Saturday, December 14, 2019


As precision optics have become consumer goods and with the economy being positive, the general consensus among active amateur astronomers seems to be to be that small telescopes are hobby killers. Give a child a 3-inch refractor for Christmas and it will soon stand in a closet, unused because it is under-powered. The small aperture might accept the Moon at 40-power, but will not admit the Pleiades. You can see the big four Galilean moons of Jupiter, the rings, of Saturn, and the phases of Venus. But the instrument is wholly incapable of “deep sky” viewing beyond our solar system. I disagree. It is a poor workman who blames his tools. The killer of hobbies is not the affordable instrument but the lack of support and encouragement. That applies as well to the adult responding to a new interest as it does to the child in a family. 

I did not know the term “hobby killer” until it came up in a discussion among my local astronomy friends. Then I read it again on a discussion board I visit, The Sky Searchers (here)
This is a toy, not an instrument.
The box has no technical information,
just a cartoon image of a scientist.

“What can you see with that?” In the popular guide book, Turn Left at Orion, Dr. Guy Consolmagno (SJ) tells of being given a 3-inch refractor by a friend. By that time, he had earned his doctorate in planetary astronomy and taught at the Harvard College Observatory. But he did not own a telescope and, in fact, he did not know the sky the way an amateur does. From Ft. Lee, New Jersey, in the glare of New York City his friend (and later co-author), Dan Davis, showed him Albireo, a stunning pair, gold and blue, that appear to the naked eye as a single star. Beta Cygnus is the foot of the Northern Cross (or the head of the Swan). A 30-power telescope will do. 
Not half bad, but more useful for someone who
owns a larger scope and wants a go-to for travel.
A couple of years ago, I bought a used National Geographic brand 2-3/4  inch refractor from a neighbor. It was missing most of its parts-the eyepieces, the tray, the cell phone mount, even the handle for the altitude control. I made sure that the objective lens was good and that it worked with the Celestron lens and filter kit that so many of us own. I bought other machine fittings at Home Depot. It took some getting used to but it has been my primary viewing instrument for a year. 
Three toys in one box.
Buy either a better microscope or a better telescope
for the same net price of the package.
(If your child is already a bird watcher, then a good pair of field glasses 

costs about the same as this set of toys.
(My 5-inch reflector is packed away in the garage. It, too, is probably considered a “hobby killer” by those who argue that the 8-inch dobsonian “light bucket” is the very least any serious amateur will settle for.) 

The story behind the National G refractor is that it was a Christmas present, from an uncle. By July when I bought it, the kids had wrecked it. Sadly, their father earned a BS degree and worked in a highly technical field. He never went out with them. I know that because the finder scope is a “red dot” LED and the little plastic insulator tab was still between the battery and the contact. It was not the telescope that killed the hobby for the kids: for them, astronomy was stillborn for the lack of adult supervision.
1950s classicTasco 30x30 (30 mm 30 power) tabletop telescope.
Any telescope is better than no telescope.
A child can tell the difference between an instrument and a toy.
My first telescope was a Tasco 30 mm (1 ½  inch) bird-watcher. I got it for Christmas shortly after I turned nine. I might have viewed the Moon a couple of times. I might have tried it on Venus. Mostly, I used it to look across the backyards to see if my friends were out playing. The next summer, out in the backyard, one of our neighbors, a young doctor, pointed to a bright star. “I think that’s a planet,” he said. At his suggestion, I got the telescope. He lined it up and declared, “Saturn.” He turned it over to me and with a little adjustment, there it was: Saturn. 

About the minimum for a serious beginner -- assuming
that your family can afford $700 for one gift for one child.
But if you can afford $700 right now for yourself, then you can 
afford $1500 a little later. The sky is the limit.
A year later, my next telescope was a 4-inch reflector. I viewed the Moon often, and probably Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus a few times. I never saw the Orion Nebula, though I could have had anyone told me it was possible. 

I used my Tasco microscope far more often. I viewed salt, sugar, pepper, pollen, textiles, strings and threads. I stuck myself in the finger for blood. It was indoor work, easy to set up any time, day or night. Many of our neighbors were doctors. Our home was only a mile from the steel mills, but only a block from City Hospital. Interns and residents rented from us and our neighbors. When I was 13 the lab technicians went on strike and one of the doctors brought me in to cut open mice. 

But I still went to the planetarium at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, ( sometimes five or six Sundays in a row. I could get there on my own, two buses across town. My mom bought me a membership. The planetarium, not the telescope, was my window to the universe.
Even the people with the big dobsonian "light buckets"
rely on this basic $169 kit.
Other people will spend that much on a single lens.
It was part of my life until I got married and moved from Cleveland. Years later, I took my daughter to the Michigan State University planetarium. By then, I had taken college classes in astronomy, but mathematical astronomy and orbit plotting. I was approved to use the Clyde Tombaugh Observatory at New Mexico State University. However, in Michigan, the Lansing Community College telescope was only a few blocks from the state Capitol, which was lit up every night. I did visit the MSU observatory a couple of times with an astronomer I met. Still, for myself, I found a thrill in understanding the physics and mathematics of the six elements of orbit. 

In recent years, I have de-acquisitioned many books, given to the library or the Goodwill or the prisons, but I still have Mathematical Astronomy with a Pocket Calculator by Aubrey Jones (John Wiley & Sons, 1978). I do not use it, but it still means a lot to me. When I hear about gravitational waves from a neutron star orbiting a black hole (read here), I understand more than what is being said.
At a public star party, I cautioned against buying a telescope
too big to haul outdoors.
"My 10-inch dobsonian only weighs 50 pounds,"
countered a club member.
"So does that kid," I replied.
For myself, I believe that the “hobby killers” are those who assume that they practice the hobby The One Right Way. I learned of this fallacy from numismatics. Clifford Mishler, formerly president of Krause Publications and then the ANA, gave a stump speech on collecting and collectors. Krause served numismatics, but also antique cars and much else. In mainstream American numismatics some people would respond to others with “How can you collect that junk?” and be referring to ancient coins, medieval coins, paper money, stock certificates, coal mine tokens, or whatever else was not Pre-World War Two U.S. Federal coinage. Mishler explained that all collectors share the same passions for completeness, rarity, condition, and value. In the judged exhibits at ANA conventions, we do not grant prizes to display cases without narratives that surpass museum quality. Anyone with money can walk any convention floor and buy astounding rarities. If you do not know and understand the histories of the material objects, then you are not a collector – and surely not a numismatist: you are an accumulator.
It looks pretty but it ain't easy. 
It is a long exposure under a dark sky, 
taken by someone with learned skill.
( for November 21, 2018)
In astronomy, we have no insulting soubriquets such as “star gazer” for those who spend a lot of time and money chasing rare sites they do not understand.

And a lot is to be said for observational astronomy. It is nice to know that the universe is as described. The Moon has craters; Venus has phases; Orion marks a kind of nursery or hatchery or incubator for stars. Look into Virgo and you can see galaxies. 


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