Astronomy Illiterate Stories

These are a collection of stories from yours truly dealing with the public, particularly those who are clearly “astronomy illiterate,” and don’t understand simple concepts, or don’t equate things with one another. Yes, I work at a place where the public can learn and get inspired about the subject, but it’s quite surprising the things we encounter from people who don’t know any better.

That’s Not The Moon, That’s Venus!

Through a telescope, Venus shows phases like our Moon does, so at times it appears like a crescent when it’s closer to Earth. Still, because a lot of people don’t know this, I cannot tell you how many times people confuse Venus for the Moon when looking through a telescope.

“Where is Venus?” a child asks. I respond, “It’s that small white crescent sliver through the eyepiece.” She then said,  “Well, I can see the Moon, but I can’t see Venus!” After a quick chuckle on my end, I corrected her, “no, that IS Venus you’re looking at.” Which of course led to people learning the phases.

One man (who knew little English) saw crescent Venus through the scope, and had an audible “huh?!” as he freaked out by popping his head and turning around to look at the waxing gibbous Moon on the other side of the sky!  Once I showed him using my hands to show the scope wasn’t pointing at the Moon, but pointed at the bright white star-like beacon, “no, the telescope is pointed {west} towards Venus, the Moon is {east}!” Though he couldn’t say it due to his lack of English, he had a slight uncomfortable laugh, like he was thinking “well I feel dumb, now.”

“Is That The Lunar Eclipse?”

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The smoke was very prevalent even over Southern California, even if you lived far away from the actual fires!

This was on July 27, the date of one of the longest and deepest lunar eclipses in recent history. Only problem was that it wasn’t visible over Los Angeles – it happened over Europe, Africa, and Asia.

I received plenty of texts from people asking about it, and many people came up to the Observatory ready to watch it from the lawn, only to be told the same as mentioned prior. One colleague told me there was an eager couple that was wearing “lunar eclipse shirts” as described, and seemed to be ready to celebrate the “astrological effects” of eclipses.

Because of the overwhelming abundance of nearby wildfires all over the state, the increased amount of smoky sludge in the sky caused the Sun to glow a dark red through the smoke.  Still, I’ll never forget people noticing the red Sun and asking me, “Is that the Lunar Eclipse?”

We were happy that people were interested, but all it takes is a simple Google search to figure out if and when an eclipse is visible from where you are!

“No, that’s NOT a Blood Moon! THIS is A Blood Moon!”

Astronomers know that Lunar Eclipses ONLY happen during a full moon… not before or after!

Since my view of the eastern horizon was obstructed, I did not see the Moon rise on this night, while others did.

A couple came up to my telescope, and asked me, “did you see the blood moon?” “What blood moon?” “the one a few minutes ago, we took a picture of it!” “Buddy, if there was a lunar eclipse tonight, I of all people would know it, and there’d be huge crowds of people coming up here to see it.” Still not convinced, they said, “But I saw it when it was rising, it even looked orange!”

When they showed me the picture of the waning gibbous moon shining through the clouds, I knew right away what they were seeing. “Okay, a blood moon only happens when the Moon is full, and it isn’t full tonight.” Clearly indifferent,  they then said, “well it looked like a blood moon to us!” only for me to reply, “yes, it looked orange because of the haze and sludge above the horizon, that’s NOT a blood moon!” I then pulled up my DSLR shot from January 20, 2019, “THIS is a blood moon!” 

Once the light bulb above their heads lit up and they , they were clearly disappointed as they walked away.

“Mr Astrologist”

Yeah, blame the English language for that one. But there of course are people who just don’t get it.

“Hi Mr. Astrologist,” said a young woman who came to my scope.
“Oops, that isn’t what we are, what’s the correct word again?”
“Uh… I don’t know… hey, what’s your star sign?”

At that point, I went on the offensive:
“Do you understand how star dates work and what determines them?”
“Uh No… I don’t even know my star sign.”
“Either way, you’re confusing the two words. We’re not astrologists, we’re Astro-NO-MERS! We talk about the science behind it, not read tarot cards and give your personal horoscopes!”

People confusing the two words happens more often than you think, but with this woman, it was obvious that anything I was saying was over her head.

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“Mars Looks Bigger From Florida”

On this particular night in 2018, Neptune and Mars were in a close conjunction, so I could show both of them at the same time through a telescope.

One man came up and after seeing Mars with the naked eye, he told me, “Mars looks bigger from Florida.”

I was baffled but intrigued what he meant by it. “Do you mean you saw it look bigger through a telescope?” I asked.  “No, with the naked eye, it looks much bigger and brighter from Florida.” This guy sincerely thought he was onto something, like a revelation of some sorts that made him feel superior.

I realized that this was probably the first time in months that he actually looked up and saw Mars, so I asked, “So did Mars look bigger from Florida back in July?” “Yes, how did you know?!” “Well, you probably looked up then because you heard about the historic close approach. Mars was 60 million miles closer than it is now! It didn’t JUST look bigger and brighter from Florida, it looked like that over here too!”

Of course, he looked defeated, as it didn’t occur to him that the planets aren’t locally visible in the sky but globally.

“3rd Rock From the Sun”

On this same night of the Neptune/Mars conjunction, people were asking what number the two planets in view were in their numerical order, and you’d be quite surprised how many people have forgotten the order for our planets in the Solar System.

One man around my age said, “Earth is number one, right?” And I quickly said, “no, Earth is number three.” “Oh, I didn’t know that.” “Don’t you remember the show, “3rd Rock From the Sun?” “Oh yeah, I loved that show, I didn’t equate the title with Earth until just now!”

3rd Rock From the Sun has been on syndicated reruns and streaming services since 2001, and this was 2018… that’s quite a long time to not figure that out!

“It’s Cloudy!” “You Won’t See Anything!”

Sometimes, the night starts normally, but then the clouds roll in, thus the scopes either get put away or start pointing at terrestrial objects, and the historic telescope dome gets converted into “Exhibit Mode.” Usually, when we tell people we won’t be observing, they leave the line.

But not on this one particular night! People stayed resilient, hoping that the clouds would clear up.  Despite myself and other staff repeatedly telling, “it’t too cloudy, you won’t see anything,” people still kept queuing up to climb the stairs and try to look through the eyepiece, and THEN they’d complain they couldn’t see anything.

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This caused the line to get even longer, making curious visitors believe we were still observing when we actually weren’t, thus the cycle kept repeating. I remember making eye contact with a patron, telling him “you won’t see anything if you look through the eyepiece” And then seeing the person nodding his head, as if to say “okay, got it…” and then proceeding to try looking through!

It was definitely the oddest exhibit mode session ever! I learned that night that people will still try and look if the opportunity presents itself, and my mistake that night was not taking out the eyepieces and removing that chance. Lesson learned!

“I didn’t Know the Moon Moves”

On this night at the Observatory, the waxing crescent Moon was going to set about 30 minutes after we opened up our public telescopes, thus not every visitor would get that chance to view it.

So when the time came, I told people in my line, “hey, if you’re wanting to see the Moon, now is the time because it’s going to disappear in a few minutes! The mad rush from the line itself was quite funny.

Visitors waiting in line could see the Moon “touch” the Hollywood Hills, and then watch it set below the hills like they’ve seen the Sun do. The very next person, clearly someone my age (a 30+ year old millennial) had a very shocked look, as his eyes were wide open like he’s seen a ghost! “Oh my God, I’ve never seen that before! I didn’t know the Moon moves!” His friend accompanying him laughed and said, “are you kidding me? I’m so ashamed of you right now!”

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I simply said, “well, then it’s good thing you’re here, because behind me is a 3 story building with exhibits that talk all about the Sun, Moon, and Stars appearing to move across the sky!”

“Where’s Mercury?!” “It’s Gone.”

This was a gentleman trying to impress his girlfriend and sounding like he knew the things I knew. As he came up, he said, “So I saw Venus once…” Me, knowing that Venus was easily visible that night, replied using my pointer to show the bright beacon of light over the western horizon, “yeah? It’s right there!”

Sounding like he didn’t realize that Venus was that bright, he then said, “Ohhh, that’s so cool! So that’s Venus. So where is Mercury?”
I replied, “It’s below the horizon.”

As I said my reply, he was busy looking out over the city and Hollywood hills. Noticing a bright light which I knew was just aircraft over the horizon, he exclaimed, “Oh there it is!”
“No… it has SET and is BELOW the horizon, that means you can’t see it right now!”
Defeated, he put his head down and uttered “Oh…”
Unimpressed, his girlfriend then said, “didn’t you take an astronomy class?”
“Yeah, like 8th grade earth science…”
Of course I said my sarcastic “well it’s a good thing you’re here…” line.

“Aren’t there Craters?”

This was an instance where I was showing the Sun with a white light filter on our telescopes. A gentleman who looked to be in his 40s-50s came up, noticed the scope was pointed towards the Sun, and asked me, “won’t you go blind?” Which I was happy to explain, “oh no, it’s perfectly safe, we have a special filter in front of it.”

Upon looking through, he remarked, “oh! It looks so smooth!” And I thought, “yes, that’s a fair assessment, considering there’s no sunspots visible and the white light filter makes it look smooth.” But then he showed his illiterate cracks when he then said, “I thought it would look rougher.” I then started raising my eyebrows and asked, “rougher? What do you mean by rougher?”

“I mean like holes, like those round holes on the surface!”

“Craters?”

“Yeah, those! Aren’t there supposed to be craters?”

Yes, this person seriously asked me if there were craters on the Sun! At that point, while trying not to laugh, I said, “sir, you’re thinking of the MOON! This telescope is looking at the SUN! The Sun doesn’t have craters, it’s a burning ball of plasma!”

Whether it was a massive brain fart on his end, or he genuinely realized how dumb he sounded when he confused the two, he tried to save face by saying “Oh…well… I used to be into this stuff and know all of that.” Of course, he was met with my sarcastic “it’s a good thing you’re here…” line.

The sad part is, I have encountered flat earthers who do believe the Moon is also a gassy ball of burning plasma generating its own light, so I know that there are people with all kinds of warped facts they try to pass off as scientific knowledge.

We’ll never know what this man’s mindset truly was, but it still makes a funny story!

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