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Norman Sperling
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Novice Astronomy Over 50 Years

© Norman Sperling, July 5, 2011

A presentation I saw on how to get into amateur astronomy showed how much has changed in the half-century since I began ... and how much hasn't. Amateurs from the Phoenix and San Jose areas explained the ins and outs to science fiction buffs at Westercon.

Stars, planets, and humans are still the same, so the principal advice is still to go somewhere dark (away from light pollution), and learn the constellations and how the sky moves. That advice is absolutely identical to what I was told in 1957, and it's right. They mentioned some recent and classic beginner books, as well as the latest 'pod apps. Light pollution is now a lot worse, so getting to a dark place is much more difficult, but the advice is the same.

The second advice is still to not dive into buying a big, complicated, expensive telescope. After the naked eye, use binoculars. After binoculars, a useful beginner telescope is now available for as little as $50 or $60. That price is relatively lower (considering inflation) than in my youth - an advantage of modern design and production. Then and now, beginners must be warned away from flimsy, incompetent, disappointing telescopes from non-specialist merchants.

They still recommend Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines. (OK, the latter was founded in 1973.) They still recommend finding your local astronomy club and star parties, and using red-light flashlights to preserve night vision.

They still recommend studying the richest and most informative telescope catalog – though that used to be Edmund's and now it's Orion's. The lust generated by seeing all the glorious equipment used to be called "aperture fever" and is now "Telescope Porn".

Modern optical and electronic technology has outmoded the old equipment, and enabled whole new categories of activities.

The Dobsonian Revolution made far larger telescopes affordable to serious amateurs, and they can observe deep sky objects spectacularly better than 50 years ago. Today's top Schmidt-Cassegrains, Maksutovs, and refractors deliver markedly better images than you could buy 50 years ago. Some astronomers love automatic object-finding telescopes because it's easier to observe what you want; purists consider it cheating if you don't point the telescope correctly yourself.

Electronic imaging has popularized incredible tools like webcams. Commercial mounts now mate phone-cameras to telescopes. Software now lets photographers stack multiple exposures using more skill and time than money. The best amateur astrophotography of 2011 far surpasses the best that the big professional observatories could do just 30 years ago. These tools enable amateurs to study, and make discoveries about, far fainter objects than before.

One aspect that hasn't changed is the mindset that "amateur astronomy" = observing. That wasn't true 50 years ago and it's less true today, but it's what springs to mind. Lots of non-observational aspects are wide open – history, education, tourism, and telescope making are just a few popular options. Data-mining now combs and analyzes enormous amounts of data, usually gathered by professionals. Anyone competent with a computer and an internet connection can do this. Some such projects are called "Citizen Science".

Overall, getting to a dark sky is markedly harder nowadays. Learning the sky and climbing above beginner status are about the same. But optical as well as electronic technology have improved spectacularly. Far greater viewing and computing power are affordable, and projects to use them multiply very fast. Nowadays the limiting factor isn't telescope size, or imaging skill, or computing talent, but the creativity to think up a new project. Go for it!

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