Monday, March 18, 2013

Seeing in the Dark: Your Front Row Seat to the Universe.

Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris is a narrative rhapsody honoring amateur astronomy.  You do not need even a telescope to be blessed by the wonder of the skies.  City lights are not a barrier.  Certainly, a large telescope deep in the countryside, above the surrounding landscape is best. Building your own observatory is the epitome of the hobby. But for anyone, anywhere, passion and patience deliver the rewards.  Seeing in the Dark is about the people whose love and work open the universe for themselves and others. 

John Dobson built large, rugged, cheap telescopes that he set up on the streets of San Francisco for onlookers.  He did not invent the Dobsonian Reflector, but he popularized it; and now hundreds of stargazers enjoy instruments that would have been the envy of professionals a hundred years ago. Here is the deeper lesson: you do not need the Wilson Observatory at Mount Palomar to discover the skies for yourself – and even to publish work of academic quality – because the pioneers of astronomy from Galileo forward did not have such tools. 

Galileo, Kepler, Caroline Herschel and hundreds of others all relied on telescopes that were severely under-powered – arguably mere toys – compared to today’s instruments.  Many of them were amateurs because astronomy was not an academic profession until late in the 19th century.  Today, astronomy is one of the few endeavors of scientific exploration and discovery where amateurs contribute significantly to the work of professionals.  (Numismatics is another: more on that later.) 

Ferris warns that some tension does exist, as amateurs occasionally do not care about or understand the astrophysics of the objects they see, track, photograph, and measure.  Largely, though, the working relationship is one of mutual admiration and appreciation.  Amateurs are free to devote themselves to work that professionals cannot afford to do. 

Amateurs and professionals carry out the same work with the same tools: telescopes, cameras, spectroscopes, and more, including even radio telescopes that bring information about the universe from far beyond the sadly narrow visible band.

The book version of Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris (Simon & Schuster, 2002), was followed by a PBS presentation in 2007.  The movie is better. 
The Book

The book is padded with basic astronomical information about the planets and stars that appears in every astronomy book.  The print version of Seeing in the Dark is a long narrative, devoid of pictures.  So, while Ferris told me everything I already knew about The Great Red Spot of Jupiter (and many facts that I did not), I had to goto Wikipedia to learn what a Richey-Chr├ętien telescope is and to bolster my limited understanding of the Cassegrain reflector. 

The PBS website for Seeing in the Dark (here) is replete with supporting articles, how-to guides, and biographies of accomplished amateurs (few of whom appear in the book, which introduces others). Of course, the PBS website also gives helpful links to Local Societies, Books, Videos, Magazines, Websites to Explore, resources on “Astronomy & the Arts” a Glossary and much more.  Perhaps chief among them are the links on astrophotography.

Looking through a telescope is at once startling, edifying, and disappointing.  We are treated to images from the Hubble space telescope.  You are not going to look through a $500 five-inch (130 mm) reflector and see an 8x10 color glossy print of the Andromeda Galaxy.  But you will see pretty much what it really looks like – or looked like 2.5 million years ago even before our ancestors stopped dragging their knuckles -  because when you look into space, you always look back into time.  And more to the point, amateurs who are accomplished and gifted viewers do measure up even against the great Hubble.  


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