Thursday, August 21, 2014

Stargazing

One day when I was a kid, my father brought home a small telescope. At first I thought it was very interesting and tried looking through it. There was some enlargement and the stars were a little brighter, but that was all that I noticed. You could see rainbows in the stars, which I recently learned meant that it was incredibly cheap, with extreme chromatic aberration. We never discussed the telescope and I lost interest in it. Later I found out that my father had given it away.

In college I took two courses in astronomy. I thought it was quite interesting, and the college had its own observatory with a 9.53" refractor that had a high quality lens. Once we went out to the observatory and looked at the sun through it with a filter, and you could see the activity on the surface. I learned the basics of astronomy, but at that time it was taught in the math department, and the instructor, like nearly all of the math instructors I've ever had, had no teaching ability. Out of curiosity I just looked him up, and he died on August 16, 2014 in Champaign, Illinois, where he was living in retirement.

When we moved to Vermont in 2011, I assumed that I would be doing a lot of hiking. Although I have hiked a fair amount in the vicinity since arriving, it has not been as major a preoccupation as I had thought it might be, for a number of reasons. The best hiking is in the mountains and generally involves an ascent of at least one thousand feet, which means that it is somewhat time-consuming and strenuous. You also have to drive to a trailhead, which takes additional time. Anne is fairly involved with other hobbies such as knitting and gardening and is a world-class mosquito magnet, so her enthusiasm for hiking is considerably less than mine. Usually I just go for short walks on the dirt road by our house.

Noticing that there is relatively low light pollution here, especially for the East Coast, I decided to take up stargazing as a hobby. Last year I bought a 130mm (5.1") refractor of very high quality, with an electronic German equatorial mount that includes motors. This was somewhat extravagant for a novice, but I have never liked buying cheap stuff (which my parents often did). I wouldn't say that it has outlived its usefulness, and I will keep it, but the aperture of the telescope is simply too small to see many deep sky objects in much detail. At this stage, some refractor owners take up astrophotography, which, with long exposure times, permits you to take detailed photographs of distant objects while using a small-aperture telescope. Since I have no interest in photography and prefer real-time viewing, I purchased the 18" F/3.7 reflector pictured in the column to the right. The telescope design is Newtonian, and the mount is John Dobson's alt-azimuth design. It is also fitted with electronics and motors.

The viewing conditions since I first set up the new telescope have generally not been good, but on the few nights that they have been good, the results have been excellent. The light-gathering is so much greater than with my other telescope that it is easy to see more detail. I have ordered special nebula filters in order to see the Orion Nebula and other objects better. There are thousands or millions of things to look at, and the view changes with the seasons, so this hobby will not exhaust itself quickly. There is also plenty of astronomical news, and discoveries are pouring in.

One of the reasons why I like astronomy is that it can serve some of the purposes of religion without being a religion. Throughout my life, I have often found it useful to take a "this too shall pass" attitude toward my surroundings. If you have jobs, living conditions, relationships, etc., that you don't like, you can always find solace in the fact that whatever you dislike will end at some point. In this stage of my life I take it a step further. If you have complaints about human existence in general, you can think about times when humans didn't exist or the distant future when they won't exist.

In fact our daily lives are focused on a tiny scale within the larger universe. People live in the moment more than they realize, and they elevate the importance of contemporary life far beyond its true significance. Everything is forgotten if you wait long enough. At some point everyone who has ever lived will be forgotten, and most of them already have been - it's just that some take longer than others. Jesus may be remembered in a thousand years if he's lucky. I'd give George Washington five hundred years tops. My sense is that the great scientists - Newton and Einstein - will be remembered the longest, because they are part of the tradition that is most likely to be seen as having significance in the distant future. As for me, I may have a grandchild who will remember me in one hundred years. Given that there may already have been millions of civilizations across the universe that are now completely forgotten, I'm not worrying about it much.

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