Internet "e-groups"

Jack Kramer

A few ideas for articles that appear in NightTimes came from various Internet e-groups to which I belong. For those not familiar with this, an e-group (or "chat" group) is a number of people with a common interest who post questions, answers, and opinions on the group's web site. Anyone can read the correspondence, but in order to post a message to the group, you must register as a group member. The correspondence may either be read on the web site (which is very time-consuming) or you may have the messages automatically sent to your e-mail address. It's not uncommon for there to be 50 or more messages a day per group covering a variety of topics, although the messages load quickly because attachments are not allowed. Each topic is referred to as a "thread", and when you respond to a message, the subject line of your reply is the title of that thread. Several different threads run simultaneously. You can initiate a new topic (thread) at any time by posting a message to the group with whatever subject you want to discuss.

There are one or more moderators for a group. The job of the moderator is to ensure that the content of the messages stays in the general field of interest for the group, that a standard of decorum is maintained, and that no blatant misinformation is passed on. One of my favorite groups is "Talking Telescopes", which has Phillip Harrington, the well-known author of books and articles on amateur astronomy as a moderator.

Some members are employees of companies that supply equipment to the amateur astronomy community, though overt sales pitches are not allowed. Certain members are quite knowledgeable about optics, so the discussion is sometimes over my head. But it's good to stretch your mind a bit; one reason I joined this group was to learn more about optical equipment. There have also been some valuable side-by-side comparisons between pieces of equipment. It's amazing how many telescopes and accessories some of these people own. In many cases they seem to buy a scope, try it for awhile, then sell it and buy another, until such time as they find a "keeper". Or they just keep all the scopes. So if you have a question about a particular instrument, someone in the group is likely to have used it at one time. There was a discussion, for example, about the quality of images in Newtonians versus Schmidt-Cassegrains. One member praised the advantages of SCTs, but did point out that a Newtonian with good optics will always outperform an SCT of the same size in terms of image quality. To prove he knows what he's talking about, he stated that over the years he has owned thirty-eight SCTs. (That's right...38. Either he's fairly well off financially or his family goes to bed hungry at night!)

An added bonus of a group web site is that it contains an archive of how-to articles, equipment reviews, and generally helpful information. The e-group also publishes links to other web sites if you need further info on some topic. The URL for the Talking Telescopes group is:

There are many e-groups for whatever special interest you may have, including special types of scopes such as SCTs, manufacturers such as Meade, TMB, and Astro-Physics, and even particular instruments such as the Meade ETX or Chinese-made refractors.

Another site is the "amastro" e-group, which focuses more on observing than on equipment. That URL is:

http:// /group/amastro/info.html

These groups are an excellent way to get first hand information on a topic in astronomy. After participating for awhile, you become familiar with various members' technical competencies and idiosyncrasies. And while some might disparage e-groups as impersonal artifacts of cyberspace, you will probably find that members become friends that you just haven't met face-to-face.

Published in the July 2002 issue of the NightTimes