Monday, February 18, 2008

How to get started in amateur astronomy. Step 0: Don't not do it

When I was 12, a friend brought a telescope catalog to school. It was from Celestron. It was the first time I'd ever heard of a Schmidt-Cassegrain. I borrowed it, kept it for a couple of weeks, read it cover to cover until I had large swaths of it memorized. I was hooked.

I was also broke. I computed that if I saved my allowance for two years I could buy the cheapest model in the catalog. I was 12, for cryin' out loud--my interests changed monthly. Saving up for a few weeks to buy The Dinosaur Heresies was about the limit of my financial stamina.

So what happened?



I returned the catalog. Pretty soon I was back to watching my turtles, reading about dinosaurs or whales or fighter jets, building Lego space cruisers, and listening to Dr. Demento. Life went on.

Astronomy became my dream deferred. I watched every shuttle launch I could, pored over magazine articles on the Voyager flybys and the debut and re-debut of the Hubble space telescope, eventually collected a giant folder of astrophotos for my screensaver, and put APOD at the top of my link list. I even took an astronomy course in high school and saw Jupiter and its moons for the first time through my teacher's telescope. But I never got my own telescope, and I never went out stargazing.

Twenty years passed.

Then last fall I took a trip to the Lick Observatory and picked up an intro astronomy book in the gift shop. Power keg, match, WHOOMP! A few days later I went out and found the moons of Jupiter, which I'd not seen with my own eyes for half of my life. A few weeks later I bought a telescope, and a couple of months later I built one.

I know what went right the second time, and you probably know some of it. But what went wrong the first time?

I didn't participate in amateur astronomy for two decades because I got two ideas fixed in my head when I was 12. Both of them were wrong, and I don't blame the folks at Celestron for either of them.

The first Bad Idea is that If you want to be an amateur astronomer, first you have to buy a telescope. Wrong, wrong, wrong. In the outline I have sketched out for this series of posts, buying a telescope comes somewhere around Step 5 or later, and it's an optional step anyway. Stay tuned, I'll tell you why.

The second Bad Idea is that Amateur astronomy is expensive. Nope. It can be expensive, certainly. In fact, you'll probably be flabbergasted by the money that some folks spend on gear. But you can get a good start for under ten bucks and for $25-30 you can stay busy literally for months seeing things that are invisible or nearly so to the naked eye.

So if you're interested in astronomy, you need not be intimidated. Chances are you already have the most useful piece of gear for the beginner. A few minutes' effort is all you'll need to see if you have a taste for stargazing--and if so, you can equip yourself to do almost everything for a lot less than you think.

Come on, give it a shot.



Blogger TheBrummell said...

Wonderful stuff, I'm also a biology nerd with a taste for the stars.

I bought a decent pair of binoculars just a few days ago, if the weather around here ever clears up I'll point them up some night soon.

I'm looking forward to the rest of this series.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Thanks, man. Now that I know it's possible, I'm all about doing astronomy on the cheap. I'll steal one tiny bolt of my future thunder and tell you that a good intro observer's guide is available for free here.

The rest of the series will be along directly. Just gotta get through grading these midterms.

3:23 PM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

Hey, thank you. This is hopefully the kick I need to get into some amateur stargazing.

And now back to studying for Quals...

1:57 PM  

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