You're Never Too Old

Jack Kramer

Young whippersnappers aren't going to relate to this, but amateur astronomers do age, not always gracefully. I'll begin by relating that about twenty years ago I knew another amateur in his mid-forties who regularly observed with a 121/2-inch Newtonian, until one day out of the clear blue he said, "I'm getting too old for this". And that was it. No one could figure out what brought this on, because we didn't feel anyone in their forties was too old to continue observing. I'm now in my mid-sixties, still active in the hobby, and intend to continue until they have to pry a telescope out of my cold, dead hands. But some things do change with the years.

I find that I've become less tolerant of extremes. A check of the thermometer before going out to observe is routine. When I was younger, it merely dictated what clothes would be appropriate. Nowadays really cold temperatures will keep me inside. I also used to observe at times when there was a pretty stiff breeze, even so far as tolerating an image in the scope that bounced around. No more. Swarms of summertime bugs that seem oblivious to insect repellant is another killer. So the Nebraska Star Party is not on my calendar. I think I also poop out faster than in the past - I need my sleep. Then there were the lengthy trips out to dark sites despite iffy sky conditions. Today? Don't bother!

Other factors also come into play. One is the observing agenda. After you've been in the hobby for many years, you've pretty much covered the bases. There is no longer that imperative to get out there and observe all those new objects on your to-do list. You may not even have a to-do list anymore. You've probably seen all the best and easiest deep sky objects, so the only unobserved ones left are the very faint fuzzies. There's still a sense of accomplishment when you find them, but they just don't elicit that WOW effect. Of course, the old showpieces of the sky are still a delight. I also find that much more time is spent just poring over star atlases looking for something new to search out, something hitherto unrecorded in my records. So agendas change. The dynamic nature of our fellow planets has been redirecting my gaze more and more in their direction. And I've rediscovered the sun and moon. Perhaps you might stray into variables or double star observing.

Another factor is the effort of just setting up a telescope. That's a consideration to people of all ages, but it gradually becomes more of an issue. Back aches and other infirmities of age make lifting and carrying more of an ordeal. I find that once I set up a larger scope, I leave it set up for days, sometimes even weeks at a time. I'm fortunate, though, to live in a secure area with a reasonably dark sky.

But I'm also finding that a smaller telescope is less of an obstacle. If it's easy to take out and plunk down, it eliminates one of the excuses you might make to yourself about why you shouldn't go out to observe. You actually look forward to using it. You begin to realize that if it were not for that little scope, you wouldn't be observing nearly as much. Perhaps this is one reason for the current popularity of small, high-quality telescopes that provide amazingly good images for their size. They're also popular travel scopes that are fairly easy to pack along when you go on vacation. A smaller, easy-to-handle Dobsonian could also fill the bill.

The same holds true of binoculars. They're a great no-stress way to wander around the sky, even for just a few minutes. That's especially true in the depths of winter when the snow and cold make a full-blown observing session just too unbearable. They're good catharsis when you're star craving mad.

The utility of a smaller telescope was brought home to me after I had an operation that imposed a temporary ten-pound lifting weight restriction. The timing of the operation coincided with a good apparition of Mars, plus there happened to be a nice long stretch of clear weather. What better time to observe! Except that I couldn't set up either of my two largest - and heavy - telescopes. Bad timing. But I still had a 4-inch refractor and mount that could be broken down into manageable components ... and it made possible several good nights of observing during my recuperation. Such temporary physical impairment forces you to think ahead to a time when you get older and will no longer be able to handle a large and heavy telescope.

We don't like to admit that our bodies change for the worse as we age, but that's the way things are. After making the initial effort to get out under the stars, I find that time passes very quickly. If my wife is still awake when I come back in the house, she sometimes kids me about being up well past my bedtime. The point is that there's no reason to throw in the towel ... to say "I'm getting too old for this". It's a hobby after all, and it should be enjoyable. Don't pressure yourself. Where is it written that you have to haul out a light bucket on every clear night? So accommodate to your aging carcass. If you love the magnificence of the cosmos, there's always a way to enjoy this hobby when the spirit moves you.

Published in the February 2006 issue of the NightTimes