If you’ve ever been out late in Chicago, there is a good chance you’ve met a cheerful gentleman setting up a telescope inviting you to look at the sky. For the past 20 years, Joseph Guzman has been endeavoring to connect the city’s star-hungry inhabitants with the glories of the cosmos.

In that time, Guzman has made a name for himself as the “Chicago Astronomer”—or, more affectionately, “Astro Joe.” Guzman regularly sets up his telescope in the city’s parks, or along the city’s 606, a formerly abandoned rail line that now serves as a beloved elevated trail. He also is the sole astronomy instructor for hundreds of youth at Chicago’s After School Matters Program—and will soon expand his astronomical footprint as “Resident Astronomer” to Evanston, a nearby suburb.

Guzman won’t miss out on April 2024’s solar eclipse by staying within city limits. He planned his escape “out west” months ago. Atlas Obscura chatted with Guzman about the profound majesty of totality, the abysmal absence of astronomy education in modern schools, and the value of making fast friends with ranchers (particularly after setting up your telescope on their land).

Guzman teaches two Chicagoans how to use their clenched fists as a makeshift sextant, measuring the angle between the horizon and a celestial body.
Guzman teaches two Chicagoans how to use their clenched fists as a makeshift sextant, measuring the angle between the horizon and a celestial body. Courtesy Joe Guzman

Of all the eclipses you’ve witnessed, do you have a favorite?

We were in Nebraska in 2017, way out of Chicago. I wanted it to be a solemn, personal connection with the mechanics of the universe. I wasn’t gonna go to where there were masses of people hollering and screaming and shouting.

Everything that I read about total solar eclipses came to be. The cows? They went home. And then the insects started to chirp. It was surreal.

And have you heard about the shadows? I explain to my students that it’s akin to looking down at a full swimming pool, and seeing these shadows on the floor. And what’s happening is that the mountains and valleys of the moon are letting little slivers of light through, and the atmosphere accentuates that. People are so engrossed up there that they don’t look down.

While growing up, were you taught any specific ideas or traditions about the eclipse?

Here’s the situation: At least in Chicago, the public school system does not teach astronomy. All my astro-teens, I ask them, “Hey, are they teaching you this?” And, no: This is the first time they’ve talked about it. So I wasn’t taught by my school, by the planetarium, or by any organization. I was self-taught.

So I’m grateful for the opportunity to not only observe it, but to share it with those that may not have the opportunity to go where I can go now.

Guzman's C11 telescope, shown here, is the largest publicly accessible, mobile telescope in Chicago.
Guzman’s C11 telescope, shown here, is the largest publicly accessible, mobile telescope in Chicago. Courtesy Joe Guzman

You’ve been the “Chicago Astronomer” for two decades, but you’ve still described the 2017 eclipse as “life-changing.” What is it about experiencing an eclipse—particularly a total solar eclipse—that is so profound?

It places you in the whole scheme of the universe. We go around our daily lives, with traffic and cell phones and jobs, and rarely do people look up. All good astronomers, every time we go out the door, we are always looking up.

But you’re on a body: the Earth orbiting the sun, the sun orbiting the galaxy. Everything is moving around, everything is dancing, everything is in motion. There is nothing in the universe that stands still.

An eclipse is so grandiose, so dramatic. And it’s not television. You are there, actually experiencing one huge object getting in the way of another huge object, immersed in the shadow.

That is fantastic. I don’t know how anyone can not be moved.

How did you prepare for the last total solar eclipse?

My 2017 eclipse, I planned it out two years in advance. Luckily, with Google satellite views, I could plot my site down to the foot—and I selected a rancher’s property, without even asking permission. It was just a side road. I said, “This will be perfect.”

And as I was setting up, the rancher came out, says, “Hey, what are you doing?” “We’re gonna see the solar eclipses. Would you like to share it with us?” And he said yes! I thought maybe he would come up with a shotgun or something. But it worked out beautifully.

Taken at West Lawn Park, near Chicago's Midway International Airport, this photo shows one of the city's many "Astronomer Joe" fan bases.
Taken at West Lawn Park, near Chicago’s Midway International Airport, this photo shows one of the city’s many “Astronomer Joe” fan bases. Courtesy Joe Guzman

What about your students? How did they experience it?

None of my students were prepared for it. At all! They weren’t taught about it. They had no opportunity to share it.

I gave some eclipse glasses to my students and the staff, and I prepped them on how to safely observe it. And when I came back, we talked about it for an entire class. And I love that they actively participated, where normally they would just be locked in the classroom.

I think it’s a crime that they don’t teach astronomy in schools. Because, you know, we are the universe looking at ourselves. We’re made up of all the elements, just like the suns and the stars. We’re examining ourselves.

When readers experience the April eclipse, what do you want them to be thinking about?

Their place in the whole universe. Be quiet, and absorb it all.

There are people who want to fly drones. To light fireworks in celebration. No man, c’mon! This is a solemn event. My ancestors from Mesoamerica, the Mayans and the Aztecs, they relished in these things. Take the time to recognize where you belong.

Yeah, it’ll be over in four minutes. But it’ll be the most dramatic four minutes of your life. Nothing else compares to it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.