Help...I'm New Here!

Jack Kramer

I would like to tell you about a telephone call I received one evening last year. Calls regularly come from those who are interested in astronomy and want to attend our meetings. Some are advanced amateurs looking for a local club to join. Many are new to the hobby and want to learn as much as possible; these calls tell a lot about the public's understanding of astronomy.

This particular call was from a man whose wife had given him a telescope back in 1996. He was frustrated to the point of being willing to pay someone to show him how to use the telescope. He exemplifies an all-too-typical situation. His telescope is a 90mm Meade Model 395 refractor, with an equatorial mount and clock drive - not a bad scope for basic visual astronomy. But his aim was to do astrophotography. He asked me whether I could explain how to use the setting circles to find objects so he "wouldn't have to learn the constellations". I told him that learning the constellations really is a necessary step, but to use setting circles, first make sure the polar axle is aligned with the north celestial pole, which is near the North Star. "Where do I find the North Star?" he asked. "Let's start with the pointer stars of the Big Dipper", I suggested. To this he responded that he had never been able to find the Big Dipper. He said his house faces south, and if he goes out in his front yard, could he see the North Star. I replied that he'd have to have a good view of the northern sky. He said he thought the North Star was overhead. I told him to look roughly 40 degrees up in the northern sky. But he pointed out that our latitude is about 42 degrees north. Of course he was correct on that point. He had read that fact somewhere, but obviously with no understanding of how it translated to our view of the night sky. I explained that from a visual standpoint, two degrees doesn't amount to a lot. At this point, I proposed that he forget about setting circles for the time being and learn about the sky using just his eyes. While we were on the phone, he called to his wife and said he finally found someone who could explain how to use his telescope, and that everything he had been doing for the past year was wrong.

Then he asked if he could see "the nebula" with his scope. "Which nebula?" He paused, then said it's the one that looks like an animal's head. "The Horsehead?" "Yes, that's the one." "No," I told him, "it's too faint for anything less than about a 10-inch telescope, and you'd need near-perfect skies." He had seen a beautiful photo of it taken by an amateur and he wanted to photograph it through his own telescope. He wondered whether it would be possible if he used his most powerful eyepiece combined with a Barlow lens. Trying not to bad-mouth his scope, I explained that his mounting is not sufficiently robust to support and accurately drive the telescope with a camera attached. Then I explained that much of the photography is done in a prime-focus mode, without any eyepiece. Moreover, it's light grasp, not magnification, that allows us to see such objects. His disappointment was mounting. He asked about where and when LCAS meets, and whether there would be anyone at the meetings who could help him. Of course there would be. I encouraged him to "Come on over!"

Not to make light of this poor fellow's plight, as I spoke with him, I had the feeling of being in the Twilight Zone! But this is perhaps an extreme case. Misconceptions are often the result of seeing beautiful photos taken by amateur astronomers, which leads to the belief that all it takes is any telescope and a camera. Sometimes there's an impression that the photos represent the way objects actually appear in our telescopes. In many cases, people are too impatient to learn the basics and after just a bit of reading, they want to skip directly to the status of "advanced" amateur. Then frustration sets in. One result is seen in advertisements for used telescopes (especially the latest Schmidt-Cassegrains) that read "used twice" or "seldom used". Simple misconceptions are one thing, but there also exists a fundamental lack of knowledge which probably originates in school systems that either do not teach astronomy or teach it poorly. Then add a liberal dose of tabloid newspaper pseudo-science. We should pursue astronomy at whatever level we feel comfortable, but if the goal is to be an observer, then some effort will be required. Astronomy demands a particular mind set of those who would be practitioners -- a patient willingness to proceed by steps while devouring whatever information is needed. I like a quote from Marcus H. Brown, the chief optician of the Palomar 200-inch telescope: "Never mind what you know or what you've done; it's what you can learn that counts." When speaking to these folks, we should expect a lot of misinformation out there. But be gentle. Recall your own experiences when starting out in astronomy. Perhaps you too were frustrated. It took some time, but at some point you experienced the exhilaration of at last understanding a concept or finding the object of your search.

I jotted down the name of the guy who called me on that evening early last year. As far as I know, he never came to any of our meetings. His telescope is probably gathering more dust than starlight.

Published in the May 1998 issue of the NightTimes