Astronomy as a Hobby

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The twenty-first century is well into the Age of Science. Over the past hundred years our whole way of life has changed beyond all recognition, and if we could go back to Victorian times it would seem as strange as visiting another planet. I can well remember the time when there were no computers and no television; I can recall buying my first "wireless" and trying to tune in to the Test Matches being played in Australia. Space-travel, of course, was pure science fiction, and even flying from Britain to America was very much of an adventure.

One result of this amazing progress is that science has become specialized. It used to be possible for the amateur to make useful discoveries, while to the normal research worker the possibilities were endless; there was always something new "just around the corner". By now the amateur is much more limited. Most modern research needs equipment far too expensive to be assembled by a private individual, and even theoretical work is beyond most people who have not had detailed technical training.

Astronomy is the one science in which these limitations are not so crippling. The chances of making an important discovery are less than they used to be, but they still exist; for instance Tom Bopp, co-discoverer of the brilliant comet which graced our skies a few years ago, is purely an amateur, and so is Rev. Robert Evans, the Australian clergyman who has discovered a remarkable number of exploding stars in external galaxies. There is plenty of scope.

It is obvious that there are some branches of astronomy which cannot be tackled by the amateur, but others can, mainly because professional astronomers have neither the time or the inclination to undertake some types of routine work. To drive home this point, it may be useful to give a definite instance of what I mean, though admittedly it does go back a good many more years. In 1955 it was found that the giant planet Jupiter is a source of radio waves, and researchers were very anxious to know whether these radiations came from the planet as a whole, or from discrete surface features such as the famous Great Red Spot. They therefore appealed to the Jupiter Section of the British Astronomical Association, whose members had been making observations of the surface details and knew them extremely well. The BAA amateurs suddenly found that their patient labours over the years had become of real importance, and the question was answered: discrete features are not involved. I agree that the situation today is different, but opportunities are still there. Remember, though, that sporadic and haphazard observations are of no practical value, enjoyable though they may be. One has to be methodical, and normally the observer will concentrate upon one particular field of research. In my case it happened to be the Moon; two close friends of mine hate the Moon because when near full it makes the sky so bright that dim objects such as comets are drowned.* Others concentrate upon monitoring variable stars, hunting for supernovae in outer galaxies, or taking pictures of nebulae. It all depends upon what attracts you most.

One question often asked is: "What is the real use of astronomy - and why spend time watching stars and planets when there is so much to be done on our own world?" On the face of it, the question seems rather reasonable enough, and it is not immediately obvious why the astronomer should become excited about the appearance of a white spot on Saturn, or the flaring-up of a new star in Cygnus. But astronomy is linked with all other sciences, and you cannot separate it from, say, physics or chemistry any more than you can separate arithmetic from algebra. The same argument applies to space research; recently I was visiting a hospital in Bristol, where they were scanning an unborn baby for possible defects - using equipment developed for use in space. I am always tempted to answer that question with another: "What is the practical use of a Rembrandt painting or a Beethoven symphony?" The only answer is that a great picture or a great piece of music can give enjoyment to millions of people.

So far as astronomy is concerned, it can take up as much or as little time as you like. You cannot draw the best out of it unless you are prepared to take a little trouble, and I well remember how I went about it, admittedly at the tender age of seven. I obtained an elementary book, and grasped the main facts, then I went out on every clear night and learned my way around the sky; next, I borrowed a pair of binoculars and began searching for objects such as star-clusters. The procedure worked well for me, and my enthusiasm has never waned. This book is an attempt to answer a second question which has been put to me on countless occasions: "If I want to make astronomy my hobby, how do I go about it?"

*During my Moon-mapping a work in the 1950s, I used to ring up the Paris observatory, where there is a 33-inch refracting telescope - one of the best in the world. "Any chance of a few nights with the 33-inch?""Well,you can have it for a couple of nights near full moon." "Many thanks. That's when I want it." They became very used to me!

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