The Sidewalk Astronomer

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SaturnThe sidewalk astronomer – usually a star-haunted amateur setting up a personal telescope on city sidewalks for both money and love – is familiar with doubt.

Mr. Tregent, 1856:  “Sometimes when I have been exhibiting, the parties have said it was all nonsense and a deception, for the star was painted on the glass. If the party has been anything agreeable, I’ve taken the trouble to persuade him. I’ve, for instance, placed the star on the very edge of the glass, and then they’ve seen it travel right across the field; and as I’ve told them, if it was painted it couldn’t move and disappear from the lens.”

Joseph G. White, 1921:  ‘”This is a fake,’ he exclaimed. ‘There isn’t any such thing in the sky. You’ve got this thing fastened here in the tube to fool people.’  The sidewalk astronomer proved that Saturn was real by telling the man to watch it move out of the field of view by himself moving the telescope tube.”

Herman Heyn, 2012:  “Frequently Asked Questions:  ‘Is that the real Saturn? I don’t believe it!’  Used to try to prove to them 5 different ways that it is real. Now I just say, ‘If it looks fake, it’s in good focus!’ I also say that if I was going to fool you I wouldn’t need to bring 70-lbs of equipment down here but could  do it with a paper towel roll! These days it’s helpful when someone comes along with an iPhone with a sky app which shows Saturn where my scope is pointing.”

64 Classic#64, Galileo &amp_Inquistion, Herman,teleDSC_5965 copy

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Herman Heyn is Baltimore’s local sidewalk astronomer.  He’s out about 60 nights a year – it used to be three or four times a week. These days he sets up in a nightlife-rich area on the harbor called Fells Point.  He makes less money there than in the more tourist-rich Inner Harbor but in Fells Point the parking is nearer and at the Inner Harbor, getting to and from his car he worried about muggers.  He puts out a plastic cowboy hat – looking is free but contributions are welcome — that he’d reclaimed from his trash his first night out and kept it because that night he collected $10.00 and the next night, $40.00.  His current income is from Social Security (his job history has included truck driver, lab tech, office manager for a small construction company, t shirt designer, and a stint in the Korean War) and maybe $4,000 – $6,000 a year (it used to be more like $10,000) from telescoping.  He reports every penny to the IRS and lives, he says, low on the hog.  He’s been doing this since November 13, 1987.  He’s 82 years old.

Years ago, he used to go out during the day – more customers – and aim his telescope at the planets or the moon, and he got pretty good at finding the bright Arcturus.  He’d begin by orienting his telescope on true north — astronomers usually orient on the North Star, Polaris, but it’s too dim in daylight — so instead he’d sight up a north-south street, then nudge the telescope to the right.  He  wondered about that nudge.  Then he remembered an oddity he’d noticed about the Baltimore map: it shows a grid that’s tidy and square but slightly canted, 3.5 degrees off true north.  He knew that the earth has two norths: the true north of the North Pole (and Polaris) and the magnetic north to which compass needles point.  So he went to the archives and found that when Baltimore’s streets were laid out in 1730, magnetic north was offset from true north by 3.9 degrees, meaning that a lazy surveyor had used his compass and not corrected for true north.  Herman later presented this finding at a poster session of the American Geophysical Union.

He has a college education, but he learned about true and magnetic north from Miss Audrey Wicker in junior high.  She had silver glasses, curly hair, and slightly buck teeth, and one day she drew the Big Dipper on the blackboard and told the students to go out that night and find it.  Herman did; he looked up at the sky, “and there it was,” he says, “just as she had drawn it.”  It hooked him: those stars, they’re real, they’re really there.

In Fells Point, Herman sets up his telescope, hangs out his Hav-A-Look sign, sights on a “very pretty yellow and violet double star in Cygnus the Swan,” called Albireo, and starts chatting up the passers-by: “Have a look, folks, at some awesome stars.”  Albireo is really two stars so close together they look like one, he explains, but “I did the calculations last night and the line-of-sight separation between them is 400 BILLION miles.”  This summer, Saturn is up, and of course the moon swings through every couple weeks.  Last summer, it was the transit of Venus.  Sometimes his old friend, Phyllis, is in town and comes along; she’s good at talking to people. He doesn’t get tired of explaining the same things over and over.  He thinks he’s just doing what Broadway actors have to do, and he likes being on stage.  He’s also got enough stamina to stay enthusiastic for three hours a night, and he’s always liked teaching:  he gives out “facts blurbs” to his “lookers,”  he says, “willynilly.”

One night in 1994, a planetary scientist named Heidi Hammel gave Herman a dollar for a look through his telescope at the scars of Comet Shoemaker-Levy’s impact on Jupiter.  Hammel was in Baltimore to look at the same impact with the Hubble Space Telescope.  Herman didn’t know who she was until he heard her later on NPR, talking about looking at the Space Telescope’s beautiful digital images and then being shown the same thing by a sidewalk astronomer. “She called it the most meaningful and memorable experience of the whole thing for her,” Herman said. “That was the first time she actually looked directly at Jupiter and saw the black marks with her own eyes.”  Much the same phenomenon as Miss Wicker, the Big Dipper, and young Herman.  The comets and planets, they’re really out there.

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Telescope_on_street_corner_sidewalk_new_yorkThe sidewalk astronomer, practitioner of a field that’s part epistemology, part science, and part awe, is familiar with humankind’s abiding concerns.

Mr. Tregent, 1856: “She threw her hands up and cried, ‘If this moon is so beautiful and wonderful, what must that God be like who made it?’ And off she went.  It was very fine, wasn”t it?”

Joseph G. White, 1921:  “It is strange to see a homeless man gazing at the shadowy valleys on the moon or the glittering beauty of the Milky Way.  He realizes that life is less than a ‘tick’ in the great clock of eternity.”

Herman Heyn, 2012:  “Frequently Asked Questions:  (after looking at Saturn) ‘Can anybody but God have made that?'”

When lookers ask him that question, Herman punts and pleads the Fifth.  But in fact, he’s a non-believer.  In 1996, he sent a letter to the editor of the Baltimore City Paper: “If a Supreme Being created the universe in all its glory, then who created the Supreme Being?” he wrote.  And if we can accept the existence of the Supreme Being as a given, he added, “then why can’t we do the same for the existence of the universe itself?”  He doesn’t need faith — it’s really out there; he can see it.

The sidewalk astronomer is a small embodiment of larger principles.  People like to ask questions directly and get direct answers.  They like to see things that they hadn’t seen before and that they don’t need faith to believe.

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I wrote about Herman once before, for an op-ed in USA Today.  You’d  like a copy to put on your website, maybe? It’ll cost you $800, $50 more than they paid me for it in the first place.  It was mostly about Herman’s discovery about Baltimore being off-kilter, which I’ve always thought has explained a lot about Baltimore.

Photo credits:  Saturn - daspader;  Herman Heyn – used with the kind permission of Jack Eisenberg (definitely click on that link); sidewalk astronomer, Joseph G. White - Popular Science via Wikimedia

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24 thoughts on “The Sidewalk Astronomer

  1. As today’s (9/10/13) Last Word’s primary biographical subject,I’m completely blown away by both its breadth (the historical “street” telescopists!) and detail (Miss Wicker, the 3.5-degrees cant of Baltimore’s streets, Heidi Hammel’s look at the comet made spots on Jupiter from Fells Pt., photographer Jack Eisenberg’s link, and so much more!). Thank you Last Word On Nothing for a such a wonderful presentation! HH

  2. I didn’t mean you were old, Phyllis, only that you’d been friends a long time. Just want to clear that up.

  3. it’s been a while since i’ve spoken with Herm. it’s nice to see that he’s still having fun and enjoying himself. my best to him.

  4. I was in awe of the beautiful sky that Herman showed me over three years ago. And since that day, I have been fortunate to call him my friend. I love hearing the reactions of people after they “hav-a-look”. Admiration, disbelief, shock and awe, and skepticism! Herman does a great job of making believers out of people! And we love having him in Fells Point!

  5. This is my 2nd summer of setting up 2 telescopes to observe the sun in my community on Sunday mornings. I have an 8″ dobsonian reflector with solar filter, and a Coronado PST (Solar telescope). I’ve put together a binder of photos from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and print out a shot of the photosphere – so my viewers know what to look for. I do this in association with the New Baltimore Farmer’s Market.

    I suspect I’ll be doing this the rest of my life.

  6. Hi R.J. Trembley, Sounds like you’re experiencing the same thrill of public telescoping (but by day) that I get at night. And, yes, lets do it forever! Robert, for my occasional solar scoping, I use a 3″ refractor to which have mounted a projection screen. Sun’s “white light” image is 6″ across. However,am aware of how much the public likes seeing the /sun thru an Ha filtered scope. Clear skies! Herman

  7. I have been doing sidewalk astronomy in my home town for the past 10 years and enjoy it always, no matter how cold it is, or how many bugs are around, or how few people show up. Herman Heyn and others are the inspiration for people like me to do this. I have visited Baltimore twice and have not yet had the pleasure of meeting him but maybe…some day.

  8. I am an outreach astronomy in the small rust-belt city of Geneva, NY (pop 13k). My project is called Bicycle Astronomy, and I carry all my gear on a cargo bicycle and set up in public places. My two goals are to show people the wonders of the universe and to inspire them to think about ways we might prolong the lifespan of planet earth through more sustainable choices. It was great to learn about Herman (thank you for your tireless work on behalf of science!)…I like to reach out to people from all walks of life and one of my favorite things is to hear people curse colorfully when they look through a telescope for the first time! Herman, have you had this experience? It’s how I know I’m getting through. It is fascinating to see people otherwise wrapped up in worldly concerns have a few moments of awe and connection.

  9. You sidewalk astronomers are a counter-weight to all the people running around shooting and beating and gassing each other. I really do think you’re wonderful. And I love Doug’s idea about collecting the things people say when they look through the telescope for the first time. I have a hornets’ nest that must be three feet long, in a tree in the yard, hornets buzzing all around it. And every single person who sees it for the first time say “Oh. My. God.” Can’t tell it that’s awe or prayer.

  10. Keith and Doug, Just responded to your fine comments via your websites. Ann, ur amusing story reminds me of the Sun’s Kal cartoon last week featuring the Iraq, Afghanistan and (maybe) Syria hornets’ nests? Hope you saw it.
    Herman
    P.S. Looks like our story still has legs!

  11. Go Herman! Great article, Ann, nice historical quotes too. I’m a sidewalk astronomer who lives in Hampton Beach, NH. I pull my scope equipment in a Burley bicycle trailer to the beach all summer and share the views with the folks strolling the boardwalk. I’m also part of the monthly sidewalk astronomy group from my club which meets on the Saturday night closest to first quarter moon in Portsmouth, NH. It is a great pleasure sharing the real thing with people who have only seen pictures or TV shows. Hope to visit Herman someday. My parents met in Baltimore!

  12. Ted Blank, Nice to hear from a fellow sidewalker.
    How crowded is the Hampton Beach boardwalk? I’d be overwhelmed on my nearby ocean boardwalks. Ted, what type of scope do you use? Do you know of Doug Reilly’s (#14 above)Bicycle Astronomy website? Just checked out NHAS’s website. Nice!
    Clear skies!
    Herman
    [email protected]
    http://www.hermanheyn.com

  13. Herman, you showed me the marks left by comet Shoemaker-Levy as well. As I recall you also gave me a commemorative sticky post-it note with a picture of Jupiter that said something like “Splat!” I also remember seeing Saturn’s rings and the moons of Jupiter. Ah, it was a great night out in Charm City to see the Creature of the Black Lagoon at the Orpheum Theater and then go outside and run into the street corner astronomer. Now I no longer live in Baltimore but fortunately moved to a street where my neighbor dresses as a pirate every Halloween and sets out his telescope for the trick-or-treaters. Beautiful essay, Ann….

  14. Is this the same Nell who just is not interested in astronomy, she’s sorry, she respects people who are, but she’s just NOT? That Nell? Or another Nell? Thank you for the compliment. And a Halloween pirate sidewalk astronomer sounds like heaven.

  15. Nell, “Splat” is right! The rest was “I survived the Comet Shoemaker-Levy (something) on Jupiter!”
    Was drawn by my (still) very good friend, Jim Picket. Nell, I think you may find the sticker on my website http://www.hermanheyn.com Is one of a dozen+ stickers have given out over the years and which still do. Yes, the Orpheum was on Thames St. Too bad is not there anymore!

  16. Great article! Nice to see a sidewalk astronomer getting some column space. I love the reactions of people to showing them stuff in the sky, and of course, Saturn is one of the tops on that list (my personal favorite planet to observe is Jupiter). Things go from the “Is that a slide you put in there?!” (maybe 1% of folks) to the folks I show stuff to when I’m on vacation at a park, who are so moved they want to tell me their name, shake my hand, because they feel I’ve given them so much and they’ve given me nothing at all. I always tell them: “Thank you- it’s always more fun when you share”.

  17. Dave, Is always great to hear about the experiences of a fellow sidewalker! Of course my big 3 are the Moon, Saturn, and Jupiter–the evening apparition of which I am eagerly awaiting! Is a toss up as to which I like the best. Same goes for which most impress my lookers. Dave, like you, I’m on the street to share. Having seen most of the dim fuzzies dozens of times each, in 1987 I decided it was, like Ruby, time to take my love to town(!) Clear skies! Herman

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