Thursday, August 7, 2014

Nebraska Star Party: The People

The day before I was set to leave for the Nebraska Star Party, I mentioned the upcoming trip to friend and house cleaner extraordinaire, Tami as she finished shining up our kitchen counter.

Tami:  "Oh!  That sounds so awesome!  I would love that!  But I bet there will be a lot of nerds there."
Lynne:  "Yes, but from my experience at public astronomy events, they will be very nice nerds. So I should fit in, except for not being an astronomy guru."
Tami:  "Yes, you should!"

Organizer Eric during our after dinner
announcements, most likely reminding us
about lighting restrictions.
Both of us were right on target.  Attendees at NSP can best be described as Big Bang Theory meets Andy Griffith's Mayberry.  There are 75-year-old Sheldons and 12-year-old Leonards with more knowledge about astronomy in their pinkies than I will ever have in my whole body.  They can rattle off how many light years one celestial object is from another without a pause. The excitedly invite you over to view M81 and M82 from their giant telescopes that require their own transport trailers and a climb up a 10 foot ladder just to look into the eyepiece.  (No worries, I didn't know what M81 or M82 were either, but have since learned that they are favorite galaxies of many amateur astronomers. Yes. Of course they have favorite galaxies.  And nebula.  And star clusters. Don't you?)  :)

But NSP die-hards are also exceptionally kind and go out of their way to make everyone (even people who have never heard of Vega, which is probably akin to showing up for college composition class having never heard of the alphabet) feel welcome and valued while trying to help encourage a love for the night sky. They want you to succeed, just as Andy Griffith, time and time again, puts his knowledge and wisdom to work to explain new concepts to bumbling deputy Barney in a way that allows Barney to think he had known the answer all along.

One of the best things in life is to see people who have found their tribe.  Fans who don their accurate to the last detail costume to flock to ComicCon and hang out with other people who know comic strip characters as if they are real people. Hunters who eagerly anticipate opening day by gathering up all of their special gear soaked in deer urine to hide human scent, their new $200 camo pants from Cabela's, and their trusted rifle to kick off their annual deer hunting pilgrimage into the woods. Husker fans who count the days every year until they can spent a month's salary to gather with 90,000+ other Big Red faithful to cheer on their beloved football team with their Husker grills, and jerseys and school song playing car horns.  Tribes rock.
Even though I was just a visitor, I loved
being a guest member of the NSP tribe for a few days.

The NSP is a tribe full of people who share a common passion to study the sky and marvel at it.  To travel from hundreds of miles away to spend their summer vacations amid pit toilets and cacti just so they can set up their scopes to see more than they can see at home while surrounded by others who care enough to do the same.  They eagerly compare how many NSPs they have attended, with many only missing one or two, just as faithful Husker die-hards like to brag about how many games they have attended without fail.

This is not to say there weren't the normal quirks that come with collections of human beings.  The first conversation I overheard at dinner on Sunday night was a volunteer explaining that there are three groups of people at NSP.  The beginners, the nerds and, emphasized with an eye roll, "the astro photographers."  Apparently there can be tension between astrophotographers who need long exposure shots to capture those beautiful images of space that you've seen, and folks who are passionate about helping others learn the sky through pointing things out with green laser beams that also happen to ruin those photos.  But the photographers all settled in over the hill from Dob row, the laser pointers typically were only out early in the night, and it all worked out.

As an educator, it was absolutely delightful to see people from so many walks of life on fire to share with and educate others about the sky.  (Engineers, insurance risk managers, active and retired teachers, census workers and retirees are just a few careers I heard mentioned.) We full-time educators would be well served to cultivate their passion-fueled mission to teach others about the night sky, and apply it to our own content areas of expertise.

While I have great respect for the folks I met at NSP, I would be hard pressed to identify any of them other than my day time field school instructors, in a photo.  Even though we were a highly compliant, name badge wearing crowd. Remember those trusty light restrictions?  It is so dark on the viewing field, you really can't make out more than the general shape of the people you are standing next to. (Even that is somewhat limited since we're all covered in hats and jackets and pants to help keep those incessant mosquitos at bay.) So you learn to know them by voice.  Which is a new experience.  In normal social settings, all of us make decisions about how we will interact with people based on conscious and subconscious cues.  Eye contact, physical appearance, smells, etc.  But on the observation field at NSP, all you have is voice tone and inflection, along with evident content expertise, and the ever present scent of Off! to serve as the foundation of new friendships.  It made me wonder how life would change if we were all blind.

Jordan showed us how sailors used the sky to
navigate between Hawaiian islands.
College student Jordan Concannon, one of the few woman at NSP, was especially encouraging and helpful to me during my first night out on Dob row, where all of the big telescopes are set up. She patiently pointed out the spiral arms and bulge we could see in the Milky Way that night, and insisted that I climb the ladder before her to look into the largest scope at NSP, a 30" reflector from Omaha. Jordan is studying physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, one of the top observation locations in the world. As we were waiting our turn to view the ice caps on Mars, she told me should be giving a presentation on Wednesday afternoon about the archaeoastronomy of the Hawaiian islands.

Through our conversation, I told Jordan I was brand new to astronomy, and it was my first NSP.  I had noticed the topic of her talk in our program, and was looking forward to it. We also talked about my work helping educators best use technology, and she immediately asked me to please give her feedback on her presentation - "Anything.  Tear it apart.  Tell me what you liked.  The good.  The bad. Tell me what tools you know about that I'm not using! Tell me what I should change.  I want to always work to be better."  Wow.  What if we all sought feedback on our work with Jordan's courage and confidence instead of justifying current practices that might be inefficient or ineffective? What if we all lived and work in an environment where it is safe and encouraged to do that?

For the record, Jordan's talk was outstanding, and she had the audience in the palm of her hand.  And I told her so.  Even though I had to explain that I was the person she had met out on Dob's row Sunday evening who talked with her about ed tech, since we had never seen each other in daylight and I wasn't wearing my Off! soaked bucket hat.

Up next:  The last NSP report.  The Stars.


  1. Always learning. Love it. I understand not recognizing people in the daylight (in my case, without their mustache masks, hair nets, etc). The voice was familiar.

  2. Again, love the way you write. Makes me imagine the scenery and people.

  3. Extraordinary Lynne. You have captured all of this so beautifully and with such grace. Love every word.

  4. Your thoughts on "finding your tribe" resonated--It reminded me of teaching middle school when students struggled until they found a comfortable group to share lunch :) Loved the post...keep them rolling!