How I Got Started In Astronomy – A Personal Account
THE FIRST thing I want to make clear is that if you’re expecting a scientific treatise on this hobby, read elsewhere. I am not a rocket scientist or an astrophysicist or a mathematician.
My total training in the physical sciences was a badly taught course in high school physics and a required course in college chemistry in which all lab experiments seemed to be combining some smelly ingredients in a test tube and heating same, the purpose of which invariably seemed to be to form a white precipitate. Period. I never took a course in calculus to my profound regret, the extent of my college math being trigonometry and analytic geometry, both of which courses I aced. You must understand that when I went to college the scientific revolution had not taken place; and no great emphasis was placed on the sciences unless you went to MIT or some other such scientifically oriented school. But enough of this… It’s time to get to the point.
I am a regular reader of the postings to newsgroup SciAstroAmateur, and recently there was an interesting discussion of what constituted an amateur astronomer as opposed to a professional. Some opined that a professional was one who got paid for being an astronomer; all others were amateurs. Others felt that those who pursued astronomy as a hobby were backyard astronomers. Then there were those who felt that only professional astronomers had the right to the title of astronomer in any sense. I’ve decided that there is a category that fits my own approach, i.e., I am a very amateur astronomer. Following is a brief history of how I got to be one.
I am a product of my times, and since I am on the cusp of my seventieth birthday, my experiences mirror those times. As a child I lived at the top of a hill in Malden, Massachusetts, and had a pretty clear 360 degree view of the sky. It was not uncommon to see the “northern lights” there on chilly autumn and winter nights. This was especially true during World War II during the “brownout” when all streetlights were hooded and even automobile headlights had black shields covering the top half of the lens. On a clear night one could look up and see countless millions of stars, and the Milky Way was like a great celestial river flowing across the firmament. As a matter of fact, one got so used to seeing these phenomena that one was inclined to take them for granted.
When I was in junior high school, students were encouraged to join clubs, and two fields sparked my interest, namely weather and astronomy. When I was in the astronomy club the teacher introduced us to some of the more recognizable constellations and asterisms and had us make star charts including them. At one point during the term she had the members come to the schoolyard in the evening and she helped us find some of the stars and constellations using the star charts we had made. No telescopes, just our charts and our one power binoculars. She also related to us the ancient tales associated with the creatures named in some of the constellations. She was a wonderful teacher and I shall never forget her.
In 1943 I was sent to summer camp in Green Harbor . To give you an idea of how dark the sky was in those days, the “brownout” was still in effect, the idea of which was to eliminate skyglow so enemy submarine crews could not see the silhouettes of merchant ships in convoys leaving for European ports. We campers would go out walking on moonless nights and I recall that we could not see our hands in front of our faces, it was that dark. We had to carry flashlights as we could not see where we were going otherwise.
When I was in high school I found a book in the public library that gave detailed instructions on how to make a mirror for a Newtonian telescope. I read the instructions several times but the directions on how to make a pitch lap and a knife edge testing apparatus seemed beyond my ability. I did get my science teacher to say that he would help me but I was also into photography in a big way and, besides, the hormones were beginning to run wild and, well, you know the rest.
After graduating from college I was committed to spending a couple of years on active duty in the U.S. Army. The Korean “police action” was winding down and by some miracle I was sent to Germany in the army of occupation. We spent many nights in the field on maneuvers and bivouacs. There were plenty of occasions for stargazing and binoculars were plentiful, but I can’t remember ever taking advantage of this opportunity at that time.
Years passed and I continued my interest in astronomy mostly as an armchair astronomer and there were always books on the subject around the house. I had other interests also so astronomy usually took a back seat.
About fifteen years ago my children noticed my interest in astronomy and presented me with a “department store” telescope. It was a 50mm refractor on the poorest excuse for a tripod I ever saw. It came with two eyepieces, a 6mm and a 12mm, and a totally useless barlow, as well as an erecting eyepiece for terrestrial viewing. The finderscope was a 4X affair with no crosshairs but it was able to be focused, so it worked after a fashion. Naturally I thanked the donors effusively and I did use the thing but mostly for terrestrial viewing at 10X, for which purpose it was quite acceptable.
One clear night I decided to see if I could see the moon with the scope and sure enough, the craters along the terminator were quite clear, even using the 6mm EP. The biggest thrill was yet to come, and that was when I first trained it on Saturn. I was ecstatic! I had never seen Saturn and its rings through a telescope before. I couldn’t believe that this little instrument could accomplish this feat. Of course it was difficult to keep the scope steady for a good look and the slightest breeze could blow the thing right over, never mind shake it.
That did it!. I was hooked and I decided I must have a “real” astronomical telescope. I found a used Bausch and Lomb 4000, a four inch SCT that included two eyepieces, an 18mm and a 30 mm, a 2X barlow, three legs for a table tripod and also a field tripod complete with wedge. All except the tripod and wedge came in a custom fitted case which made everything easily transportable, even for a person like me who detests exercise in any form. I enjoyed using that telescope immensely but it did have its drawbacks.
The tracking motor could run only on house current, although an adapter could be purchased to run it from an automobile battery. For some reason or other it was difficult to keep the scope in focus and the 5X finder scope was quite inadequate. I did purchase a Telrad finder, a 12.5mm eyepiece, a set of color filters, a piggyback camera mount and also a T mount for my Canon Tlb, and a solar filter. I’m fond of gadgets and astronomy and photography are gadget heavens for people like me.
Eventually I began looking for a telescope which could run off batteries but which was still reasonably portable, so I settled for a C5+, based on favorable reviews in S&T and Astronomy magazines. I have since purchased a few accessories for the C5+ but many of the ones I used on the B&L 4000 can still be used on the newer scope. One important addition is the Orion Sky Wizard 2, a DSC which contains in its database more objects than I’ll probably ever use. For about the same price I could have purchased the Celestar 8 instead of the C5+ but I felt that it was more scope than I wanted to lug around. Life is full of compromises.
Also in my arsenal of optical instruments is a pair of 10×50 Nikon binoculars for which I built a “Skyscanner” mount from the plans published in the February, 1997, edition of Astronomy. My carpentry skills are questionable at best but the mount works beautifully and affords shake-free binocular views of many astronomical objects. I confess that it’s a bit difficult to get used to the reversed views afforded by this mount but the advantage of rock-steady viewing by far outweighs that problem.
No astronomer, amateur or otherwise, is worth his/her salt with just one telescope, so at one point I acquired a Celestron S-80, a precursor to the current stable of 80mm wide-angle f/5 refractors. It was an ideal scope for rushing out to quickly view celestial objects and was perfect for comet viewing at low power. After some years of enjoying this little scope, I yearned for optics which would be free of chromatic aberration and turned in my trusty S-80 for a TV Ranger. The Ranger is a rock solid, well made little scope but I find that, despite its ED optics, there is still a little false color around bright objects. I can live with the Ranger but sometimes I wonder if I made the right move. Don’t we all, at times?
In addition to the above I still have the Dob that I built, having ground my own mirror at the clubhouse, the article about which appeared in last year’s January newsletter.
Of course all this stuff is useless if one doesn’t use it to observe, and I try to do some observing every chance I get. My south-facing back yard is nice and dark with no stray light except that which emanates from my own house, but I am surrounded by tall trees so that the only objects I can view clearly are at or very near the zenith. I can sometimes carry my equipment through the woods to a clearing in the cemetery abutting my property, which gives me a good view from the east to the southwest. Of course such forays involve trespassing although I’ve never been caught.
Also the area is deserted and there is always the possibility that some unwelcome persons or animals may be encountered. One fine night I came face to face with a skunk and on another occasion, a raccoon. I do not care to be sprayed by the former or bitten by the latter, which could, I suppose, be infected with rabies. Besides, the path through the woods is uneven and uphill making it difficult to transport any but the smallest telescopes.
Amateur astronomers have to be a hardy, optimistic lot, especially here in New England, primarily because of the weather and climate of the region. It would be easy to become totally frustrated and quit the hobby for no other reason than the quirky, undependable weather we endure. The latest total lunar eclipse is a perfect example; the nights before and after the eclipse were totally clear but the night of the eclipse was completely overcast. And how many meteor showers have we missed because of cloudy skies and inclement weather.
Nevertheless, we soldier on because the advantages far outweigh the difficulties.
Part of the fun of being in this hobby is belonging to an organization where one can share experiences, get help and have a chance to observe with other kinds of equipment besides one’s own. I will confess that some of the presentations at our monthly meetings are rather over my head and I often wonder if there are many more like me. Nevertheless it is impossible to attend these meetings and not learn a great deal, even for a very amateur astronomer like me.
Written by Eugene McAuliffe
- Binoculars For Astronomy (davidreneke.com)
- Talking Telescopes (davidreneke.com)
- Why Join Astronomy Clubs? (davidreneke.com)
- Can I Fit A Camera To My Telescope? (davidreneke.com)