Sunday, October 28, 2012


Amateur Astronomy and Amateur Radio Redux

Well, muchachos, it’s been a while since I said anything about the current state of our avocation, so why don’t we do a little talking about the health of amateur astronomy as another year winds down? In the past, I’ve used the condition of our “sister” hobby, amateur radio, as a reference, which I will do again, since these two seemingly different pursuits actually have a lot in common. One thing we do not have in common, alas, is numbers. To cut to the chase, Ham radio is growing, and amateur astronomy is either shrinking or—at best—remaining static.

Unk, who’s been a licensed ham since 1969 (currently as AC4WY, a.k.a., “Alpha Charlie Four Whiskey Yell”) is what you would call an “old timer” (OT), so if you don’t know what the ham stuff is all about, I can fill you in. Oddly, to your old Uncle, anyway, a lot of people confuse ham radio and Citizens Band radio. Actually, the two pursuits couldn’t be more different other than the fact that hams, sometimes talk into microphones like the CBers do. In the 70s, CB was huge (“CONVOY!”), but in the intervening 40 years CB as a hobby has died, and it is once again mostly the provenance of long-haul truckers. I reckon the Internet and cell phones did CB in.

Cell phones or no, ham radio is still around, probably because it is and always has been more than just yakking into a microphone. There is that, which we hams call “rag chewing,” but there’s a lot more. If you want to know about that “lots more,” go here, but amateur radio, for one thing, allows a lot more room to stretch out. CB is one band of frequencies, 11-meters. Amateur radio’s allocations in the spectrum (a word hams use at least as much as amateur astronomers) ranges from the medium waves of 160-meters up into UHF and beyond.

Ham radio was born with radio in the early days of the last century. In those heady times after Marconi’s first trans-Atlantic transmissions, everybody interested in radio was an amateur. It wasn’t long, of course, before radio also became “commercial” and “military,” but by that time hams were organized and in for the long haul. Numerous folks are responsible for that, but the person who probably did more than anybody else was the original Old Man, Hiram Percy Maxim, W1AW.The Old Man died in 1936 when he fell ill as he was returning from a visit to Lick Observatory. Just another of the many intersections of our two magnificent obsessions.

Amateur radio continued on its merry way for the next several decades, becoming an important national resource, since it contributed trained operators to both the Wars, and especially to the ranks of WWII. The fifties were boom years. People were relatively affluent and there was plenty of war surplus radio gear and parts, and a burgeoning commercial “rig” industry. The end of the decade and Sputnik brought—for once—a greater appreciation of science by the public, and amateur radio was at heart a “scientific hobby.” The nuclear scare of the 50s and 60s helped, too, with everybody suspecting it might not be long before we’d need the wide-ranging emergency communications of ham radio.

Then came a one-two punch that stopped amateur radio in its tracks. First was Incentive Licensing. This idea, cooked up by the F.C.C. and the national ham radio organization, The American Radio Relay League, was not a bad idea. It rewarded hams with more frequencies on which they could transmit in return for upgrading to higher license classes. Each step up the ladder from Novice to Technician to General to Advanced to Extra Class licenses would require Joe Ham to answer tougher questions about radio/electronic theory and (depending on the license class) to copy Morse code at ever higher speeds.
Trouble was, a lot of the rank and file hams didn’t want to take harder tests in order to be allowed to continue to operate on the same frequencies they’d always been on. You see, amateur radio wouldn’t be given more bandwidth; instead, those who did not upgrade to the Extra Class license would be evicted from some areas of the radio spectrum where they’d formerly been able to operate. Yes, the ARRL led, but it led in a direction many hams didn’t want to go. Most buckled down and upgraded or contented themselves with the band-space they had, but a not insignificant number did drop out of the hobby.

The second punch was Morse code as a requirement for a ham “ticket.” Amateur radio hung onto “CW” long after military and commercial interests had abandoned that “obsolete” communications method (which does have some real strengths). As the seventies came and went, young folks, especially, were ever more turned off by the code. It just didn’t seem as relevant as those shiny new TRS-80 and Apple II computers. Another strike against the code was that not everybody can learn to copy code at any but the slowest speeds. Most people can, but not everybody. No matter how hard they tried, more than a few people could not learn to decipher Morse at the 20 words per minute the Extra required.

Thus began the long and slow but seemingly inexorable decline of ham radio. Frankly, for a while I was convinced the Radio Art might die out with my generation. Oh, the number of hams increased, but not the number of young hams, and as a percentage of the population we were probably shrinking. But then two things turned it around. First, was the F.C.C.’s insistence about five years ago that Morse code requirements be dropped. What also helped was the increasing integration of computer communications methods, which turned the jungvolk on, into ham radio. Amateur radio’s numbers are now over 700,000, and I would not be surprised to see 1,000,000 hams on the air before my time on the third stone from the Sun is done.

I suspect most of y’all know a little about the history of amateur astronomy. In the beginning, just like in the early days of radio, following that beautiful Italian evening when Galileo first took a peep at Jupiter with his little OTA, everybody doing astronomy was an amateur. There continued to be considerable overlap between "professional" and "amateur" through Herschel and even to the day of Lord Rosse. Until the dawn of the Twentieth century, when astronomy morphed into astrophysics and the sundering came, with amateurs and professionals becoming two distinct and different classes.

As that was happening, a few far-sighted individuals like Unk Albert (Ingalls) and Russell Porter and Charles Federer picked up the torch and began amateur astronomy as we know it in the first decades of the last century. They are the Old Men of amateur astronomy.

We were not much more than the very tiny and somewhat odd preoccupation of a few people until the end of the 1950s, till 1957 to be exact, when the space age began and Americans and people around the world began to turn to the skies in both fear and fascination. Amateur astronomy exploded in a small way, and kept on keeping on even through the post-Vietnam/post-Apollo blues of the seventies when space and science were in ill-repute with the public. In fact, our growth took a sudden and dramatic spurt a couple of years before the arrival of Comet Halley, and it looked for a while like the sky was literally the limit.

Alas, ‘twas not to be, through no fault of our own. The public’s letdown following the Great Comet’s poor showing hurt. The commercial telescope industry, which had suddenly blossomed after years of slow growth, crashed, and a lot of the new faces at our clubs began to drift away as their new telescopes, which had shown nothing but a dim fuzzy where a glorious comet was supposed to have been, hit the closet. After Halley, amateur astronomy’s number declined rather precipitously. Us long time amateurs didn’t let that bother us, too much. We’d suspected a lot of the new converts might not be around for the long haul, even if Halley had turned out better than we thought it would.

Post-Halley was a time of rebuilding, and we soldiered on. The coming of CCDs, wide field eyepieces, and go-to over the last two decades has helped attract some new folks, even some young folks—but I don’t think anybody would say we are growing. In other words, brothers and sisters, there is now a lot of gloom in our ranks, especially among the OTs.

“The club is dying. Nothing but gray heads like us. Those cotton-picking kids are more interested in…” Sound familiar? The rest of that quote, though, is “In going to the drive-in picture show and playing with their slot cars.” Folks have been predicting the demise of our hobby since I was in short pants. Yet, we are still here. In other words, “DO NOT PANIC.” We can turn this around, y’all.

What are our numbers? That’s a little difficult to say, since we can’t just count issued licenses like the hams can. What I will give you here is based on what I’ve learned by looking at the astronomy (with a lower case “a”) magazine sales figures and talking to people in the amateur astronomy industry (who for obvious reasons may be a little pessimistic these days). OK, OK…bottom line?

I would guess there are about 100,000 reasonably serious amateur astronomers in the U.S. of A., amateurs who are active to the point that they will at least haul a telescope out into the backyard for a look at the pea-picking Moon every once in a while. I would further guess that we have maybe another 25,000 hangers-on, armchair astronomers, folks with a serious interest in astronomy, but who don’t own telescopes or belong to a club. If y’all think I am wrong, let me know, and tell me what your figures are, but I reckon I am about right. I would further speculate that that number has been relatively stable over at least the last decade. 100,000 is a pretty big number, but for the whole country? You can see why the equipment merchants were not having an easy time ever before this consarned depression we are in.

So, we are static. How can we change that—if we want to change it? I for one want there to be more amateur astronomers. Beyond the selfless wish I have to turn everybody on to the wondrous Great Out There, more folks in our pursuit mean more gear for sale at cheaper prices and More Better Gooder lighting ordinances.

What do we do? How do we do it? Maybe looking at what the hams do and have done can help, since they seem to be more successful than us right now. The first thing we need to do is get new people into our clubs. If nothing else, being in a club helps a new amateur stick with and progress in the avocation. The hams have a leg-up here, since hams themselves have been administering licensing exams for over 25-years. These exams are usually given by clubs, and having to go to the radio club meeting or a club event like a hamfest for the test naturally makes the newbie aware of said club. Many new hams just naturally jine-up right then and there.

In amateur astronomy, you get a telescope, these days usually from an online dealer, you set it up, and you start looking at stuff with the aid of a book or something you found on the Internet. A new amateur astronomer may not even know there is a club in her town. Unless she has an amateur mentor (an “Elmer” in ham radio parlance) or happens to see a club mentioned in an issue of Sky and Telescope or in the listings on the magazine’s website, it may be a long time before the local astronomy club is discovered, much less investigated.

So we (amateur astronomers) need to get the word out. How? A good place to start probably is those club listings Sky and Telescope and Astronomy have on their websites. Most new amateurs will eventually pick up one of the magazines and visit one of the websites. Make sure (CHECK) that your club’s info is up to date and that the person designated as the contact responds promptly and in a friendly manner to all requests for information.

That’s just a start, and is not necessarily the best way to grab new amateurs. If your club doesn’t have a Facebook page, get one up right away. “But Unk, we’ve got a web page and a Yahoogroup.” Forget those things. Both are as dead as dern door-nails. The young folk want Facebook. The last thing they want to do is hunt for you-all on that ugly Yahoogroups search page.

It is easy to set up a Facebook page, and I would guess there is a member in your club who can get you going in a few minutes. A Facebook page is also much better for current members than email, webpages, or Yahoogroups. Members can receive monthly meeting and other reminders on their smart phones, y’all can store club files and pictures on the page, and do a lot more. The Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Yahoogroup is still on the air, but I suspect it will go the way of the dodo purty soon.

The Internet is a way you can get the word out on your club, but does not necessarily the best way. The best ways, surprisingly, are still the old ones. The local ways: the newspaper (if your town still has one), the cable TV community announcements channel/scroll, radio (only FM these days; AM is even deader than the Yahoogroups), and fliers posted at libraries, schools, and shopping malls—anywhere anybody will let you put one up.

Also important is what is on your fliers. Be careful what you say. Don’t: “Pixley Astronomical Society Sky Watch, Come and look at the Moon, Kiddies!” Do:  “The Pixley Astronomical Society will have a public viewing session, which is open to people of all ages interested in astronomy.” At the public star gaze, have a table set up, maybe just a lowly card table, with a sign on it with the club’s name and, in big letters, “MEMBERSHIP INFORMATION.” At least be watching for prospective members. You’ll know.

OK, you convinced Janey New Amateur to attend a club meeting. How do you ensure she comes to the next one? T’ain’t easy. Whether a radio club or an astronomical society, the first visit will be intimidating. Lots of (mostly) male (mostly) gray heads. You have to make Janey and her friends welcome. How? Whether your club is big or small, designate a person to meet and greet visitors. Even if your club is tiny, you might prepare a new member packet, at least a sheet of paper giving meeting dates (some clubs change dates and times for various seasons), dark site location and schedule, etc., etc. Just don’t just leave new members to their own devices. However you do it, ensure they are connected with the club and remain connected.

Whether ham radio or amateur astronomy, the first toe in the water is quickly followed by what seems to be a plunge into the deep, cold end of the pool. All that jargon, all that complicated theory, all that scary equipment. And we don’t always make it easy for the novices. Ham radio didn’t by sticking to the code for way too long, and we’ve been guilty of the same thing when it comes to go-to.

With telescope prices what they are today, almost any youngun can get their hands on a pretty good instrument. Then comes the problem. Where do you point that telescope to see the good stuff? What lots of astronomy club old timers told Mr. Newbie in the past was, “Get a pair of binoculars and a planisphere and start learning the constellations. Then you can move up to Sky Atlas 2000 and learn to star hop, and in few months, or maybe a year or so, you’ll start seeing them Messiers.” How many newbies stuck with that? Some obviously did, but only a minority.

Then came computerized go-to telescopes, reliable automatic pointing for amateur scopes, beginning in the late 80s and culminating in good, cheap go-to rigs by the end of the 1990s. Problem was, a lot of the old timers, like their ham OT counterparts were aghast. Goto? Why should these younguns have it easy? They ort ta suffer before they begin seeing all those deep sky objects. These goobers would come out against go-to stridently at meetings. I’ve had more than one newbie ask me how to “turn off” the go-to on their shiny new Meade or Celestron, since they obviously shouldn’t be using it. Remember, novices will take to heart what we say. They put great store in what we, their elders—at least in astronomy—say, even if it is (mostly) in jest. Why are some old timers so dead set against go-to, anyhow?

Beyond learning the sky supposedly making a novice into a more “worthwhile” amateur, there is also the gatekeeper thing. The need to learn the sky and star-hop kept the riff-raff out. The bad news is that this kind or attitude is one of the major reasons we’ve stopped growing. The good news? I hear less and less criticism of go-to scopes lately. What do I tell newbies? “Learning the sky is a wonderful thing. But you want to be able to do some fun observing while you are learning it.” Anyway, new amateurs will almost inevitably gain a basic knowledge of the sky even if they don’t buckle down every night with a dadgum planisphere and a pair of Wal-Mart binoculars. When they get to wondering what else is in the area of M42, and start looking at a chart (or a smart phone these days), learning the sky follows naturally.

You’ve got the novices over the first hurdle. How do you keep ‘em for the long run? Ham radio, not unlike amateur astronomy, can be a rather solitary pursuit. Yeah, you are communicating with your fellow OPs, but you are usually by yourself in the (radio) shack while you are doing it. There’s the monthly club meeting, but that’s not really enough. Most amateur radio clubs schedule events that help with “unit cohesion,” that instill a sense of camaraderie and community. Those range from hamfests (sorta like a star party), to antenna/tower raising bees (sorta like helping your buddy put up that Pod dome), and Field Day (like a run at the dark site).

One thing that helped the PSAS survive the days when the membership roll was in a downward spiral was attending star parties as a group. We would convoy up to the Mid South Star Gaze or the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, have a ball, and would hardly be able to wait to go to the next meeting to relive the fun and to lord it over the non-attendees, describing in detail all the fun they’d missed.

We’ve just finished a group project, creating a Human Sundial on the grounds of the public school facility where we hold our meetings as a memorial to a deceased member. In the past we’ve built a club observatory, set up booths at the fair and at the shopping mall, and, naturally, done plenty of public outreach. All these things can help, not just in attracting new members, which is what we usually focus on when planning a set up for Astronomy Day or some such, but keeping old members active. Doing things as a group is fun.

Ham radio only does Field Day once a year; we can have our field days, our group observing runs, every dark of the Moon. Which is very important to keep old and gain new members. The biggest membership crisis our club suffered was during the years when we did not have a club observing site. One of the first things a new member/new amateur will ask is, “Well, when do y’all get out with the scopes?” Blank looks and the response “We don’t have a place to observe from at the moment,” just don’t get it. Not just with new members. Old timers may begin to wonder why they belong to a club that doesn’t do much astronomy. If you don’t have a dark site, or at least some place where you can observe together, get one. If you don’t, your club will not remain in good health for long.

One place where neither hams nor amateurs are doing very well is with women and minorities. Oh, there are more female and minority hams and amateur astronomers than there used to be, but we still have a long way to go. I think we are actually doing a little better in this regard than the hams, but we are still not doing well enough. We need to get the word out to (for us) non-traditional groups that amateur astronomy is fun for everybody. These folks form a huge and mostly untapped reservoir of new amateur astronomers.

What else could help us bounce back like the hams have done? Sometimes I think we need a stronger national group. The ham national organization, the aforementioned American Radio Relay League, is and always has been more involved in the day to day activities of amateur radio than our own outfit, The Astronomical League. How can The League, the AL, change to make it a more unifying force in amateur astronomy? I have some ideas on that subject I’ll share with you some Sunday, but for now I will just say the League needs to do more to make themselves visible to and indispensible for Joe and Jane Amateur. The observing clubs are good, but there needs to be more.

So, can we attain the numbers the hams now have? Amateur astronomy is a special pursuit, one best suited to a very thoughtful and curious sort of person. It’s also, as we all know, sometimes a lot of work. “Many are called, few are chosen.” You can’t expect to keep every bright eyed newbie who shows up at the dern club meeting. Still, I think amateur astronomy is at least as interesting and engaging as amateur radio. We amateur astronomers just need to get the word out, muchachos. And be more friendly to the newbies, especially the kids who will replace us in our great obsession.

Next Time:  Requiem for the Personal Planetarium... 

Maybe don't wait for "some sunday" for shareing those ideas you mention?
AND, your spot on about goto and other tech goodies that make finding "stuff" easier.
That makes you want more better gooder as you say.
Leads right into astro pics etc.
Made you get a new Mallicamy..didn't it?
Thanks Rod, great read,
"Many are called, few are chosen."

Or, as many late-night observers know:

"Many are cold, few are frozen."

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