“This is so COOL! Dad, you gotta see this,” Angela exclaimed, relinquishing her place at the eyepiece. Her father bent down to peer at the image of Jupiter. “Do you see them? There’s four dots, one on one side and three on the other. Those are the moons.” “That IS amazing,” he agreed, seeing them himself for the first time.
Angela and her father were two of the 20 some guests who attended “Dinner with Galileo” at our house in the fall of 2009, the International Year of Astronomy. Every year, as part of a charity fundraiser, we host a themed dinner party that people bid on to attend, all proceeds benefitting the sponsoring organization. That year we decided to celebrate the IYA and the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s accomplishments with the “spyglass” by putting on a dinner featuring Italian food and wine and a chance to experience what Galileo did four centuries previously. Our guests ranged in age from six or seven to well into their seventies, including one wheelchair- bound senior.
While my wife made the final preparations in the kitchen I went outside to set up the Galileoscope I had ordered for the occasion, my Orion 6" SkyQuest Dobsonian, and my 10" Schmidt-Cassegrain in the driveway. After dinner, while the adults enjoyed a bit more lasagna, Chianti or tiramisu, I took the kids outside and trained all the scopes on the bright planet. I told them the story of the Italian scientist who stood the scientific establishment on its ear with his discovery of the moons orbiting Jupiter which now bear his name. Soon enough the adults brought their wine glasses out to join the real party. That’s when the kids got to demonstrate their new knowledge to their parents. I don’t know if the adults were more impressed by the sight of the Galilean moons or the teaching role of the kids. After that, I had all the party-goers look at the crater-pocked surface of the waxing gibbous Moon and later as Orion rose in the east they compared the red supergiant Betelgeuse to blue-hot Rigel and then they enjoyed the wispy clouds of the Orion Nebula while I explained that this was a giant cloud of hydrogen gas and dust where new stars were forming. The Orion SkyQuest Dobsonian, with its low profile, turned out to be the perfect instrument for our guest in a wheelchair who had never peered through a telescope before in her life. She was clearly moved by what she saw.
Orion the Hunter was approaching the meridian when the last guests left that evening. A combination of food, friends and the fun of “discovering” Galileo’s moons and other delights had created a mood that was “jovial” in the truest sense of the word.