University Lowbrow Astronomers

10 Questions Asked Amateur Astronomers.

by Christopher Sarnecki
Printed in Reflections: August, 2001.

Talk about a sure thing.  At every open house I can always count on being asked some of these questions by star starved public.  See if you agree with this un-scientific compilation of the 10 most asked questions of amateur astronomers.  Arranged in no specific order....

How much does your telescope cost?

This is undoubtedly is the most asked question.  I can count on this question at 90% of all star parties.  I believe the real question being asked is “How much does it cost to get started in Astronomy?”  So I try and respond by indicating that while my scope may cost a few hundred dollars any one can get started in astronomy by using that pair of binoculars and tripod that every household has laying around.  Get a cheap steel angle bracket from the hardware store to mate the binoculars to the tripod and together with a low cost star chart from a bookstore or out of Astronomy magazine and you are ready to start observing.  In a year or two, if you are still interested in the hobby, consider getting a good 6-inch or 8-inch Newtonian reflector on a Dobsonian mount with Telrad for around $500.  Don’t forget to mention that the telescope should come from a reputable telescope manufacturer such as Meade, Celestron, or Orion.  The cost of a first telescope can also be lowered if purchased used.

How far away is that object?

Another popular question.  With most common objects many of us might remember approximately how far away it is; but when it comes to most other objects, I always respond by saying; “I’ll be honest with you.  It is very, very far away.  So far away that none of us really understands the concept of astronomical distances.  I could tell you any distance and you would probably agree with me and be satisfied with the answer.”  I then watch for their reaction, which is a tough thing to do in the dark, and sure enough they usually agree.  I then indicate an approximate distance, such as 3,000 light years for a near-by Milky Way object, or 10-20 million light years for a galaxy.  I suggest that it is almost futile to try and conceive how far away a light year is, let alone 3,000 or 10 million light years away are.  What happens next is a revelation that we begin to understand that astronomical distances are really, well, ASTRONOMICAL!

Are you an Astronomer or a Professor of Astronomy?

Well, I must admit, this question really waxes my ego.  I respond by saying “No, we are amateurs.”  Sometimes a follow up question is “How do you know so much about the stars or the universe?”  I respond that as an interested amateur perusing the subject of our interest, many amateur astronomers do a lot of reading and studying about astronomy.  It’s like golfing or fly-fishing, or any other hobby; the interested amateur will glean an awful lot of facts about their pursuit.  Our natural social tendency is to want to share this with anyone who wants to begin to understand our place in the cosmos.

Where in the sky is the object shown in the scope?

Believe it or not, this is a question we all can relate to.  The most knowledgeable and learned cosmologist, the most experienced amateur astronomer, and the uninitiated all want to know where we are in the cosmos.  Being able to see for yourself were an object is relative to the naked eye field of stars helps us begin to understand just where we are in the big picture.  It helps us understand our place in the cosmic neighborhood.  We begin to see our place next to our local star, in our local galaxy, and in this universe.  If the Milky Way is observable, I point out the position of the object relative to the galactic center.  Is the object above or below the plane of the galaxy, or are we looking towards or away from the center of the Milky Way out to deep space?  But so much for the sermon.  I then respond by showing them how the Telrad works and point out the location in the sky.

How big is your scope?

There is a tendency for the public to want to engage in conversation about an object, such as a telescope, which is not commonly seen in every day life.  This is the equivalent of an ice breaker question at a party.  “Come here often?  How about them Wolverines?  How big is your scope?”  This question gets a discussion going.  As, does the next question....

What magnification is your scope?

This question is probably is a reflection by the general population that high magnification of a telescope is equated with a great scope.  When I explain that may of us observe distant objects at low magnifications in order to get the best view or resolution I notice that their expectations have all of a sudden gone south.  I then explain how important it is to take your time when looking through a telescope for the 2 seconds of good seeing in 20 seconds of viewing.  Starting with low power viewing lets us notice features to look at later with higher, but not necessarily high, magnification.  This is a good point to discuss that any scope that advertises itself with X600 MAGNIFICATION is probably a “department store junk yard scope” and doesn’t warrant a purchase.  I mention much of the same dialog about getting started in astronomy with the use of binoculars and a future purchase of a good 6-inch or 8-inch Dobsonian telescope as indicated in question 1 above.

Do you guys come out here often?

Hey is this the party part of a star party?  My guess is NOT!  When anyone gets out under the nighttime sky on a night of decent seeing I think they want to come back out and do it again.  This is an opportunity to explain our bi-monthly open house star party.

What type of telescope is this?

With the popularity of Cassegrain telescopes, alt-az mounts, and newts on dob mounts, it is a small wonder the public doesn’t recognize what an astronomical telescope is.  Our obligation is to explain the different types of scopes used by amateurs.  I start with indicating the type of scope I using, where the optics are, and how they function to bring the faint light to focus in the eyepiece.  How a Newtonian design telescope reflects the object and bounce the view into the eyepiece.  A Newtonian scope on a Dobsonian mount is often tracked by manually pushing the optical tube periodically.  I can use a finderscope to explain the workings of a traditional looking refractor, how it bends the light and introduces color to bright objects.  Eyepieces are really small versions of a refracting telescope.  Usually there is a Cassegrain on the hill to point out how some amateurs are using folded scope designs with sophisticated go-to computers and motorized mounts that can locate and object with the touch of a few buttons.

Have you seen any UFO’s?

Most often this question is asked as a conversation starter, but once in a while someone asking this question is interested in the possibility of alien life.  Sadly we live in a time were much of the population does not understand why the seasons occur on our planet, some believe the Apollo Moon landing is a government cover-up, and pseudo-science is on the increase.  Our mission, and we do accept it, is to fight ignorance of the night sky whenever we encounter it.  Reinforce the scientific method by reminding our public that all of mainstream astronomical and cosmological knowledge is based on observable and testable methodologies, which if disproved, will no longer be science fact.  We must also challenge the promoters of pseudo-science on their facts while not offending their beliefs.  From my perspective I think this is something the Lowbrows do very well.

What type of object is that?

The star party going public depends on us to be knowledgeable of the objects we encounter in the night sky.  It is important for each of us to have the basic information about objects we encounter in our scopes.  What is a planetary nebula, why did the classical astronomers name these objects so, and why our Sun will become one in about 4 billion years from now are examples of basic knowledge we all need to know.  A basic knowledge of star colors, binary stars, stellar formation, variable stars, planets, asteroids, comets, open and globular clusters, galaxies, and cosmology is a requirement.  The emphasis is on basic.  Our guests are mostly looking for a brief understanding of what they see in a telescope.  As I listen in on conversations and explanations on the hill I know the Lowbrows do an excellent job at this and help everyone to have a good time as well.

So what questions would you add to this list?  I am sure each of you has your own most popular list of questions.  Perhaps you can expand on this list with a list of your own in a future article.


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This page originally appeared in Reflections of the University Lowbrow Astronomers (the club newsletter).
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