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Understanding astronomy enhances stargazing

November 16, 1985

The caller on the phone had just spent more than $1,000 on a used telescope. He had no success finding comet Halley, and after viewing several stars at high magnifications, wondered why anyone would be interested in astronomy. “What do amateur astronomers do anyhow?” he asked

My mind raced over the past 23 years of sky watching: the adventures of chasing eclipses, the hours spent making observations of Jupiter and the sun, the excitement of an 18-person meteor shower observation team, the whole planetarium career, telescope making, countless friendships, and I did not have a ready answer. I think I mumbled something about trying to develop an appreciation for who we were in relationship to the universe in which we live. I felt the answer was inadequate.

At the Manitoba Astronomy Club, an organization for those under 18 years, and operated out of the Manitoba Planetarium, we are trying to find good answers to that question.

In spite of the troubles of the caller, astronomy is available to everyone. Nightly, when the sky darkens, the great wonders are displayed for us to appreciate, or ignore. No one needs a telescope to see evidence of the monthly orbiting of the Moon, or observe the zigzag motions of the planets due to the earth orbiting the sun, or watch the changing altitude of the sun that causes the seasons, or see meteor showers and eclipses.

What the caller lacked, and what remains a barrier for most people, is a basic understanding of what is going on in the sky. When I have begun courses in astronomy, I have said that, if the sky is a dazzling and incomprehensible view of creation, then remember that feeling, because it soon will be replaced by something else: a sense of familiarity. It is ironic that we are part of the most sophisticated civilization that has ever existed on earth, and yet, as individuals, we seem to have lost touch with the night sky. Now we are dazzled by bright city lights, and the universe seems to pale in comparison.

My point is that basic astronomy is easy, it is fun, and the subject matter is always at hand. This is what the amateur astronomer has discovered. Once past this barrier, the hobby allows for a multitude of activities and explorations.

At MAC, we run a basic astronomy course once or twice a year so that everyone there is able to pass that barrier and get on with the neat stuff. For instance, there is a lot of attention being given to Comet Halley right now. That is largely because of its celebrity status. While it will be a very good comet, for amateur astronomers it is the third or fourth comet that they have seen this year.

Astronomy is not just a nighttime affair. One of the most interesting celestial objects to observe is the sun. It is large and bright, and therefore easy to observe with the smallest of telescopes. It also is very active, with sunspots that appear and vanish. Because of the brilliance of the sun, it also requires some knowledge to observe — the sun’s rays can blind the careless, and damage the improperly used optical equipment.

Teaching

Teaching introductory astronomy courses has made me aware of three things. First, how simple the concepts of astronomy are. The difficulty that some experience seems to be the fact that, for most of us, all of the information is completely new; it is removed from our previous experience. Second, much of the course consists of just becoming familiar with the constellations, and the catalogue of astronomical objects. Learning this leads to many other insights. And finally, familiarity with the cosmos does not breed contempt. It does enrich ones life, and allows the amateur astronomer to participate in the drama of a science that is always facing a new frontier of potential discoveries.

There is one sure way to pass through the initial barrier. Join one of the two local organizations of amateur astronomers: MAC or the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Winnipeg Centre; and make astronomy a hobby.

What you will find is that astronomy is not one hobby, it is a multitude of avocations.

Astronomy allows several hobbies and abilities to be combined. A knowledge of cameras and darkroom techniques is most useful if you decide to try astrophotography. A machinist can make every component and accessory for a telescope, and it is not uncommon to find a lathe in an astronomer’s basement. Every astronomy club needs people who have skills in accounting, organization, and teaching.

My telephone caller had expected the telescope to show him the universe. He had looked at some stars, and all he saw were some spots of light made brighter by the optics.

In case I have given the impression that observing plain stars is boring, I will admit that this is sometimes true.

Alberio

But I would love to show you a certain star In the constellation of Cygnus, called Alberio. It looks like one star to the unaided eye. The telescope reveals it to be two stars. They are beautiful. This is really a solar system with two suns. One sun is shining with a golden light, and the other is a steely blue. The imagination can conjure up fantastic scenes of the interplay of light on a planet that might circle one of those stars.

In 1985 Robert Ballantyne was director of the Manitoba Planetarium. His weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, called Sky Watch, focused on the return of Comet Halley.

© 1985 Robert Ballantyne and The Winnipeg Free Press

Sky Watch - Robert Ballantyne | Winnipeg Free Press

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