If you see a woman hauling what appears to be a cannon into Prospect Park at night, don’t worry — she’s not trying to blow anything up, she’s just trying to blow minds.
Meet Irene Pease, aka the Friendly Neighborhood Astronomer, a professional amateur astronomer who has a degree in physics and a love of the night sky that goes back to childhood. In fact, in high school, she says she repeatedly asked her parents for a telescope, but they repeatedly refused.
“Then when I got accepted to the university, they said, ‘Oh, there’s a telescope on campus, you can just use that one,'” she explains. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, like they’ll let me use it.’ But then I got a job operating it. I hate it when my parents are right.”
It wasn’t long before she decided that if nobody was going to buy her one, she’d have to build one for herself. So she and a friend built the 10-inch dobsonian in a garage about a decade ago while she was living in Arizona.
“We built it as big as it could be and still fit in the car that I had at the time,” she says. “Of course, that doesn’t matter anymore, since I don’t have a car in New York!”
These days, she drags the telescope around the city on a handcart, and you can often find her outside of the Brooklyn Museum or at The Way Station in Prospect Heights, giving people a bit of a closer look at what’s above us — which is a little difficult in those bright locations. Which is how Prospect Park, and Pease’s new series of classes, fits in.
After moving to New York a little over four years ago for a job as astrophysics educator at the Museum of Natural History, she realized that it wasn’t quite what she wanted to be doing. She recalls a job she had at a bed and breakfast in Tucson that had an unusual catch, which is what inspired her to launch these tours.
“It was a B&B, but they had a whole mess of telescopes,” she says. “People would come out and stay, and they would hire an astronomer for the evening. I was one of the astronomers, and I would work with small groups of people, and it was so much fun. And I miss it.”
So a couple of months ago, she quit her job to see if she could make a go of it. Walking with her in a group on the way to the Nethermead for her first class in the park earlier this week, flashlights out and the newly-dubbed “Brooklyn’s Prettiest Telescope” bouncing along beside us, her excitement for looking through a telescope, and sharing that with people, is apparent.
“My favorite force is gravity because it’s always attractive and has infinite reach,” she says. “It’s the weakest of the forces, but it has these far reaching effects, like holding galaxies together, great things like that. So in theory, every bit of matter in the universe is gravitationally attractive to every other bit of matter. So theoretically there are quasars millions of light years away that are pulling on you, and you’re pulling on them, but you can’t feel it. But when you look through the telescope, there’s light that’s been traveling through intergalactic space for two and a half million years or something, and that light, those little photons, they come and they bounce around the telescope and they hit your retina. That’s amazing.”
And that’s just Pease getting a little emotional. When it comes to the universe, she is just as knowledgable, and the hour-and-a-half to two hours you’ll spend with her in the park — which is surprisingly dark, even under a nearly full moon — will fill you with more information than you may be able to take home (though she will provide a star map that you can take notes on).
“The moon is just mesmerizing,” she says, as she positions the telescope to view that and other celestial bodies. During the course of the chilly October night (she’ll advise you to dress warmly, because you’ll be standing still, and she’s considering bringing along hot chocolate for attendees), we saw things we never would have imagined we could see from the middle of the city: a ring nebula, Mars and Saturn, globular clusters, a satellite, and even, as though it had been planned, at one point a fireball streaked across the sky for what seemed like forever.
“I was heading here on the subway and looking around at the other passengers thinking, ‘You have no idea the cool thing I’m about to do,'” says Kirsten Nelson, another attendee at the first event. “It’s amazing the things available to us in New York. It’s so incredible to see Prospect Park in this new way.”
The Friendly Neighborhood Astronomer has scheduled some beginner-level classes through early November — the next one is this Monday, October 13 at 7pm, in which she’ll discuss the stories of constellations in different cultures — and hopes to keep guiding people as long as it’s not too cold outside. For more information, check out the class page on her site, or contact her at [email protected].