My friends and neighbors all know I usually don't look at planets. I study variable stars, and that's about all I have time for these days.
At least a couple times a summer, someone who has seen the observatory or knows me through someone who knows me asks, " So are you ready for the fantastic view of Mars this August? I hear it's the closest it's going to be in a hundred years, and will probably be as big as the full moon!"
Today, the guy who sprays my trees asked me. He was all excited. He told me he'd marked his calendar and everything. He was probably working up the nerve to ask if I'd show him Mars through one of the telescopes. People are always nervous about asking. Perhaps it's the welcome mat at the door of the dome that says, "Go Away!"
He seemed truly disappointed when I told him the email he got, full of useless mis-information was about four years too late. "Yea, we had a great star party that year in September. I had people with 20 inch telescopes showing everyone Mars. It was awesome."
We still needed telescopes to see it. Newsflash: Mars will never appear as large as the full moon to the unaided eye. It's too far away and too small! Through a very good telescope on an excellent night of seeing, with high magnification, your impression of Mars might be similar to your view of the Moon with the unaided eye. But that's where the comparison ends, really, trust me. This is what Mars has always looked like to me-
Then I had to explain to him that Mars isn't even visible this summer because it is too close to the Sun. It's lost in the glare of daytime somewhere between Leo and Virgo right now. We talked about the solar eclipse, phases of the Moon, motion of the planets and stars, and I invited him to the StarBQ in September. I think that makes us even for the free advice he gave me on how to save a prized specimen tree that had a split.
It will happen again. That stupid email keeps turning up each summer like a bad penny. But that's okay. Any time we can kill some bad astronomical perception and replace it with good information, that's a small step in a long journey we must take.