I'd like to introduce you to Fontana Maggiore. In 1277 when Perugia was founded, this fountain carried drinking water to the top of the hill for the town to use. The fountain still gushes water from Piazza IV Novembre. Pink marble carvings depict the "Labors of the Month". In each panel is a drawing of the signs of the Zodiac, along with the activity that the constellations signaled. The stars in the sky are celebrated by this fountain, because they helped Perugians track the passing of the seasons and the best times to tend their crops and livestock.
The residents of Perugia placed the Zodiac on their drinking fountain, at the center of town, on a vital lifegiving utility.
The night sky has guided humanity for millennia. Before clocks, the clockwork of the sky helped us keep time. I almost imagine that it was easier to watch Orion set, than to mark days off a calendar in an age when most people could not read. This piazza has been a hub of Perugian social life for 700 years, and today it is well lit, even at night. A bright stadium flood light glares at Fontana Maggiore from across the square. Orion, Cassiopeia are not visible. In city's all over the world, we are losing touch with the night sky. That is why, in English, in Italian, in German, the amazement bridges any gap of culture or language. Telescopes are a reminder that the night sky can guide us still.
Here's what happened when we set up our telescope in front of this fountain on a warm clear night. Our telescope became a social spot all it's oiwn. People lingered because maybe they would get another chance to look, or maybe we would point the telescope at a new crater. A crowd formed around our scientific instrument, and it did not disperse for six hours.
We even met two families, by pure coincidence, that looked at the crescent moon in Roma! One family, their small daughter looked through the telescope again, held in her mother's arms. She exclaimed in Italian better than ours, and, filled with excitement, ran through the Piazza, waving our flag. I wonder how she will remember this childhood joy when she grows up.
The other family lives in Milano. They invited us as guests into their city, giving us restaraunt recommendations and telling us to set up in front of a statue of Neptune. So strange to make all these second meetings, and form bonds with these strangers. Spend more time in public spaces, and they will put you in touch with the interconnectedness of all humanity.
In the words of the original sidewalk astronomer, John Dobson:
"I'd like there to be enough telescopes so that the people of earth have a chance to see what the universe looks like. It doesn't look like anything like San Francisco on a sunny day, it's made out of hydrogen and helium, it's very dark. But people do not understand this unless they look through a telescope. The amateurs must solve the problem of making it possible for the public to have a look...I simply mean people who are willing to get their telescopes out...there would be a chance for most of the people who live on this world, but you have to get it to a place where the public goes. There's no use to get it out all by yourself in the desert and then lick your chops and go to bed. You see the importance of a telescope is not on how big it is... it is is how many people less fortunate than you got to look through it."