Baltimore Popscope looks to unite city through public astronomy

Public astronomy group Baltimore Popscope wants to bring the city together by helping it to look up.

As Highlandtown resident David Smith walked his dog, a Goldendoodle named Finley, at the eastern edge of Patterson Park on a frigid January night, he noticed a small crowd down the hill.

Did someone get mugged? he wondered. Why else would a group gather in the cold and dark?

To look skyward, of course. The group was taking turns gazing through a telescope set up by a group of amateur astronomers called Baltimore Popscope. Smith joined in.

"That's awesome," Smith said when he spied the waxing gibbous moon in glorious detail. "There's a big crater right on the shadow."

Baltimore is one of five cities where a group of stargazing enthusiasts has set up informal chapters of Popscope, aiming to share astronomy and science with people who might not otherwise be exposed to it.

Organizers here are working with mentors at the Johns Hopkins University's Social Innovation Lab, an incubator for so-called "social entrepreneurs," to make the group a permanent fixture, and to figure out how best to use it to build up a sense of community.

"We're really figuring out what it means," said Ariel Hicks, who is leading the process along with friend Audrey Buckland. The mission, they recently decided, is this: "Bringing Baltimore together through public astronomy."

Popscope started in Ottawa, Canada, in the fall of 2013, when civil servants Michael O'Shea and Viva Dadwal decided to buy a telescope and set it up around the city. When Dadwal moved to Baltimore to study at Johns Hopkins in the fall of 2014, Popscope came with her. Other members have branched the group out to Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Fla., and New York City.

The group has picked up followers along the way. In Baltimore, its telescopes have drawn crowds around the city, in Mount Vernon after the Baltimore Pride festivities this summer, outside Lexington Market and at Penn Station.

At the latter site, Baltimore Popscope tried to use its telescopes to bring the city together.

"One evening, equipped with a telescope and a splash of humility, we decided to 'pop-up' at the train station," Dadwal wrote in an article about an effort to unite the city after last April's protests and riot over the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died from injuries sustained in police custody. "Hoping to find some common ground and inspiration, we invited passersby to look beyond our differences and into the shared universe."

The article, "Under the Stars, We Are All Equal," was published last July by the Huffington Post.

So far, Popscope organizers, who are mostly in their 20s, are encouraged by the response to their events.

"They were sort of thrilled by it," said Popscope volunteer Nikita Gokhale of an event the group held at a retirement community. "A lot of the residents were saying how you don't really take a moment to look at the moon."

It can be difficult to find celestial beauty amid bright city lights, to be sure. Usually, Popscopers set their telescopes on the moon, though the telescopes are also capable of revealing Saturn's rings or details of Mars or Venus.

But while the view might be better out in the countryside, there wouldn't be the same foot traffic that the group seeks to attract and is their main reason for being.

"I'd rather have lots of people getting 85 percent of the view and not knowing the difference," said Seth Franz, a volunteer who has linked Popscope to Baltimore's chapter of Global Shapers, an initiative of the World Economic Forum that encourages young people to undertake projects that improve their communities.

Although a naked-eye view of the bright, cratered face of the moon on a clear night is commonplace, an up-close view rarely lets spectators down.

"Someone said, 'Whoa, it's like it's in high definition,'" said volunteer Joseph Long. "It's a dramatic difference even with a small hobbyist telescope."

The Baltimore Popscope's resources are more than those of the average hobbyist. The group bought three telescopes using a $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation, a group that gives microgrants around the world and has a chapter in Baltimore.

It has also tapped experts at places like the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Maryland Science Center for their staffs' expertise. Both Gokhale and Long work at the telescope institute — she is an engineer working on the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope slated for launch in October 2018; he works on simulation tools for future missions.

Science Center staff helped advise the group while it was getting started and collaborated with Popscope on an event, said Wendy Ackerman, the center's assistant director for education.

There's obviously no competition between them to capture the public's interest in astronomy. The Science Center opens up its observatory for free every Friday night, weather permitting.

"I think it's great because at the science center we do more planned type of events because we have some more logistics to work out," Ackerman said. "They can be far more impromptu about sharing what's going on."

Popscope's aren't the only telescopes found on random sidewalks. Herman Heyn, 85, a longtime city resident, calculates that he has set up his telescope more than 2,700 times on corners in Charles Village and the Inner Harbor since 1987. He met the Popscopers last year when they both set up telescopes one summer night in Fells Point.

"In a way it confirms that what I'm doing is worthwhile, if others think it is also," Heyn said. "The more the merrier, as far as I'm concerned."

Once the weather warms, Popscope organizers plan to be out more often. They post updates about their pop-up events on social media at www.facebook.com/Baltimorepopscope and @bmorepopscope on Twitter and Instagram. They'll also discuss their work at an event at Red Emma's in Station North at 8 p.m. Feb. 23.

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