I haven’t used my telescope for about 3 years, so when a lady at work started talking about saving up for a telescope I gave her mine. Now, it’s not that I’m losing my interest in astronomy, but it’s a recognition I’m not much of an observational kind of amateur astronomer. The night before I bought Archives of the Universe: A Treasure of Astronomy’s Historic Works of Discovery by Marcia Bartusiak. What does it say about me that I find it far more exciting to read about the history of astronomy than look through a telescope?
I’m learning a lot about myself in my fifties. Or maybe I’m learning the same things a second time. My fifties, and I’m 58 now, have turned out to be a decade of returning to the interests and desires I loved in my teens. I had a telescope in my teens and I gave it away too. I even took astronomy and physics courses in my first two years of college, and dreamed of being a real astronomer, but I didn’t stick with it.
I’m a bookworm at heart and not a doer. I’ve always dreamed of being a doer, but I just don’t have the personality for action. I had a hard time adapting to the world of 9 to 5 work in my twenties, and for decades now my job has used up all my active energy. I think about retirement all the time now. Like in my teen years when I fantasized about what I would do when I grew up, I now fantasize about all the things I’d like to do when I retire, but I’m starting to think I won’t do that much.
It’s sad to say, but I’d rather spend time looking at a big picture book about astronomy than looking through a telescope. Or I’d rather read biographies about astronomers than trying to recreate what they did. My telescope was better anything Galileo, Copernicus or even Kepler had, and I did so little with it.
There are several pitfalls to owning a telescope. The primary problem of small scopes is they never give views like the photographs you see in Sky and Telescope. However, photographs are never as exciting as seeing Jupiter, Saturn or the Moon in real time with your own telescope. After those three objects, how well a person will enjoy using a small telescope is determined by their temperament. Most new scope owners will go hunting for the faint fuzzies, the term amateur astronomers use for all those gorgeous galaxies and nebula you see in Sky and Telescope, but when you find them they are more like tiny gray smudges than swirls of stars. And they are damn hard to find.
And it’s the skill in finding faint fuzzies that determines whether you’re going to really love owning a telescope. I was never patient enough to develop a knack for star hopping, a technique of finding a naked eye star and looking at fainter stars through a low power lens to hop from one pattern to another until you find your target. Through a telescope, you can aim it in the sky where you see one star, and through the eyepiece see twenty stars. Learning those patterns within patterns is essential, and I never developed that skill. Comet hunters learn the sky so well they can spot a new dot of light among old familiar patterns by memory.
Amateur astronomers are a noble group, and some of them actually perform useful scientific research. Another trait that separates me from real amateur astronomers is I don’t like being outside or staying up late. Oh, I love being out in the country, under dark skies looking up at the whole sky full of stars, but after about an hour, I’m satisfied. Real amateur astronomers can stay out all night. I’ve even discovered I prefer to stargaze without a scope under remote skies because I like the magnificent wide-field vistas to close-ups of tiny points of light . Through a telescope you see way more stars, but a eyepiece full of tiny lights gets boring to me quickly.
The one skill I hoped to develop with my telescope was getting some kind of 3D sense of awareness of where I am in the universe. Living on a big ball that’s spinning between day and night skies makes that difficult. If the Earth wasn’t spinning on its axis or orbiting the Sun, most objects in the sky would remain fixed, and it would be easy to learn and remember their positions.
I always wanted to master the constellations, so when a star or galaxy was mentioned, I could mentally picture in which direction of the sky to look. Except for a handful of constellations, I never did this. In urban skies, it’s very hard to make out constellations. Ancient people saw far more stars than we do, and they spent way more time under the night sky, so memorizing the constellations was second nature to them. Now, the night sky is a theoretical concept to most people. That’s a shame.
I hope the lady at work can do more with my telescope than I did. She has good vision and likes spending time outside, so I’m expecting to hear some great observing reports from her.
JWH – 6/20/10