidewalk or another public space, and invite people to look into space. Outreach astronomers spread appreciation for, and knowledge of, the wider universe. There are three primary motivations for doing this: first and foremost is to help people understand science as vital and valuable in understanding our meta-environment.  Second is to expose people to the transformative power of the universe’s beauty. Third is simply the thrill of…the thrill. It’s really cool to observe people looking through the telescope for the first time. Awe is itself inspiring.

For outreach astronomers like me, motivated by all of these reasons, showing people the universe is a mission. Aside from being a father, husband and friend (in other words, aside from the relationships I have built), outreach astronomy is how I hope to make my mark on the human race. Just a little mark.

A push here, a prod there. I have no idea who might change course as a result of my efforts. A young child may decide to study astronomy and may someday win a Nobel Prize. Or go on to be a humble but inspiring teacher, unrecognized in fame but appreciated by many. An adult in the midst of a self-destructive cycle of bad decisions and tough times may find in the night sky a kind of solace, a reason to fight just a little bit harder against their worse halves. Maybe someone (like me) will find in the night sky a greater patience with their fellow humans, recognizing in the vastness of time and space that as a species we are young, maturing, and deserving of just a little more understanding.

I called my outreach events the “Second Friday Star Parties”. The idea was to give people a regular, memorable time when the parties would happen each month. Interest in the Geneva community was high, as was support from the City Department of Parks and Recreation, which let me use their “pocket parks” after hours so I could spread my parties around the city. The idea was that people could walk to the nearest park—even then I was thinking about sustainability.

The challenge was the weather. I found out that in any given year, most second Fridays are cloudy! A regular date is great for planning and getting the word out. It’s not great for actually having a night sky to look at. I went back to the drawing board.

I know I needed to be more spontaneous. I needed to take advantage of a sudden break in the weather. But I also needed a way to get the word out to the community. The spontaneity would mean posters, listings in the newspapers, letters home with school kids, and word of mouth wouldn’t work as well.

I also knew that I wanted to make my star parties even more sustainable. I didn’t want to have to be tied to a car to do these events. I don’t like the idea that nature is something you have to have four wheels to experience. I didn’t like the idea that I was contributing, in a small way, to the destruction (or radical transformation) of the thing I was trying to get people to appreciate: the tenuous, tiny, fragile earth, adrift in a massive universe.

So then I thought of it: bicycle astronomy.

I had looked into cargo bicycles sometime last year, when I started using my own bike for commuting to work and trips to the grocery store and farmer’s market. There are a variety of bicycle designs aimed at carrying more cargo more easily. I interviewed the owner and staff of the Geneva Bicycle Center for an issue of Geneva13 that we did on cycling.  I left that experience convinced that the bicycle was indeed as Jim Hogan, CGC’s owner, defined it, a “perfect tool for social transformation”.

So could I ‘green’ my star parties by making them bicycle-borne? The telescope could get smaller and lighter, the bicycle could get bigger and stronger. There was no reason it couldn’t work.

Might also the combination of technologies address my other main challenge: getting the word out about spontaneous star parties so that Geneva residents could attend them?

Of course I could organize my star parties online. I did that last year. But my outreach goal is lofty; I’d like every one of the 13,000 or so Genevans to have a chance to look through a telescope. A good portion of those residents aren’t online or don’t visit the same websites I do. That’s the thing about the web, it’s great for far-flung networks and not great for local ones.

Apply the bicycle again. If it can carry a telescope, it can also carry signs. Maybe I could put signs out in high traffic areas saying “star party tonight!” The cargo bicycle, because it’s exotic around here and doesn’t look like a normal bike, could itself be a roving advertisement; the more I ride it around the city, the more people will know about Bicycle Astronomy. Combined with social media, my sandwich-board signs, hastily put-up handbills, and constant presence riding around town on a cargo bicycle advertising the next event, I think I will be able to reach even more people than before.

Lastly, I wondered if the cargo bicycle and telescope would not also have some synergistic ethos. Many people who observe the universe through the telescope come away from the eyepiece acutely aware of the precious nature of life, the beauty of the universe, and how important preserving all of it is. Might the night sky inspire people to think creatively about sustainability, and might the presence of the cargo bike, introducing the narrative of sustainability in a concrete, tangible way, not ground this inspiration and help convert it to action? That’s the premise—and promise—of Bicycle Astronomy.

 

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