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A Perspective on Equipment

Posted by Mark Mittlesteadt   07/05/2004 07:00AM

I’ve often though about my own quest for the perfect equipment and my observing habits. The situation my life was in had changed and I no longer could spend endless hours stargazing. I had limited time, limited budget and more responsibility than just for myself. The never-ending debates over which scopes were better and the ideas brought forth for newbie amateur astronomers all seemed to end in “all else being equal, aperture rules”.

Even with my 8” SCT, it was not enough. I had to get something bigger, yet my time to set it all up, observe and tear it all down and pack it up, conflicted with it. I began to reassess my needs. I started thinking about what I really needed for equipment. I weighed the desire for more equipment, or larger scopes, with the reality of having less time. All I had ever heard, or had ever believed was that aperture rules. Getting the biggest telescope you can afford was a common mantra. But this conflicted with the other axiom; buy a telescope you will actually use. My lifestyle is such that even my 8” was not getting used. Bigger was not an option.

I had to stop and think about it. Why was I drawn to astronomy in the first place? I recall that as a little boy, I wanted a telescope and I had a fascination with the night sky, never having even looked through a telescope. The Hubble wasn’t a reality. The Apollo 11 moon landing happened when I was eight years old, and that more than anything sparked my interest. Once I did see Saturn through a telescope, I knew I had to have one. As I recall, what impressed me at that time wasn’t that I could make out Cassini’s Division (not that I knew what it was called then), but that I was actually seeing it with my own eyes. Not a picture, the real thing. It would be another twenty some years later before I actually acquired one. Yet, I still looked up at the night sky in awe, without one.

So what did I really need? After years of purchasing, selling and trading, I finally came to the conclusion that what I needed was something you can’t even buy. In fact it’s free. Armed with that knowledge, I went against conventional wisdom and traded for a smaller telescope. I went down in aperture when for the past several years I wanted to go larger. Why?

This year, on the 4th of July, I laid on a blanket on the grass, with my wife and kids, and we watched our local community’s fireworks.

Before the show started I was looking at Jupiter and I wondered about it…being so far away from us, the sky was still aglow as the sun set and yet I could still see it. I looked at it and imagined its moons encircling it, so much so that I thought I could see them with the naked eye. I wondered where Saturn might be at this time, far below the horizon. I began to envision where all the planets might be now, in relation to ours. I had a virtual 3D picture of our solar system in my head and I felt like I was on a giant ride through space with the earth being our vehicle.

I thought about how (as I lay there now flat on my back, looking at Vega overhead and the Big Dipper as it was now beginning to show itself) we are all on this ball spinning rapidly through space, so fast yet imperceptible to anyone who could not even imagine this.

It amazes me how many people look up at the night sky and think on what is “up there” or “out there”. All of us on this planet we call earth are “up there” and “out there” as well. Think of how many people think of earth as the point from which all things exist. To be sure, it is our frame of reference, as the human race calls it home. Still, we humans have a superiority complex when it comes to space. Few think of earth as being just another object that is among the practically infinite number of objects in the universe. Too few people relate to our place in the universe, and some never contemplate it at all.

How many times have we seen the moon? It is so commonplace that most think of it as nothing more than a natural streetlight. Few think of it as the giant orb that it is, encircling us with such force that it affects the oceans. Sadly, it scarcely affects the human race at all anymore.

Amateur astronomers are only human and, we too, have the lapses of imagination that our fellow earth dwellers live with daily. Too often we get caught up in the latest fad, or the newest gadget. Too often we long for bigger scopes, where aperture is everything. Nothing we see with our scopes is good enough anymore, now that the Hubble has brought us views even our imaginations couldn’t conjure up, yet we still try to obtain bigger scopes. Too often, the views aren’t sharp enough or the seeing is bad. Too often we play with our equipment and add to, or replace it, in a never ending cycle of trying to obtain the holy grail of viewing or imaging.

As I lay on our blanket during the fireworks show, I was more in awe of the sky itself than the sparkles of light my fellow earth dwellers threw into it. I was lost in the night sky, and yet it was there that I had found myself. I thought of the opening scene in “Contact”. I thought what Earth might look like from Jupiter. I wondered what anyone else might think of Earth, or what their life might be like if they could see Earth from another perspective, in the way our astronauts had seen it from the moon.

Would our fellow companions on earth feel differently about themselves or others, and would we all interact with each other differently if we could all gain that perspective on a personal level? We, as astronomers, owe it to ourselves and to our fellow man…to take a step back from our equipment and look at our place in the universe differently. Instead of buying new and better or bigger and more expensive equipment, in an attempt to squeeze out that last bit of detail in the eyepiece, we need to look through what equipment we have right at the moment and use our passion and imagination to squeeze out that last little bit of perspective. We need to share that perspective with our fellow earth dwellers. Not to wow them with how much we can see through our scopes, but rather how much we can learn about ourselves when we do see that fuzzy detail-less object in the eyepiece that’s existed long before the first human ever walked the earth.

We need to help our fellow earth dwellers see that, we too, are just a small part of what is out there. Somewhere, out in the celestial neighborhood might be another life form imaging us and wondering if there is life on that object... that tiny spec that seems to be orbiting a star in the Milky Way galaxy.

As I pondered this, I thought about my recently purchased scope. I actually went down in aperture. Yes that’s right; I intentionally got a smaller scope. I gave up trying to gain more in the eyepiece. I go out more now…because a smaller scope makes it easier to do so. I go out now and look through my little scope and see a fuzzy blob in the eyepiece. I used to see it in more detail with my bigger scope, but I see it in more perspective now with my smaller one. I didn’t purchase a special perspective filter accessory for it. I just look at things differently now. Where I once saw some detail and longingly wished for bigger or better equipment to see even more, I now see a blurred patch of light and the ability to imagine my place in the universe because of seeing it with my own eyes. The same feeling I had when I was a child, which I had somehow lost in the maze of equipment upgrading. Since no amount of aperture increase would ever really satisfy me, I did an about-face and said to heck with it. I’m not playing the game of aperture that one can never win. Since I can see details in the Hubble images that I can never see in any telescope, details at the eyepiece have become less relevant. If I want details, I let the Hubble do it. To me, it is more about perspective now. Yes, I can see it that way in a bigger scope too, but a bigger scope is not necessary to see it that way. Such is the real beauty of the universe.

With a smaller scope, I now take it everywhere I go and I make every attempt to show others this perspective. A smaller scope has made the universe more accessible to me and others on a regular basis. Before (if I had the time) I would take out my bigger scope and inform the people around me as to the technical data about what they were looking at through the eyepiece (as well as apologize for it not being clearer or bigger, or more detailed). I now simply tell them what it is and that they should imagine themselves being way “out there” and looking back at earth. I now explain how the galaxy they are looking at is just one of billions and that our planet earth is but a tiny spec in the solar system of a similar galaxy we call the Milky Way. I tell them that there may very well be other “earths” in that galaxy they are looking at and perhaps those “people” are looking back at us in the same way.

I now take along a book of the Hubble’s pictures. Because the view through mine or anyone’s scope for that matter will never be that amazingly detailed, I show someone the picture from the book and then have them look through the eyepiece and tell them they are looking at the real thing that picture represents. The “wow” factor of detail has since been replaced with the wow factor of perspective. The comments of, “All I see is a blurry smudge” has been replaced with, “You mean that is actually another galaxy?”

I, like many, had “aperture fever”. It has since been replaced by “Perspective Fever”. I no longer wish to see more detail. I now only wish that more people gain more perspective on their place, not only in the world, but in the entire universe. Once that is obtained, our problems, even those of great human magnitude, become far less significant. My kids, and so many others now, are gaining a better appreciation of the universe around them, and in doing so, are learning more about themselves. One does not need a big scope to enjoy the night sky. There is detail to be had without one if one really looks for it. But the perspective gained in using a small scope, versus none gained in a large scope that is never used, is often overlooked. My wish is that anyone interested in astronomy learns that the best equipment is that which we already own... our imagination. It’s that one piece of equipment that I wish I had never traded away, and that I’m so glad to have back and in working order.

“Perception is reality”. In today’s world, the common perception is that we are the center of the universe; everything else is “out there”, somewhere above the ground we stand on. Only when one has gained the perspective of where the entire earth or its galaxy sits in the universe, does the individual begin to see what the “big” picture truly is and how we all fit into that. We are “out there” too. We are on an orb spinning through space, like Jupiter and its moons, or Saturn, as well as everything else “out there”.

Suddenly, even an awesome fireworks display can’t compare.