The Odd Behavior of Astronomy Junkies

Jack Kramer

Watch anyone addicted to observing to see some strange behavior. Those who go to New Mexico or any of the dark sky star parties will usually come home recovering from an overdose of night sky. But like all astronomy junkies, comes the first new moon weekend and they're out at Von Bergen's or some other local site peering skyward again, though disappointed with the quality of our local skies.

Now take that same person and deprive him or her of the opportunity to observe, and you'll see some even stranger behavior. Recognize that this behavior isn't at all strange to fellow astronomers...just to the astronomically-challenged. And in these parts, the sensory deprivation comes quite often due to stretches of cloudy weather. What is this behavior considered weird by the unenlightened? I took a quick survey among some hard-core observers in LCAS. (We won't mention any names here, but most of the respondents exhibited many of the same traits.)

Topping the list is looking at dots. Not just any dots, mind you, but those dots on big pieces of paper known to us as "star charts". To the uninitiated, they're a mystery, and intensely boring. To us junkies, star charts are our lifeline during cloudy weather -- the thread connecting us to the night sky. And they help us plan our next observing session.

For those with computers and a planetarium program, and perhaps some on-screen astronomical images, there's another link to the night sky. This can't substitute for the real thing, but it comes close enough to get the juices flowing on a cloudy night.

Here's an outlet that's really big. People who've taken some astrophotos generally find themselves staring longingly at their photo albums, recalling each detail involved in taking the photos. There's a real connection to a real place and time.

Reading does it too. There are many armchair astronomers whose only connection to a telescopic image is through a book. After all, many professional theoretical astronomers seldom, if ever, put eye to eyepiece. And reading is a learning experience, which for the inveterate observer provides ammunition for his or her next assault on the skies.

And perhaps my favorite: after a long stretch of non-observing, it's great to set up the telescope inside your house so that you can look at and touch this "starship" of yours. It doesn't matter what size, shape, or condition it's in. If it's in view, you can readily fantasize about viewing through it. Taken to it's ultimate conclusion, this practice may result in building a new telescope, refurbishing the present one, or going on a spending spree for a telescope or accessories.

Odd behavior? Not at all...if you're an astronomy junkie.

Published in the February 1997 issue of the NightTimes