Astronomy convention in Long Beach aims to inspire celestial curiosity

The International Year of Astronomy made its American debut in Long Beach during a meeting of the nation's top scientists in the field. KPCC's Molly Peterson was there for the launch.

Molly Peterson: Astronomers hope this year's 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei's first observations through a telescope will inspire more people to look up. In the United States, one big project is a documentary for distribution to planetariums and public TV.

Narration from documentary: "'What Galileo had observed on that night and on the nights that followed was a universe surprisingly different than that imagined by the Greeks 2,000 years earlier..."'

Peterson: That's just one star in a constellation of outreach efforts. Alongside the opening ceremony in Long Beach, this American Astronomical Society convention included a ribbon-cutting in the online Second Life community.

During the real convention, a reasonable facsimile of Galileo showed up at a reception, swigging a beer named for him. There's even a daily podcast... with a theme sung by musician George Hrab.

George Hrab (singing theme): This stuff is far, this stuff is far, far, far away. We're talking far. You can't get there in a day. It's super-duper crazy far, not just pulsars, quasars and stars. I mean it's far. If there's some doubt, listen to us shout!

Peterson: Scientists are harboring very high hopes for a pretty cheap project. The Galileoscope will cost 10 bucks. One of its developers is Steve Pompea, of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Arizona. He says this telescope is inspired by one the Italian astronomer famously used four centuries ago.

Steve Pompea: But the Galileoscope is much easier to use. You'll see the whole moon; in fact, you'll see a field three times the whole size of the moon, and it will be very, very clear.

Peterson: Pompea says it's been 20 years since astronomers developed a low-cost kit. He adds that this scope has a better lens, in part to deal with conditions that make it harder to explore the night sky.

Pompea: The cities have become much more light polluted. It's harder to see the Milky Way. In fact many people in cities today have never seen the Milky Way, something we couldn't have said 20 years ago.

Peterson: Pompea says astronomers need a tool like the Galileoscope more than ever to show a new generation, and people who may have forgotten, what's up – visually, scientifically, even philosophically.

Pompea: Everyone has the ability to go outside with a small telescope and make the observations that Galileo did, and establish for themselves what the universe looks like.

Peterson: Some of the youngest stars we can see are as old as our first scientific observations of them. Pompea says he believes that getting telescopes into the hands of more kids will make it hard for them to ignore the poetry of the night sky.

Note: The American Astronomical Society's 213th annual meeting concludes Thursday 1/8/09