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Heaven Can't Wait

In the dark, in the park, a crowd gathers

By Jason Kirby

IT'S 9PM ON A chilly Friday night at Houge Park, a neighborhood square of green lawn in San Jose. A handful of teenage boys sets off firecrackers in the halogen-lit playground, but the rest of the park is curiously pitch black. It seems that no one else is around, but as your eyes adjust to the dark, you notice a number of vans in the parking lot next to the tennis courts. An SUV pulls into the park and curiously cuts its lights halfway down the drive.

It's then that you see them: a group of shadowy figures lined up along the edge of the parking lot. They congregate in small clusters around the backs of their vans, speaking quietly and gesturing with muted red penlights.

By now you're convinced: you've stumbled upon the Bay Area's largest cooperative drug deal.

Not so fast. These folks came packing telescopes, not .38s. You've just discovered the San Jose Astronomical Association's biweekly stargazing party. "I think we're getting more popular than ever," says Mike Koop, the association's president. This seems to be an understatement, as around 80 people--retired folks, teenagers and families with children--pack the parking lot.

The mood is relaxed and jovial as the group's more experienced members calibrate their telescopes while those milling around lean in for close-up views of Saturn, the Orion Nebula and other bright objects. For many who have been stargazing for years, simply the plethora of views the night sky offers keeps them searching. Longtime club member Bill O'Shaughnessy explains, "Just to see the different celestial phenomena. ... I think that's a lot of the reward." Current SJAA secretary Jim Van Nuland agrees: "No matter how much you study Jupiter, it's still an academic, intellectual exercise until you see it. Now, when you see it, it's a real thing. It's as real as the one we walk on."

And see it they do. Some of these telescopes, though small enough to be mounted on a tripod, can get downright bulky. And reaching the desired size of scope can become a journey bordering on obsession. Rashad of San Francisco began observing with an 8-inch telescope he built himself, and soon graduated to a 12-inch. But then, he says, "After about a year and a half, I got what's called aperture fever: I wanted a bigger scope."

Perhaps this is an opportune moment to mention that most amateur astronomers flocking to such events are male. This fact doesn't bother Tinka Ross, a volunteer for the Mount Tamalpais Interpretive Association, who has spent much of her life educating the public about astronomy. She feels that women's experience in astronomy is different. "A lot of times, your personal attitude colors very much the way you react to things," she says. Ross adds that at public star parties, she rarely feels excluded due to her gender, although "I do find that men will tend to go listen to other men, and that girls and women will come listen to me."

Ross recently spoke at a general meeting of the Peninsula Astronomical Society, one of several other amateur astronomy clubs in the Bay Area. Similar to the San Jose Astronomical Association in that it offers monthly lectures on astronomy-related topics, the Peninsula Astronomical Society also boasts an actual observatory on the premises at Foothill College.

Such groups are something rare these days: organizations based around ideas; lone wolves on the hunt for the fresh thrill of discovery and rediscovery. They come not to consume, not to gossip, not to navel gaze. They come simply to bear witness to traces of worlds beyond our own.

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From the March 20-26, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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