Ernie Seiler made one promise to the bikers, joggers and dog-walkers craning their necks to see his crew on the Chandler Bikeway Monday night.
“Give me 30 seconds and I’ll give you the universe,” he tells them.
He points them left, to the cardboard tube mounted to plywood that’s pointed at Saturn. He then sends them right, off to view the Sea of Tranquility, where Neil Armstrong once stood. He sells them on the idea of an experience — a few steps away is a journey at one of five telescopes.
Such is the monthly ritual of Burbank’s sidewalk astronomers, ready to show everyone the jewels of the solar system using equipment they’ve mostly made themselves.
Seiler is part carnival barker (“Come on over folks, step up to a telescope — it’s free!”) and part traffic controller (“Ma’am, please watch for the bicycle behind you”). While he’s running the show, the work of Bob Alborzian and his friends is the main event.
About five years ago, Alborzian brought one of his telescopes to the street. The professional astronomer grinds the mirrors and assembles telescopes himself — his garage is packed with mirrors going back to around the time of the Apollo moon landing.
That’s how Seiler, a senior recreation leader for the city, met him, as did many of the amateur astronomers who now join him along the bike path teaching anyone who walks, rolls or trots up to their equipment for a peek at the beyond.
Under the false-orange buzzglow of the streetlamps, Tim Elliott offers a close-up view of the moon with a device that took him four months to build. It’s resplendent with stickers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the name of their clan, the Burbank Sidewalk Astronomers.
His telescope has to cut through the bright city lights, and there are probably better, darker places in Burbank to see the stars. But that’s not the point.
“Look at all the people we get,” Elliott says as his eyes sweep the 20 onlookers who have congregated along the path. “That’s the whole thing about it — sharing the telescope. I can see better in my back yard, but I want to share it.”
That’s what got Alborzian started bringing the stars to the streets. He’s a student and close friend of John Dobson, who co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers in 1967 and invented the simple telescope design the Burbank group uses.
In just five years, the group has attracted amateur starseekers like Jason Poss, who first met them at the Stough Nature Center, where they often give telescope-building lessons. He said it takes about 40 hours to grind the hockey-puck-shaped glass into a mirror, using different grits of sand along the way to shape it.
By hand, Poss and his colleagues can accurately grind and round the glass to within 0.001 of an inch.
His telescope Monday evening was centered on Saturn, its rings just visible enough to appear as a grain of rice dropped into a still pool. A few feet away Alborzian swings his telescope around to the tip of the Big Dipper’s handle, where two stars perform an orbital waltz in their cool, late-summer sky.
On the telescope tube are pictures of John F. Kennedy, Les Paul and Chopin. These are people that inspire him, Alborzian said, and on nights like this he might listen to a classical composition or a Bob Dylan song — whatever the mood calls for as he grinds a mirror.
Like the millions of sparkling stars above him, the sand particles do their own dance on the glass, one day bringing heaven and earth a little closer for all of us.
The Burbank Sidewalk Astronomers meet once or twice a month all year at the corner of Chandler Boulevard and Lima Street. For a schedule and information on how you can build your own telescope, visit www.burbanksidewalkastronomers.com.