Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

When committing astronomy can get you killed

Get a bunch of amateur astronomers together and eventually, after the tall tales of seeing the Horsehead Nebula and the wisps of the Veil Nebula, you’ll get to the strange encounters we’ve had.

It’s hard not to notice an amateur astronomer, alone or in a pack. We have this weird looking object that may or may not look like everyone’s definition of a telescope; we perform weird rituals around it, peering through a smaller scope or looking at a book or magazine; and we might be seen punching numbers into a handheld device, smartphone or laptop and then watching as the telescope mount points the telescope.

There’s the weird language, too. “Go from Enif in Pegasus and then across the Great Square, and you’ll see M31.”

Or, “I swear, I saw a star flare up in the Double Cluster. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

We in the U.S. might meet up with bad guys while observing the stars – though a look through the telescope might mollify them – or even law enforcement.

A story steeped in legend is about the time a group of amateur astronomers gathers on a hill overlooking their city on a dark, clear night, and soon had their array of telescopes set up.

Most telescopes of that time, and today, bear quite a resemblance to mortar tubes. It’s not intentional. The Schmidt-Cassegrain design is compact and easy to transport, and offers some pretty good-sized apertures up to 14 inches. They do look like mortars in the dark and at a distance.

The group noticed that there were several cars of law enforcement racing on the road up the hill, with lights flashing and sirens wailing. They felt a sense of relief. At least someone was out there protecting them.

Soon, though, the police arrived and cautiously approached. It turned out that someone had called 911, thinking that a group was assembling mortars and about to start raining shells on the town. A few minutes later, after the police were shown that the telescopes were for extracting secrets from the sky and not harming anyone, the officers left and the amateurs resumed their work.

That story had a happy ending, but for some people the very act of not only looking at the sky but knowing about it can be a death sentence.

Carl Sagan once said that you never know where the seed of knowledge will sprout. Sometimes, in the most unexpected places, you will find people with a driving desire to know how the universe works, he said.

We know of Afghanistan as a place of endless war and tumult, murderous religious fanaticism and where young Americans have died to protect a government that seems incapable of supplying toilet paper.

And yet, among all that, there is a dedicated group of amateur astronomers. According to a story in Newsweek and other sources, the Afghanistan Astronomy Association has an 11-inch telescope and other gear supplied by Astronomers Without Borders. Its members try to find locations to observe and often are harassed by the local police, religious leaders and military troops who all believe they are up to no good.

In a society where the only knowledge worth having seems to be religious or military, and the only skill you should show is how to plant an IED, these men want to learn about the sky and teach others.

Here’s an excerpt from the start of the story:

“In most of the world, an amateur astronomer can drive to a dark place, set up a telescope and enjoy the beauty of the sky above.

“But in Afghanistan, a country plagued by 36 years of war, a few men gathered around a telescope pointing toward the sky, in the middle of nowhere, looks pretty suspicious.

“From a distance, the police thought the telescope might be a rocket launcher.

“After careful inspection, the police still couldn’t comprehend why anyone would sit in a field, in the cold, to look at stars. Although they’d never seen a telescope before, they conceded that this probably wasn’t a weapon.

“Calling the astronomers halfwits, the police left. Spooked, most of the stargazers took off too, leaving Bakhshi and two others.”

Religious leaders aren’t helpful, spreading wild stories about eclipses and other superstitions.

But the amateurs keep at it.

“On another late afternoon, as the sun disappears and the evening call to prayer echoes across the city below, Bakhshi, Amiri and a small group of men gather on the outskirts of Kabul.

“As he sets up a large telescope, cigarette dangling from his lip, Amiri recalls the first time he saw the moon up close. In an old schoolbook, he had discovered a guide to making a telescope and managed to fashion one out of an old chimney pipe.

‘I couldn’t move my eye away from the telescope that night,’ he says.

“One by one, the men peer at the moon through the telescope. The clarity is remarkable; the moon luminous and rugged with craters and mountains.

“For those who are looking through the telescope for the first time that night, each has the same reaction: astonishment and wonder, followed by a barrage of questions.”

Maybe there will be a time when amateur astronomers the world over can live and work in peace. In the meantime, there are those who are willing to risk it all for a glimpse of the moon or Saturn. It definitely makes you appreciate what we have here.

 

 

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January 11, 2016 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny, Uncategorized | ,

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