Watch your step. It’s dark, as it should be. After all, we’re looking at the night sky, and we can’t very well see Saturn, Jupiter or that cluster of stars way older than Buffalo nickels if we are all carrying flashlights or firedup iPhones. Keep them in your pocket; this is sacred land.
Welcome to Seagrave Memorial Observatory in Scituate, a mere 20 minutes from the East Side and one of the state’s best-kept secrets. Not only is it free, but it’s also bursting with brainy volunteers who can give us a quick lesson in dark matter.
I’m here with my sons, Peder and Henry, and their friend, Jozef, on a summer night when Saturn is so crisp and clear it looks like one of those images on a sci-fi poster from the 1950s, rings and all.
“It’s amazing,’’ says Jozef, peering into a telescope for the first time in his brief 11 years on this planet. “It looks like a cartoon picture.’’
Nestled among trees on a one-acre clearing off secluded Peeptoad Road, Seagrave has plenty to spark curiosity about the universe: two computerized telescopes that can locate celestial objects by pressing a few buttons, as well as the observatory’s treasure, the Alvan Clark Refractor, a 134-year-old telescope that used to sit on the East Side.
That’s right, in our neighborhood.
Back in the late 19th century, there was a boy named Frank Evans Seagrave who was captivated by the celestial realm. His father, a textile mill owner and bank president, bought him a telescope for his 16th birthday. In 1878, young Seagrave set it up in the backyard of his house at 119 Benefit.
Eventually, he grew weary of the light pollution from gas lamps and, in 1914, built the still-standing observatory in Scituate, taking along his telescope. He was an astute astronomer. That same year, he received an honorary degree from Brown for his three years of precise and groundbreaking work on the orbit of Comet Halley.
Not long after his death in 1934, Skyscrapers, an amateur astronomical society founded by a Brown professor, bought the Scituate property. Today, the group has 90 members, mostly amateur astronomers who share a passion for the night sky.
Members include a toolmaker, an engineer, a web designer, a former Brown administrator, and even a 12-year-old boy from Glocester whose backyard is dark enough for night viewing. You don’t need to be an astronomy expert to sign up at Skyscrapers. You don’t even need a telescope.
“You just have to have some interest in looking at the sky,’’ says David Huestis, a former senior programmer analyst for CVS and a member of Seagrave since 1975. Huestis, who also teaches an astronomy class at Bryant University, says he’s happiest when he can get people to “look up.’’
The group is making a special effort to recruit “junior’’ members. That’s a fancy term for kids, many of whom, sadly, would rather play video games than spend an evening gazing at planets. (Mark your calendar: The observatory is open to the public every Saturday night, weather permitting.)
Peder got interested in astronomy in his sixth grade science class when he did a project on Saturn, gathering information online. As he read about the sixth planet from the sun, he veered off into other territory and links.
Before I knew it, he was also reading about the exploration of Mars, possible life on Venus, and what lies beyond faraway Pluto. Comets? Black holes? Then he found videos of the heavens on You-Tube and there was no turning back.
Peder soon talked his dad into taking him to Wheeler Farm in Seekonk to attempt a glimpse of Saturn and the phases of Venus with binoculars salvaged from a closet. He allegedly spotted the rings of Saturn, but, in all likelihood, they were probably from a Southwest flight to West Palm Beach. No sightings of Venus.
From there, Peder jumped to Google to find observatories in Rhode Island. There are two, besides Seagrave: the Ladd Observatory on Hope Street, here on the East Side, and the Frosty Drew Nature Center & Observatory in Ninigret Park, in Charlestown.
Word spread about Peder’s new passion and we soon came into the possession of a nifty portable telescope, thanks to my husband’s boss, Dan B., who loaned it to us. We can star gaze every clear night for the rest of our lives.
Peder used to read Sox stats in the paper every morning. Now he’s reading in Sky & Telescope magazine about “self-destructing clumps of ice particles that are changing the face of Saturn’s bizarre F ring.”
All this stargazing has inspired him to ask some heady existential questions: Where are we in time and space? Why are we here? What or who lies beyond?
His argument goes something like this: “There’s a slim chance we’re alone because we are just one planet in a star system with eight planets. Our star is one of over 400 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Our galaxy is just one galaxy in thousands, maybe millions of galaxies. With this amount of possible planets and stars in our known world it is very improbable that we are the only life out there.’’
I guess we’re just a speck, a humbling idea from which we could all benefit.
“Before I got in to this, I always wondered what’s up there,’’ says Peder. “Now I’ve turned this wondering into learning. I can tell you one thing, we are definitely not alone. No way, no way in the world.’’