On the Mature Observer

Jack Kramer

What characterizes a "mature" observer? The guy with all the high-tech equipment? The person who seems to know everything about astronomy? Maybe neither of these. Obviously, the word "mature" in this context is not related to the chronological age of the observer.

Those who are new to observing often flit from one target to another because everything is new and interesting. They want to see as much as possible. Things often change when you mature as an observer. This is brought about by observing many and varied celestial objects, in the process sorting out where your interests and capabilities lie. Accommodation is part of the game. For example, if you can't get away to a dark site to observe galaxies, then concentrate on the moon and planets from your back yard, or perhaps variables or double stars. If you can't afford to spend a lot of money on the hobby, then make the most of what equipment you have. Today astrophotography entices many newbies, especially the high tech world of CCD imaging. But as astronomy writer Jay Reynolds Freeman noted: "'Astrophotography' is a very expensive word, particularly for time exposures of faint fuzzies." You can also capture the essence of your observations with written records or with drawings.

Some amateurs never reach a more advanced level because they become bored and drop out along the way. While it's normal for certain objects to become old hat after awhile, the universe is a big place and there are other things to take up the slack. (Tired of faint fuzzies? Then rediscover the moon and planets.) Though some amateurs end up specializing in certain favorite pursuits, most of us tend to be pretty eclectic, looking at different things as we choose.

Also beware of burnout. There are amateurs who fiercely pursue some observing goal to the point that they become driven to do this on every clear night. After awhile, astronomy is no longer as much fun; it becomes more of a task. Burnout is something we inflict upon ourselves. Take a breather. Where is it written that you have to set up a telescope on every clear night? If it bothers you to waste a night, then step outside for a moment and drink it in with just your eyes.

Many adopt a routine that makes the most of their time behind the eyepiece. Marv Johnson, an observer from California, has a good way to see things: "I like to concentrate on just one or two objects per evening. Spend lots of 'quality time' with each before moving on. What I don't see tonight will be there tomorrow. If it's not there tomorrow it will be there next year. If not next year, then sometime in the next decade." You may know some who are mere "collectors" of celestial objects - people who take a quick look, maybe record having seen the object, then move on. Instead, really study the object and let your eyes tell you all they can.

Another thing: the largest telescope doesn't always ensure the most satisfying observing experience. It's pleasant to reconnect with one's early years by using a smaller instrument. The challenge forces you to really look hard at the images offered up by the scope. And at some point, you may find yourself less tolerant of the effort required to horse around a big, heavy telescope. Here's how astronomy author Philip Harrington sees it: "I find that as I grow as an observer (now, with more than 30 years under my belt), I appreciate my binoculars now more than ever...despite having several telescopes from which to choose."

Each of us stands somewhere along the path from newbie to seasoned observer. How we progress is purely a personal matter. This hobby is about enjoyment and satisfaction. Thinking back over the years, I recall many enjoyable moments. Some of these were when I first began to observe and everything was new and interesting. While the sheer magic may be gone now, as a mature observer there's still pleasure to be derived from revisiting objects that were once so new. Maturity just brings different ways of looking at them.