Sunday, July 20, 2008


The Astronomer Looks at 55

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call.
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall,
You've seen it all, you've seen it all.

--Jimmy Buffet

I mentioned a while back that The Little Ol’ Blog from Possum Swamp is two years old in July. Well, that ain’t the only birthday we’re celebrating this month; your Old Uncle Rod is looking at double-nickels. 55, that is. Since I’ve been a part of this wonderful avocation, amateur astronomy (it ain’t just a hobby), for 43 of those 55 years, this seems as good a time as any to take stock of where we were back then, where we are now, and maybe where we are goin’ in the next decade or so.

The People

What’s the most frequent comment I hear about the folks doing amateur astronomy? How dadgummed old we all are. This “fact” frequently leads to impassioned threads on Astromart and Cloudy Nights opining that amateur astronomy is doomed, DOOMED I TELLS YA! That it will die out with the baby boom generation. What’s my observation on the amateur demographic? What changes have I seen over the forty-odd observing seasons that have come and went since I jined-up in 1965?

There is little doubt in my formerly military mind that amateur astronomy skewed younger back in ‘65. Why do I think that? The Space Race, prompted by our deadly fear of the Soviets’ soaring Sputniks, meant there was a major push on to get younguns involved in the sciences. Not just that, though. In those (supposedly) simpler and more naïve times there wasn’t as much distract us, no Nintendos and 100 channel big screen TVs and organized “playdates.” Telescopes and microscopes and chemistry sets were still cool; they were in fact actually considered “entertaining” by the average sprout--compared to duck and cover air raid drills with Bert the Turtle, anyway. Combine that with the excitement and romance of Mercury and Gemini, and the adults really didn’t have to do much to push some of us in the direction of astronomy.

Amateur astronomers did their part too. While there was probably not as much outreach in the form of public star parties, most clubs and universities did yeoman duty in this area nevertheless. If you’ve read my astro-bio, you know the first look I had through a “real” telescope was thanks to the kindness and insight of a local college’s Physics Department. Many clubs didn’t just solicit younguns, they made provisions for ‘em with “junior sections.”

I used to think that was a bad thing, ghettoizing the pore wee folk in their own sub-clubs. Now, I ain’t so sure. Junior sections shepherded by committed adult amateurs have the benefit of making the astronomy club experience more appealing and less intimidating for teens and sub-teens. When all you do is throw your younger members into a general club meeting you risk boring ‘em: “OK, Ernest T. Bass is going to continue the discussion from last month on the question of where we’re going to hold the Christmas dinner—it’s already June.” Or intimidating ‘em: “Next, Joe Spit the Ragman is gonna talk to us at length about galaxy morphology.”

So, amateur astronomy is finished when the last of us Children of the Sixties do the big fade-out? Not so fast, not so fast. Things ain’t quite as dire as that. Yes, there are more gray haired folk doing astronomy, probably, than there were forty years ago. The main reason for more oldsters is not necessarily a lack of youngsters, however. Yes, there are a lotta gray heads, but that’s probably an inevitable spike brought on by us Boomers. Folks are now looking for a “retirement hobby,” and there are just so derned many of us retiring that the over 50 crowd is artificially inflated in amateur astronomy.

Also, I ain’t really so sure that amateur astronomy was as much of a kid thing in the 1960s as many of us remember. As far as I know, my town, good, ol’ Possum Swamp, didn’t have a real astronomy club until the mid 1980s. Well, there was the informal group me and a few teen and subteen buddies got up, The Backyard Astronomy Society (BAS) but we were hardly “serious.” Not unless you consider our meetings, where the main attraction was PB&J sandwiches and Kool-aid provided by somebody’s mom, “serious.” I suspect most of us outside major metro areas were pretty much in the same boat; there was no organized club, and thus little chance of us coming in contact with adult amateurs unless a teacher happened to be one.

Heck, if I hadn’t seen pictures of serious looking grownups in the group pictures that occasionally appeared in Sky & Telescope’s “Amateur Astronomers” column, I wouldn’t have believed any adults not affiliated with a university were into astronomy. I just tended to assume amateur astronomy was mostly a kid thing, and that perception stuck. In our failing memories, the amateur astronomy of the 1960s was all—or almost all—people our own age. Ground truth? Yes, a lot of mid-60s kiddles played around with Christmas scopes for a little while or did the occasional astronomy-oriented science fair project, but the ratio of youth to adult amateurs--practicing, committed, serious amateur astronomers--back then was probably similar to what it is today.

Now? Sure, I’d like to see more youth in clubs, but I am not as concerned about our appeal to the Lollipop Guild as some of my brothers and sisters. I teach astronomy to 18-19 year olds month after month after month at a university. Yes, many of the little people are there only to satisfy that dratted science requirement—at first, anyhow. I guar-ron-tee you would be surprised and relieved and pleased at how many wind up getting the amateur astronomy bug without much prompting. Not just interested, but seriously interested, in fact. On their own with only a little help/advice from the Physics Department adults, our kids formed their own student astronomy club and have kept it alive—and growing—for several years. Bottom line? Nintendo Wii or not, there is still interest and the kids are there to be had if we are willing to go out and get them—and figure out how to keep them.

One thing we have got going for us that amateurs of the 1960s often didn’t is that we, most of us, realize there is a huge potential for growth in a nearly untapped astronomy audience: women and minorities. I am seeing substantial gains in this area in the last decade. It is finally uncommon for me address a club or star party audience and see mostly all white male faces. Not only are there many potential recruits in these groups, they offer real “advantages” over youngsters. The Rugrats are often enthusiastic observers and club members in their pre-teen and early teen years, but then they hear the siren call of cars and boys/girls and are gone, often for quite a while if not forever, till they finish college and/or get settled in a vocation and start a family.

How about light pollution? When amateurs shoot the breeze, especially in the company of Jack Daniels and Bud Weiser, that’s often cited as a reason for our supposed decline. The skies are so punk nobody could observe if they wanted to. New amateurs starting out in the backyard soon give up. No wonder we can’t get kids—or anybody else—to join the club. There may be some truth to that, but, in my case anyway, the problem didn’t begin yesterday. By the early 1970s the Milky Way was invisible on most nights from my parents’ suburban yard. If light pollution is hurting recruitment, it has been doing that for a while. What can we do? In the short term, make sure our newbies know about the club dark site and feel welcome there. No club dark site? Find one (the subject of an upcoming blog). It’s also just barely possible light pollution may begin to be less of a burden for us.

The next decade may show the light pollution problem was, after all, a short-term and self-correcting one. With oil as expensive as it is, and the fact being that it is not gonna get appreciably cheaper--ever--cities and businesses and individuals that never cared pea-turkey about efficient lighting are finally getting the message. Which doesn’t mean we should stop campaigning against fencepost-dumb lighting. Even if it is on the wane, presenting an organized opposition (as in the IDA) can only speed-up the process.

Assessment: In the people sector, amateur astronomy is holding its own, but we need to do more. Our avocation will likely grow very slowly or even begin to shrink without our help, and growth is a good thing for us. We also need to work to make our clubs more appealing and interesting for the under 40s we have already got—make that “for everybody.”

The Gear

A lot of older amateurs wax nostalgic for the happier times of the 60s when everybody was building their own scopes, fantastic telescopes that put the current crop of Chinese cheap-cheaps to shame. Not exactly. Most of us who built scopes built ‘em for one reason only: we had to. And most of the scopes we turned out were not just bad, but real bad. Back then, I don’t think I ever saw anybody’s mirror that didn’t have at least some turned-down-edge.

In those days, when a bare-bones (by 21st century standards) Criterion RV-6 Dynascope Newtonian was $194.00 ($1274.00 simoleons today), the po’ folk among us (like Unk) had to build if they wanted 6-inches or more of aperture. The well-heeled? Easy Street adults or kids in the Beaver Cleaver socioeconomic group whose parents had more moola and were more apt to spend it on sonny-boy’s (or girl’s) current obsession? They bought.

Let’s take a stroll through Chaos Manor South’s massive astro-mag archive, the place where old astronomy rags go to live out their remaining days. Don’t mind the dust, just think of it as “a fine patina of age that adds to the charm of these old periodicals.” OK, here’s one (kaff-kaff), Sky & Telescope, November 1967. Reckon that’ll do. Now, stand back while I pull her out of the stack. Wouldn’t want you crushed in an avalanche of Chuck Federer issues. They were skinny, yeah, but they was dense.

Hokay…lessee... One thing you notice right off is there wasn’t a whole lot to buy. Ads, sure, but not scads of multi-colored extravaganzas like you see in Astronomy Technology Today. Secondly, what there was was purty derned expensive. Let’s browse. Values in today’s dollars are in parentheses, and are calculated using the Consumer Price Index.

Hmm…inside front cover is occupied by Questar’s full pager, just like ever’ month from the sixties and on through the 70s I believe (don’t dare tunnel through that mountain of Astronomy Nows to get to the 1970s section—that’s where the mutant rats hang out). Right pretty li’l scope. Sure, Unk wanted one, even if he was not completely convinced this 3.5-incher would best his humble home-grown 6-inch f/8 mirror. Luckily, perhaps, he didn’t have the $795.00 ($5222.00) price of admission required to find out.

Getting to the first ad past the inside cover requires thumbing through about 15 pages of various serious (if surprisingly interesting) articles: “Budapest Symposium on Active Solar Regions.” And there, smack on page 307 (they used volume-style page numbering back then) is the Pretty Baby, a big, honkin’ pier-mounted Celestron Pacific C16. Needless to say, your old Uncle was afraid to e’en dream about one of these, seeing as how mama and daddy were not likely to come across with $11,500 ($75,552,00) at birthday time. Dang.

How about a nice Unitron, then? I literally wore out their little catalog-pamphlet one summer. Probably dissolved by my drool. They sure had some beautiful scopes that still look beautiful today, and how. But the impediment, even for a 60mm was, again, price. The bottom of the astro line 2.4-inch alt-azimuth required $125.00 ($821.00) more than I had or likely could accumulate no matter how many lawns I mowed that summer.

While not exactly packed with ads, there’s plenty more, too: Caves, Starliners, Optical Craftsmen, Tinsleys. Lovely to look at, expensive to buy, and maybe not quite as good to use as we might have hoped. Sure, just like you, I complain about the depredations of Meade and Celestron today, but the simple fact is, not only are today’s telescopes much more affordable for kids and novices of all stripes; they are better, and not just because of go-to and other modern obsessions. Yeah, those big ol’ 1960s German mounts look impressive, but they are all—almost every one—shakier than they should be. They are also not as portable as most of us would want today (I wish I had a dollar for every time I got yelled at by Mama for bumping my 4.25-inch Palomar Junior’s pedestal into a dining room table leg).

Optically? Some of those old scopes were good, very good indeed. What some of my brethren have forgotten, though, is that there were plenty of bow-wows too. Yeah, Alika Herring made some mind-blowing primaries for Cave, but not even all of his were good. Frankly, the one thing we’ve really got going for us in this new century is consistency. Your average Chinese machine-made mirror may not be the world beater some of the fully handmade 60s optics were, but it will likely be good enough, and you will pretty much be assured of getting one that is just as good as the one Bubba down the street got. In the 60s it was as easy to get a lemon as a plum.

You might, in fact, say we are living through a golden age of astro-gear. Everything and I do mean everything—not just scopes, but eyepieces and accessories of all kinds—is dirt cheap. And almost insanely good. The question is not whether we have got it easy, but “Will it last?” As long as the Chinese Yuan remains low, we’re walking in high cotton. Let that change as it likely will, and cheap but good gear will instantly be a thing of the past. We may be seeing that beginning right now as a matter of fact. The Yuan is stable, but the dollar is falling, and one APO maker who formerly had all his optical components done in China has cranked up U.S. production—it’s now cheaper and easier to do the work at home. What will happen if this continues? Will we see a return to the old days, and the rebirth of storied U.S. names like Cave and Unitron? Perhaps. Just as likely, we’ll soon be complaining about them crummy but cheap Vietnamese telescopes.

Assessment: Those of us who’ve been doing astronomy since the 1990s sure have been sipping cream: cheap, good, very technologically sophisticated astro-stuff. My opinion, I’m sorry to say, is that we are currently on the edge of a knife gear-wise. Likely the U.S. and world economies will soon ring in changes for amateur equipment. If you want something cool on the cheap, better think about getting it now (do I have to twist yer arms?).

The Pursuit

Y’all may think I’m crazy (so what else is new?), but I think the biggest change in amateur astronomy over the last 40 years has not been in what we look with but what we look at. Yeah, go-to has made a big impact. It’s made observing the deep sky less of a chore for old and new folks alike. But the experience of using a NexStar 8 SE is not really that much different from that of using a Celestron Pacific C10. No, what’s changed is what we do with these scopes. Back in The Day we were very much focused on the Solar System. Oh, sure, we glanced at the Messiers, but the deep sky was very much a secondary thing for the average Joe Amateur.

Why weren’t we chasing NGCs? Aside from the fact that almost nobody had a telescope larger than 12-inches, and that the Solar System was still a very mysterious and romantic place to play around in, we just didn’t know we could. An example is the Veil Nebula, which then or now is an easy catch for an 8-inch telescope under reasonably dark skies. A lot of us wanted to see this thing, intrigued by professional pictures, but very few of us did. Mainly because we didn’t try. There was a weird idea that NGC objects were “professional” objects, and that me and thee should stick to the good, old Messier.

Those of us who tried wade out into the deeper end of the pool were hampered by long focal length scopes and poor eyepieces (relatively speaking), but most of all by a lack of information. Most of us were using the greatly beloved Norton’s Star Atlas as our guide, and, frankly, that 6th magnitude thing, classic though it may be, was so devoid of detail that it was difficult to find M87 with its aid. Yeah, some of the more sophisticated among us were gobbling up print runs of the Skalnate Pleso Atlas (the “forerunner” of Sky Atlas 2000), and Walter Scott “Scotty” Houston’s monthly “Deep Sky Wonders” column in Sky and ‘Scope was beginning to lead us out of the deep sky wilderness—he talks about the exotic NGC 246 in his November ’67 piece—but it really wouldn’t be until the late 70s and early 80s and the coming of Big Dobsonian telescopes before we really began to stretch our legs.

Assessment: There is no doubt amateurs are performing feats of deep sky observing that would have flat-out amazed me and my buddies in our Backyard Astronomy Society proto-astronomy club. I mean…I mean…a not inconsiderable number of folks have seen Einstein’s Cross. Seen it visually. How much farther we go depends in part on what happens in the light pollution arena. As I said, the tide may be turning in that regard; but even if not, technology like Mallincams and Stellacams—crazy-sensitive and easy to use deep sky video camerasmeans we will continue to push back the frontiers nevertheless.

The Future

My prediction? Amateur astronomy will be alive and well in 2051 if our children and our grandchildren want it to be. What will it be like? Technologically? I won’t hazard a guess. I could say, “more and more computers,” but the obvious ain’t often correctthe future isn't (always) an extrapolation of the past. Back in the 1960s, my prediction for the future would probably have been, “Everybody will be able to afford an 8-inch f/8 Newtonian on a big German equatorial mount with a clock drive.” Instead, the next big movement was astrophotography and 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrains, and, after that, large visual-only alt-az telescopes made of wood and cardboard.

I can make a guess about the people, though. You youngsters (Ol’ Unk Rod will be just a fading amateur astronomy footnote by then) will still be the planet’s dreamers. Whether scanning the face of Lunastraining to see the lights of Moon Base Alphaor imaging the faint envelopes of distant QUASARs, amateur astronomers will still be that small group of special people who look up and wonder.


Just wondering but what makes you feel that we're on the edge of the knife with respect to gear?

The economy in general and the price of oil, but more importantly...

The weakness of the dollar, and the slow but stead Japnification of the cheap Chinese labor market. Now their workers (understandably) want a piece of the pie.

Also, I'm not sure how much longer the yuan will be held so low..."not long" would be my guess.


"...the future isn't an extrapolation of the past..."

Beautiful, you've touched me with that! I love reading your blogs and articles. Being an amateur astronomer since 1997 (Hale-Bopp) and now 27 years old, I wonder how I'll think about the hobby and talk about changes in another 27 years.

Best regards from the Low Countries,

Maurice Toet

"The economy in general and the price of oil, but more importantly..."

This was my think too. I have a couple of CCDs (neither top of the line), a PST, a refractor, an 8" GEM mounted SCT and a 5" ETX. I made a point to consolidate and diversify my collection as quickly as I could since I too am rather uncertain about a few things.

Great entry by the way.
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