Thursday, October 4, 2007

The thrill is gone

The New York Times has been working the amateur astronomy beat, following up their June 8 story on astronomy villages with today's Home and Garden feature on luxury home observatories.

No more lugging telescopes out into the cold and the dark for these "baby boomers and wealthy tech types," reports the Times. No more red flashlights, clunky tripods, and star parties. Amateurs are spending tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to work like the professionals, installing rooftop domes that house serious scopes:

For comfort, most home observatories have a separate insulated and air-conditioned control room that houses all the computer equipment. These rooms often look like studies, with lots of space photography hanging on the walls.

I always envied the amateurs their connection with the sky: The amateurs were the ones who knew the constellations backward and forward, who could point out a star and tell you all that you could see within a pinky's-width. They were the ones drawn to the romance of cold, still air, and the low-tech pleasures of binoculars, 800-speed film, and their own eyes.

The professionals got the comforts of climate-controlled computer rooms, computer-driven domes, and point-and-click slewing. But for all this technology, we might go a whole night without actually seeing a single star. Automation severed our connection with the sky.

As Geoff Marcy, the UC Berkeley planet-hunter, lamented to Reuters in a story picked up by The Gist:

"There are no eyepieces anywhere [at the Keck telescope]. In fact, we don't have an eyepiece for the Keck telescope....Some of the romance of astronomy is gone."

Professional astronomers, of course, aren't in the business of romance: They're in it for the science, and for that they sacrifice the pleasures that amateurs get to keep.

But apparently the amateurs--provided they have the money--don't want those pleasures any more. And with that attitude, how long will it be before Richard Branson is launching personal a Hubble for every baby boomer with a suitable portfolio?


Anonymous said...

What would be the point of having an eyepiece on a giant telescope! What a waste of light! The human eye can only see 1% of all the light in the universe! What is so wrong with using a digital camera to see ALL the light that's there? What's the difference if you're seeing an image on a screen, version having it reflected into your pupil? The only difference is brightness! Even with giant telescopes, the smallest detail a human can resolve is one arc-second ... same as a 10" telescope. So what would be the point? The good thing about large telescopes is they have the technology now to remove blurring and see 10-100 times better than any eye could!

Karen said...

At the Hale 200 inch they would have observing for staff and family on special nights when the telescope wasn't otherwise in use (I think Christmas). How neat would it be to look through a 5 metre telescope. Even if you can only see 1% of the light!