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.
“Well, I can see the Moon, but I can’t see Venus!” is what a child said to me, which got a laugh before I corrected her, “no, that IS Venus you’re looking at.”
One man saw crescent Venus through the scope, and freaked out by popping his head and turning around to look at the waxing gibbous Moon on the other side of the sky! It didn’t occur to him that Venus and the Moon were in different phases! Once I corrected him, “no, the telescope is pointed west towards Venus, the Moon is east!” He had a slight uncomfortable laugh, like he was thinking “well I feel dumb, now.”
“Is That The Lunar Eclipse?”
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.
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,” and seemed to be ready to celebrate the astrological side of eclipses – not the astronomy side!
Because of many 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 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!
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 teenager 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?”
“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!”
It does happens more often than you think, but it’s an innocent mistake and people are polite about it when I make the simple correction, and don’t persist on asking about star signs.
“Mars Looks Bigger From Florida”
On this particular night, 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.”
I then realized there was probably a six month gap between nights he actually looked up and saw Mars, so I asked, “Did you by any chance see Mars from Florida in July?” “Yes, how did you know?” “Well, in July, Mars had a really close approach to Earth, it 40 million miles closer than it is now! It wasn’t just Florida, it looked bigger and brighter from here too!”
You can’t expect most people to know the present distances of the planets from Earth, but one has to think that if it’s brighter on that particular night, it’s probably visible like that from anywhere on Earth, not just Florida.
“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, 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 repeatedly telling, “it’t too cloudy, you won’t see anything,” people still kept trying to look through the eyepiece, and THEN they’d complain they couldn’t see anything.
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.
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 Moon was just a few days after New Moon, and it wasn’t going to be in the sky very long.
So the time came, and the Moon was about to set. I told people in line, “hey, if you’re wanting to see the Moon, now is the time because it’s going to set in a few minutes! The mad rush from the line itself was quite funny.
But the moment came and the Moon set, so those in line actually saw the Moon gradually disappear below the horizon within a minute. 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!”
I simply said, “well, then it’s good thing you’re here, because behind me is a 3 story building with hourly shows that help teach that stuff to you!”