Editorial: "Serious" Astronomy?

Jack Kramer

In the newsletter of an astronomy club in Houston, there was an ad for a used 121/2-inch Dobsonian reflector. One phrase caught my eye. The seller stated that it's a "great telescope for the serious astronomy beginner". Houston is an area where the accessibility to darker skies perhaps beckons many to invest in a large telescope. But while a 121/2-inch telescope is certainly a fine instrument for a serious amateur, it's not for a beginner -- anywhere.

This further emphasizes something you've probably noticed. Much attention is given to big "light bucket" telescopes and to advanced techniques. That's perfectly fine, but I think this leaves some with the impression that you just can't be seriously interested in astronomy unless you, too, are right up there in the forefront. Enthusiasm to have a bigger scope and/or cutting edge technology should be tempered by an understanding of the cost in terms of dollars and the effort involved. Also included in this ad was the phrase "excellent condition, rarely used". Without knowing the circumstances that prompted the sale of this telescope, you have to wonder -- had the seller bitten off more than he could chew? And another phrase was "must sell". Rather than being an enticement for a beginner to plunk down a wad of cash for such a telescope, this ad should raise a red flag.

This is the best of all times for astronomy. But just because the state of the hobby is moving forward with larger telescopes and high technology doesn't mean that it has to be a mass migration. In fact, for some people, these advanced implements of astronomy may actually detract from enjoyment of the hobby by inducing more effort than pleasure. It often happens that we're not able to pursue our hobby as frequently as we'd like, but using your telescope should not be such an ordeal that it becomes the very thing that inhibits your observing. All too often, avid beginners with large telescopes find they've shot themselves in the foot! The point is that a person's equipment should never be what identifies them as a "serious" amateur astronomer. If you decide to remain on a more modest level in your choice of instruments, know that you're in good company. There are a few devoted amateurs who regularly observe with 60mm refractors, and they're far more serious in my eyes than others who wield their light buckets only on rare occasions...and end up selling them because they're "rarely used".