Bud and Lou Talk Telescopes

Jack Kramer

Telescopes are becoming more and more automated. You certainly know that if you've paid attention to the latest ads for Meade's and Celestron's computer-controlled mountings; you can select an object from a built-in database and the mounting will slue right over to it. Some of our club members have jumped on the technology bandwagon with smart drives and CCDs. You can't help feeling that it's the wave of the future. But there are arguments on both sides. So let's tune in on a hypothetical discussion between two hypothetical amateur astronomers - call them Bud and Lou - as they talk about the new age of amateur astronomy.

Bud: These new telescopes...they're obscene!

Lou: What do you mean?

Bud: You don't have to know anything about the sky. Just plug in the object you want to observe and the scope shoots right over to it. You can be dumb as a stump and still find your way around the sky!

Lou: Hey look, if I want to observe a galaxy, I want to spend my time observing a galaxy...not looking for a galaxy.

Bud: But where's the challenge? Star hopping has always been something of an art form. You never really learn the sky with one of these smart drives. You tend to appreciate the object more when you've had to work to find it.

Lou: Art form, shmart form. You're just sore because I can observe over a hundred objects in a night, while you're lucky if you find ten.

Bud: Oh yeah? Remember that article in S&T a couple of years ago where they pitted a computer-aided telescope against a plain Dobsonian?

Lou: The computer won.

Bud: By only one object.

Lou: But the guy using the Dob was an accomplished observer - he even wrote a book about it. How many people are in his league?

Bud: That's my point. If this computer-aided machinery is allowed to proliferate, we'll end up with a bunch of people who call themselves amateur astronomers, but can't find M31 without a smart drive.

Lou: You're exaggerating.

Bud: And what about all the things that people discover by pure serendipity. ...Things like novas and comets. Haven't you ever found a faint object by accident while looking for something else? You're limited to only what's in the smart drive database.

Lou: But I can get a database upgrade that provides a total of 8000 objects. You know how long it'd take me to observe 8000 objects? I should live that long! Besides, I'm not into serendipity. I want to see what I want to see when I want to see it. And I really don't care about all those little fuzzy spots you can barely detect.

Bud: Okay, so maybe you're happy staying in the mainstream. That's not real astronomy. You never learn anything.

Lou: Who are you to say what's "real" astronomy! It should be fun and people should be able to enjoy it at whatever level they choose. And bear in mind that professional astronomers use computers to find whatever objects they want to observe. Imagine trying to star hop with the Keck!

Bud: And amateurs have always been renowned for knowing the night sky better than the professionals. Eventually, we'll lose that distinction.

Lou: So who's forcing you to buy a smart drive? You do it your way and I'll do it my way. Besides, these things aren't cheap. Not everyone's going to have one. That means there'll still be a lot of people who build their own Dobsonians and continue to star hop.

Bud: I guess those who can afford them will be the ones who don't know the sky. When your battery runs out, you have to pack up and go home.

Lou: When that happens, I'll learn to star hop.

Bud: I rest my case.

Lou: I rest mine too.

Bud: But mine rests better than yours.

Lou: Oh no it doesn't.

Bud: Oh yes it does.

Lou: Oh no it...

Published in the June 1994 issue of the NightTimes