Astronomy in the Big City

Editor's Note: The following is a five-part retrospective chronicle of personal observation excursions (with some prose sprinkled in) by longtime GRAAA member Gary Ross. It is not light reading, but it is surely captivating and informative, and (if you know Gary) will undoubtedly play back in his own voice in your head while you read it.

Part I

Monday, the 9th of May, 2016 brought a transit of Mercury. As a member of the Astronomical Association (often incorrectly called "the club"), one had the opportunity to observe this event from the venerable James C. Veen Observatory. This choice would have been the Ivory Tower approach -- literally -- but the other option was to answer David L. DeBruyn's "call to Camelot," and go downtown. The public would duly get a crack at Mercury in the tradition of San Francisco's "Sidewalk Astronomers." Unavoidably, Petula Clarke's 1965 song comes immediately to mind. Yes, a downtown, a real place, not the likes of "slurbs," cf. Warren, Novi... or Cascade.

Curator Emeritus DeBruyn was probably playing catch up: In the foot-steps of Jack McCarthy, factotum of the highly successful 2016 "statewide" April astronomy event at the Observatory. While Jack -- not to be confused with "Black Jack" Pershing -- shaped up the troops at the Veen, DeBruyn was baking his aging body in South Carolina, a body which has been aging for over thirty years, if he is to be believed.

I observed first and second contact from Snow Ave., just south of 36th SE, using a 5 cm. refractor at 45X. Even though the view was over a long field, given eight degrees of elevation, the Sun rose into a cloud bank, with seeing reasonably horrid. There was no way to discern first contact. Even second contact was... theoretical.

The original plan (for me) was to take up position on Pearl Street on the Public Museum's lawn. This idea was scrapped given dodgy conditions -- sky at first light wretched -- but I had promised to go downtown for the transit and had other business there. Arriving at the Museum, I found everyone helpful but the sky was not. For the Pearl Street location, I even brought my two ancient wood and steel Museum chairs, possibly from the second Truman administration. My rear end always feels better on wood and steel chairs.

"Honest John" Foerch, distant relation to Professor Foerch, had deployed a magnificent homemade Newtonian with a wooden "tube" on the side street; points for him, but in a location my ego found insufficient. Moreover, foot traffic on the avenue was paltry. The Ford Presidential Museum across the street was shut. I marched inside the Museum and announced to the nice staff that they had a good address but a sub-standard locale. Time to decamp for the action. Unlike Greta Garbo, I did not "want to be alone!"

There is no boring the reader, "gentle" or otherwise, with the details of the transit, first from (Rosa) Parks Circle, then from the hot dog joint adjacent on Monroe. DeBruyn wisely suggested the move to capture more of the roués. I was joined by a couple of other astro-billies, one with a classic Edmund Scientific "Astro-Scan," the red bowling ball. The cirro-stratus was at times so dense I thought more than once that the game was up. It was hot on the curb, but given western Michigan's usual miserable spring climate, no arguments here. Many people took a look at the tiny planet against the mighty star and, unrehearsed, it popped to mind: "The immensity of space."

Through cloud "haze" we observed third and fourth contacts, albeit not too badly. At 45X I was timing the events with a wristwatch, sweep hand, because digitals are for sissies. My data are in reasonably good agreement with the Observer's Handbook, so one can be glad for the Royal Astronomical Society.

But this essay is about astronomy in the big city, yes? Here we were: in the middle of it all, the skyscraper McKay Tower looming, the traffic sounds, and the delightful birds. At one of the restaurant's tables sat a customer, the slob who had let two paper napkins get away, which I decently retrieved. With the mighty scene of an inner planet leaving the disc of its star, brave outpost of alternately baking and frigid stone hanging dangerously close to the awful furnace, came the sounds of a barely coherent inhabitant of a neighbouring world hustling for "spare change."

Recently (2016) I gave a lecture to the Warren Astronomical Society: "The Near Solar Neighbourhood From Mister Rogers's Neighbourhood." The title was inspired by a section with a list of widely varying stars in the Observer's Handbook of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Inquiry: How many stars on their list can be seen from a real neighbourhood in the Detroit or Grand Rapids areas? Real = a place Mr. Rogers would feel comfortable in, cf. Royal Oak, Fulton Heights, Upper Wentworth (Hamilton). It does not mean Jenison, Farmington Hills, or Sterling Heights where there are no "heights," late 20th century imitations with minimal to no social identity. Of course, much turns on size of telescope, my 5-cm. refractor on the bottom of the lower range. Horizons? Do not complicate things.

Part II: All is Not Lost Under the Light

There are all sorts of respectable reasons for not doing observing.

  • Mine, early this morning, 27th February: It was below zero (F.) and the old Ford had not been run all day, so best not start it. Variable stars in Cygnus and Aquila can go jump. Do you really expect me to walk it?

  • Mine, during the "days of wine and roses" in the blessedly departed 1970's: I was hitting the sauce last night and simply could not face it.

  • Others', who are of use to society: I work first shift, and do not mean Nine To Five.

However, one of the poorest excuses: a) I live in the city and what can I hope see? There is also, b) I do not have access to, or money for, a good (sic) telescope. This article will address "a)." The lame reasoning for "b)" will come in a future "tirade," as the former editrix of the Warren Astronomical Society would say. (We are not on speaking terms.)

Starting around 2000, I found it increasingly necessary to observe in the big city, in fact approximately in the middle of a big city. Yes, the sky glow/light pollution was and is perfectly awful. Yes, the horizons were notable for the lack of horizons. The local lights were and still are trying, to say the least. "No, Toto, we're not in [the Veen Observatory] anymore". All granted, but in no particular order...

OCCULTATIONS, both lunar and very occasionally by Solar System bodies. The occulting body is very bright, i.e. Moon, and the occulted body can be bright, i.e. a first to third magnitude star, also planets. Admittedly a very rare phenomenon, the asteroid occultation of Regulus a year ago would have been readily observable from the Big Apple if weather had not been atrocious all along the event's land path. Occultations encounter no serious problem with sky glow, and one does not require a large or elaborate telescope (not the same thing). An accurate timepiece and very accurate fix on geographic position are necessities, however.

DOUBLE STARS. Yes, the lack of good horizons can be trying. Dodgy transparency, however, should be regarded as a challenge. As I have told the Warren Astronomical Society ad nauseam, "We're in this for the sport, 'cause it sure ain't for the money!" There are fine guides for multiple stars about (citations omitted), and my first, and until recent years still in use: Field Book of the Skies (1954 Ed.), long out of print. That the marvelous little book by Olcott and the Mayalls contained some obsolete data was unimportant. Under the baton of Riyad (rhymes with "god") Matti in the Warren Society, I was using a 5-cm. f/11 refractor mounted on a camera tripod. One must admit that inferior "seeing" can bollix any observing in this essay, but one can encounter such challenges even at the Veen Observatory, war stories upon reasonable request.

THE MOON, almost too obvious to dwell upon but one must nonetheless dwell. There is a lot to observe on our satellite, and features are constantly changing, "dead world" notwithstanding. I have reported to the W.A.S. during observing reports time of features seen/studied with the little refractor, above-cited. A current informal project is to see what is within reach of my dad's (uncoated) 6X30 binoculars or the (dirt cheap) Edmund Scientific finer 'scopes sold in the 1950s and '60s. These views are a rough analogy for 17th c. views of the Moon with questionable refractors.

THE SUN, obviously, quite enough said. Except during the depth of solar minimum, recalling ten years ago, our star is the opposite of unchanging even in "white light." If one springs for a tony "H-alpha" telescope, the observing opportunities greatly expand.

Finally, improbably, VARIABLE STARS. In the 1960s I was amazed at observations by hardcore members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers in ostensibly crummy sites. Since I had a fairly good location there was, yes, an element of snobbery, albeit unmatched by skill in those days. Although no one can pretend a (visual) urban observer can match a rural one, given diligence and appropriately long focal ratio, there are good data to be had. Not all variable stars descend to or hover around deep magnitudes. Jerry Persha's recent photometry on a star in Perseus could have been done within the city limits of Grand Rapids. At the complete minimalist end of telescope types, I was using the 5-cm refractor one pellucid October morning in Royal Oak, looking at stars in Orion and Hydra.

No, observing at Calder Plaza will not be too rewarding, save showing the Sun, Moon, and brighter planets to the public. Such an extreme example aside, except for the fulsome tree canopy, Fulton Heights and Eastown would do nicely for any of the observing, supra. Whether one chooses to be an observer is at least as much a function of time and personality as it is geographic base of operations.

Part III: Detroit's Wilder Branch

The night is warm. The sky is clear, And would you like to go walking, dear? It's delightful. It's delirious. It's de-lovely. I understand the reason why You're sentimental, and so am I .

-- Cole Porter, 1934

Perhaps more apropos would be from Hello, Dolly: "It Takes a Woman." That woman would be Jennifer Dye, librarianess at the Wilder Branch of the Detroit Public Library. The early evening of 26th February, instant, was perfect for the "sidewalk astronomy" made famous by the San Francisco outfit personified by the late John Dobson. (1) The night was indeed warm, more like April, and the sky very clear for a major metropolitan area. I hot-footed it across the Lower Peninsula that day for the predicted weather -- and Wilder's later closing time on Mondays. (2) As anyone knows who has ever worked a "public" night at the Veen Observatory or anywhere else in mid-northern latitude, Daylight Saving Time is the bane of our existence, so beginning in late March, shutting at 20.00 would put us still in twilight. (3)

Wilder, D.P.L. is hallowed ground. Jennifer is a laywoman with a passion for astronomy, someone who sees the intrinsic value of nature study as represented by the wonders of the night (and day) sky. Librarians are classic educators, an open-handed lot, but not necessarily grounded in the natural sciences. Also, at this branch a very young Cousin Mike used to hang his hat to feed his remarkable intellectual curiosity. (4)

I brought my 5-cm. homemade refractor, which has made me one of the grand dukes of "urban astronomy." What alpha-to-omega: one side of Michigan = the mighty Borr Telescope in a big dome. The other side = the small refractor on a "Star-D" camera tripod with one of the adjustment arms snapped off -- when I backed over it with the car thirty-five years ago.

We did not need mine after a gander at the late afternoon Sun. There was practically nada thereon, utterly uninspiring for library patrons and passers-by. What we did have was a jewel of a small homemade Newtonian on alt-azimuth mount. When she presented it, I assumed a bland diplomat's face and manner, fearing the worst: lousy collimation, and dusty glass. Not so with Jennifer! (5)

An awful site for astronomy. We set up at the main entrance on Seven Mile Road, several blocks west of Van Dyke. The traffic roared by just a few meters from our brave little Newtonian. The inside of the building was ablaze through the large windows. However, any "pop'" psychologist will opine there are no problems, only challenges.

Yes... challenges. Due to the short notice of my going to Detroit, she had no chance to telephone the Usual Suspects of patrons with interest in astronomy. (6) Venus was nowhere near high enough, and Jupiter was (literally) out of the picture. The alt-azimuth mount, wooden, has a really sticky horizontal action, a case of "cooking in someone else's kitchen" as I try to affect Mister Smooth, the DeGrasse Tyson of Detroit's east side.

But the two eyepieces were quality optics. The gibbous Moon was 'way high. Jennifer was determined to stay with the fete until closing time. See reference to Hello, Dolly, supra.

We talked to people waiting east-bound for the traffic light, and she would invite them to pull over. Such hospitality was a mistake in the one man who did peel off into the car park: a "flat Earth" and lunar mission denier lout. She was smooth. Working in a local branch for many years, one presumably meets All Kinds. I was grinding my teeth whilst operating the telescope, talking to the sane people who came by. I ostentatiously looked at my chronometer. I cleared my throat with true feeling. The jackass would not let go. (7) Finally, interminably, it was time to break up the party for closing time.

Jennifer Dye is one-of-a-kind. I told the principals of the Warren Astronomical Society that, given logistics, I would find it difficult to manage this account, we must pay attention to Wilder Branch's passion. (8) The location is poor and house telescope de minimis, but someone really cares.


  1. The Grand Rapids Association heard Dobson twice in the 1980's. At one of the lectures he said it was amateur astronomers' obligation to show people "where they are."

  2. Due to the horrors of Detroit's fisc, until very recently Wilder was open only three days per week.

  3. Never cared for D.S.T., and liked it when Michigan essentially opted out. "Golfers' time."

  4. Mike is almost three years younger than I am -- and got me interested in astronomy and telescope-making. When in my early teens and wishing for a telescope, my parents said fine: Make one like Mike is doing.

  5. There is a large publicly-oriented telescope in the Midwest. I was recently told that the 6-inch refractor on side mount had possibly not been cleaned since 1989! This lapse of professionalism was finally fixed last year by a visitor to the "Star-B-Que."

  6. In addition to weather uncertainty is my inefficiency.

  7. One imagines the "Sidewalk Astronomers" of San Francisco could write a monograph re willful ignorance and delusion.

  8. The Warren Astro. Soc. has a vigorous "outreach" arm. One of the board members specifically carries that portfolio.

Part IV

Two years ago I gave one of my memorable addresses to the Warren Astronomical Society: "The Near Solar Neighbourhood From Mister Rogers's Neighbourhood."

For some years the Observer's Handbook of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has carried an article within its "Stars" section. When at Warren I refer to the Handbook as the "book of all knowledge," often brandishing the thing as would the Red Guards with Chairman Mao's Thoughts -- except far more interesting to read. Todd J. Henry writes a compendium about the "nearest stars" and exoplanets, a fascinating chapter, especially "Some Easily Observable Nearby Stars."

We all dream of a hilltop somewhere with a grand sweep of horizon and stygian sky. Think: Wessling Observatory north of Fremont. Do not think: Stargate or Veen Observatory. But if observing is easy, where is the challenge? (My dear mother would say, "I don't need challenges.") Observing in the big city may not deliver the spiritual buzz we astronomers crave, but was inspiration for a recent lecture to the W.A.S. First, a definition:

What is Mister Rogers's neighbourhood? It can be defined largely by reductionism. His neighbourhood is NOT: Georgetown Township, Lowell Township (except "Eastgate"), Novi (purgatorial, over-priced), Sterling Heights (where there are no heights), or Farmington Hills (where there are some hills). It is: Fulton Heights (where there is a height), Eastown, Royal Oak (but the oak is long gone), Berkley, Roseville (marginal), German Village (in Columbus), Shaker Heights (in Cleveland).

A real neighbourhood is where you borrow one another's tools and a cup of sugar that never goes back. An anti-neighbourhood is where you ring the doorbell to deliver mis-directed mail, and the alarm goes off even when people are locked inside groovin' on "high-def" -- or peeking out the window holding the telephone ready to speed dial "911." The former is a cultural product of "mid-century," the other, dystopia.

Years ago in Royal Oak I re-discovered the joy of small apertures, or at least the utility. The telescope presently in Royal Oak is the same 5-cm. f/11 refractor which was deployed on Monroe Street for the transit of Mercury (see Part I). How many of Scholar Henry's "easily observable nearby stars" can one observe under the usually awe-full sky of Mister Rogers's Neighbourhood? As said more than once to the Warren Society, "We're in this for the sport, 'cause it sure ain't for the money."

Rendering down the Handbook's table, itself an abbreviation, for the latitude of southern Michigan:

Some of these objects, true, are a serious challenge for the 5-cm. refractor in the big city. In Royal Oak under very transparent sky I have seen Rhea at elongation from Saturn with difficulty: 9.7 mag. Of course there is also the problem of horizons -- as in poor to none. In the Warren lecture I wondered if the mighty Kalinoski Refractor at the Stargate observatory (north Macomb Co.) could be depressed enough to south, in order to detect Kapteyn's Star of tenth magnitude. Looking over all of eastern metropolitan Detroit even at upper culmination? ...very doubtful. There is, however, opportunity to secure a good horizon in the city. On a summer morning seven years ago I was observing in the constellation of Phoenix, albeit with difficulty, from the vast campus of Royal Oak High School, Jerry Persha's alma mater, without which he would be nothing to-day. Such observing sites necessarily require some travelling and scouting out, naturally. Problems with lights are obvious, too.

Note that six of the star systems are easy with the little refractor, one is a challenge, one difficult, and one impossible from the latitude of Grand Rapids - Detroit. The multiples of Omicron-2 Eri and 61 Cyg are fine sights, although that 9.5 component is not for the faint of heart. Sirius even in a small glass is in a class by itself, culminating just high enough for us to see the full glory. Of Epsilon Eri, Henry writes, "Similar to Sun, the nearest such star visible to observers at north-temperate latitudes." In addition, 61 Cyg was the first star to have its stellar parallax measured in 1838.

And how can we forget? Henry does not, giving full credit in the "solar neighbourhood" to the Sun, visual magnitude, -26.7, and who needs a "sea" horizon to observe him?

Exposition in closing: I am vastly too old to have been one of Mister Rogers's fans, but have a profound respect for what he did for probably millions of children during a long career. In how many cases was he the kindest face and gentlest voice in someone's young life?

Part V: Sine Die

The WASP, i.e. Warren Astronomical Society Paper, once enjoyed, or endured an editrix whom I will not mention to save her family's good name. However, her initials are DC. Old DC once accused me of being "archaic" and "verbose," as well as conducting a "tirade." Fair enough, guilty on two of three counts. I accused her of being uneducated. This was not a good working relationship.

However, I unleashed all of the above at two meetings of the Warren Astronomical Society this year, because once I get warmed up on astro-technophilia, it is difficult to stop. On both occasions the presiding officer told me to cut it out and, to be fair, they were within rights.

Once I held up my father's 8X French binoculars which he probably bought for his 20-something travels once a steady paycheck started coming in. "Butch" Ross could cover the ground! It was with this august instrument that I began astronomy observing during the International Geophysical Year, specifically 1958. Note: Curator Emeritus DeBruyn had been observing for years with a telescope by that time. Another time I set up a contraption built on order -- rush job -- for the Bullerman Expedition to last year's total eclipse, not very good, but something to behold:

  1. Korean (?) War surplus surveyor's tripod, wood and steel, nota bene. Given a slathering of tung oil to make a good impression in the eclipse path.

  2. 7X Bushnell binoculars, gift of Martin N. Mill of San Diego, a really fine glass. Mill and I go back to the New Frontier in astronomy.

  3. The most gawdawful astro-mount since 1609.

It was the second binocular configuration deployed in March to study one of the Wonders of the Universe. No, it was not "dark matter" nor "dark energy," on which amateur astronomers waste far too much... energy.

What a marvellous early spring for the "inferior planets," insofar as there was an early spring in Michigan. Moreover, the show was in the convenient evening sky. Observer's Handbook, Royal Astronomical Society of Canada:

  • 5 March, Mercury 1.4 deg. north of Venus.

  • 10 March, Mercury at perihelion.

  • 15 March, Mercury at greatest eastern elongation, 18 deg. from Sun.

  • 18 March, Venus in conjunction with Mercury. "[T]he waxing crescent Moon will also pass to the south, briefly forming a straight line of Solar System objects some 8 [degrees] long."

  • Venus 0.07 deg. S. of Uranus, exceedingly close "a factor of 10,000 in brightness." Evening of the 28th.

On a pellucid evening in the midst of this sky show, I was in a large city, and smack-dab geographic centre. "Smack-dab" is a term from Newton's Principia (1687), now gone out of wide or any use. The Bullerman binocular/tripod contraption literally thrown over shoulder, I went forth to a big city park to view a Wonder of the Universe, this time not the "missing mass" or black holes, nor any of the flap-doodle amateur astronomers are supposed to be engrossed therewith. All for the "inferior" planets in the same binocular view, those beautiful orbs if a mite hellish when close up to them. This was an opportunity to do justice to springtime, as lurching as it was, with the spirit of the Song of Solomon 2:11-12, King James if you please. (In the N.I.V. it is Song of Songs, devoid of the usage that set the juices a-gurglin' at seventeen years old.)

With the swelling maple buds in the field of view, there were Mercury and Venus, as one looked in a straight line through the inner Solar System. How bright despite the twilit sky! 7X was no problem in seeing both planets. Venus is expected to be brilliant, but so was tiny Mercury. With the full expanse of sky in unaided vision, Mercury looks deceptively dim even at a good elongation like March's, but in a restricted binocular's view, not so, with extraneous light blocked.

That little world, then so close to the Sun at perihelion, was the proverbial gem. It is such a small globe! -- smaller than Jupiter's Ganymede: 4,900 kilometers equatorial diameter. Even more arresting is how intrinsically dark he is: 11%, the same as the Moon, a slightly aged parking lot. Dull and dark those "bright" objects are. One considers how much solar radiation Mercury's surface receives to send such a bright mini-signal to binoculars on faraway Earth -- and not even a total disc at that.

In spite of Mercury's small size and dark average surface, the orbital element for 2018 puts him at 0.38 AU from the Sun, a lot of energy to reflect (even if just visual). What punishment that dense little world has taken over how many billions of years? I do wonder how a planet survived whilst facing not the "normal" solar flux, but punishing Coronal Ejections to which the tight orbit subjects him. Only two probes have been sent there since the mid-1970s, an oversight. What discoveries await in tectonics or in crystallography so deep in the Sun's gravitational well? What of an atmosphere? If Pluto can have sort of one...

All came to mind that fine March evening with the sounds of distant traffic and the street lights coming on. A group of people walking dogs happened by, one an Argentine immigrant. I recalled what John Dobson said about amateur astronomers having an obligation to "show people where they are."


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