I left work early yesterday to scoot down to Forest Park, one of St. Louis’s best city parks, and take in the transit of Venus. The St. Louis Astronomical Society conducted a public outreach event on the grounds of the World’s Fair Pavilion. The pavilion sits atop a small hill with a good view of the western horizon. Many club members had set up telescopes for the public. Some scopes projected images of the sun and others used solar filters. It was another large daytime star party. Hundreds of people showed up and patiently waited in telescope lines to get a glimpse of Venus crossing the Sun.
Worlds Fair Pavilion in St. Louis’s Forest Park on Venus transit day.
The mood was curious and somber; parents urged their children to look and remember. Many dutifully complied but you could see they were more interested in running around the pavilion than watching a little black dot. Maybe some will remember in the decades to come; maybe one or two will live to see the next transit but for the rest of us the little black dot of Venus is a “period” to the sentence of our time. We will never see Venus’s silhouette on the Sun again. Venus will circle on punctuating future epochs but we, my friends, will soon cease to exist — period.
Last Friday I joined the Saint Louis Astronomical Society (SLAS). In the last twenty years I have been a member of two chapters of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Kingston and Ottawa, the Forth Worth Astronomical Society in Texas, the Minnesota Astronomical Society in Saint Paul and the Orange County Astronomers in southern California. No matter where I go I can see the sky and I can find people who share my interest in it. The SLAS is very similar to other clubs. If you were to walk into a typical astronomy club meeting your overwhelming impression would be: old white guys like looking at the sky!
The undeniable old whiteness of astronomy clubs is a concern because it tells you something about the health of our culture. If you think I am pulling your leg or being sarcastic consider the following.
- Club members have strong noncommercial or unprofessional interests in science. Most are not professional astronomers or even scientists. Few derive any income from their interests in astronomy and many spend insane amounts of time and money building telescopes, observing the sky and keeping up with findings in astronomy and related sciences. What’s the point? Wouldn’t these people be better off devoting the time they “waste” on astronomy to more productive pursuits? Mind you the same applies to unprofessional artists and hobbyists of all types that “waste” comparable amounts of time on their own “pointless” pursuits. Astronomy club members love what they do, and, in my experience, it’s a constant and enduring love that never dims or goes away. Anyone with a real passion knows what I’m talking about.
- Astronomy club members respect, understand and value scientific arguments. We are constantly reading depressing assessments of the public’s dismal understanding of science. For example, 44% of the US public accepts that, “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Only 5% of scientists accept this nonsense and even 5% seems to high for my skeptical ass. Astronomy club members will poll more like scientists than the general public on this question. A society that depends on science yet harbors ignorant masses that do not grasp or appreciate basic scientific findings will not hold.
- Club members welcome anyone with an interest in astronomy. I have belonged to half a dozen astronomy clubs and without exception they welcome anyone with an interest in the subject. I have never seen somebody turned away, or discouraged, for reasons of race, age, sex, sexual orientation, political or religious affiliations, or social class. Astronomy clubs are about as egalitarian as it gets! It gets better. Most clubs nurture and cherish the youngsters in their midst’s. This is partly because we don’t see a lot of youngsters and by youngster I mean anyone under thirty!
So why are astronomy clubs in North America old and white? Do people think you need expensive telescopes and other pricey gadgets to enjoy amateur astronomy? I’ve looked at the sky for decades primarily with binoculars. They are still the best way to learn the sky. Has the public’s interest in science declined during the last forty years? Is elementary science education worse than it was when I was a child? Is the XBox’ed and Avatar’ed generation bored with looking at faint smudges in the sky? Finally, do we smell? I don’t know why astronomy clubs are old and white but I do know that I will probably be associated with one until the day I die.