“You can go outside and see the stuff just flying overhead…” Another Conversation with Astronomer Derrick Pitts

By Bobbi Booker
The Book Report

Most city residents believe that they need a big fancy telescope or binoculars to see and identify objects in the night sky. Not so, says Derrick H. Pitts, Chief Astronomer and Director of the Fels Planetarium. Pitts’ September Skies program encourages Franklin Institute visitors to simply just look up.

“The thing that people have stopped doing is looking up,” lamented Pitts. “Through the 70s and the 80s, people were being told that if they lived in an urban environment they can’t see the night sky, so don’t bother.”

Pitts instructs September Skies participants on how to navigate the night sky with or without seeing aides. “The other thing that I really love about looking at the night sky without binoculars or telescopes is that you can see satellites, the Space Shuttle and the Space Station. If we lived down around Washington, D.C. and further south, we’d able to see the Hubble Space telescope and all kinds of stuff like that. All you have to do is know when to look and where to look and then you can go outside and see the stuff just flying overhead,” said Pitts. “I do that all the time.”

Here on Earth, Pitts says the September Skies programs exists “because both adults and kids are in the same boat when it comes to knowledge about astronomy—they have none.”

Pitts offers an example: “Virtually no one understands why the moon has phases.”
Hhm, ponders the reporter, why is that?

Pitts replies, “Because it orbits the earth once every 28 days.”

If that simple answer seems to vaguely linger in some part of your memory, it’s probably because you learned it far too early in school to understand it.

“It’s not rocket science,” explains Pitts. “It’s just that it’s taught so early in our education in schools and before kids really have a three dimensional understanding of the night sky, so it doesn’t make any sense. When we become teenagers and young adults, our brains have developed the spatial ability to be able to project that 3D nature into the night sky, even though it looks (two deminsional). We don’t develop that capability until way after the schools teach us about the moon. So it’s not reality for us when they’re teaching it too us. It doesn’t be come reality until our brains have developed to be able to understand that.”

Pitts has had his head in the clouds—and beyond—for over two decades at the Franklin Institute. He has twice modernized and redesigned the Institutes observatory and oversaw the renovation of the Fels Planetarium. The Philadelphia native’s lifelong interest in space was lauded as one of the “50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science” by Science Spectrum magazine in 2004. Although Pitts is quite visible in his media appearances as the region’s foremost astronomy authority, he is a member of a small cadre of African Americans in the field. In a survey by the National Science Foundation of 708,200 scientists, only 43,000 were Black and Hispanic.

As an educator, Pitts simply wants to increase the public’s awareness of what’s happening in the universe.

” What I want to impart to people is the three dimensional nature of the sky when you look at the sky,” explains Pitts. “Let’s say you have a night when you can see the moon, Mars and Jupiter, all in the same evening. The first thing you’re doing when you’re looking up to the moon is looking across a gulf of 240,000 miles. That doesn’t seem so apparent because you’re use to looking at the moon, but when you see Mars that’s a jump of 50 million miles. Then when you look at Jupiter, that’s a jump of 885 million miles. All of a sudden what happens for you is the three dimensional nature suddenly pops into view and you can see that you’re looking across this gulf and the size of the Solar System starts to make sense.”

Pitts also wants people to understand how much of the universe they can see without a telescope. “Everybody thinks that ‘If I look at the night sky then I’m going to need a telescope and it’s got to be a big one.’ You don’t need that. It’s nice to have it, but we’re perfectly capable of seeing a lot of stuff with out that, and you don’t need a lot of knowledge to do that.”

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