Astronomy Matters

(It’s Astronomy Day today and on that theme I’m posting a little essay I wrote years ago describing my interest in astronomy.)

To tell you the truth, people are not that surprised that I am interested in astronomy. I think all people find astronomy fascinating. After all, it is the true nature of the universe. All of our world views have to take into account the vastness of the universe, the enormous time scales and distances and the seemingly insignificant and relatively instantaneous event that we call our lives. The universe is more strange and awesome than we can imagine. People use the word “astronomical” in their everyday lexicon to mean, in many cases, unimaginably immense. To me the question is not why are people interested in astronomy, but why aren’t all people?

It is interesting that for many people to contemplate the universe brings them face to face with God. They feel that this is God’s creation. I don’t think they are wrong but, like Carl Sagan, I tend to want to save a step. Rather than leaving the question “who created God” unanswerable, I choose to leave the question “who created the universe” unanswerable. To me, studying the universe does not reveal the mystery of God, it reveals the capabilities of human beings. We have learned so very much about things that we can never touch and can barely see. The science of astronomy is a story of the undaunted brilliance of people with a passion to understand. This is my passion: to understand the universe. I may never contribute one significant thing to the science. I’m sure my name will never appear in a text book or on a comet. But I will understand, and I’ll understand the hard stuff, too. Quantum mechanics and relativity are not by any means beyond our reach. Astrophysics is not beyond our reach. Any person can understand these things if they truly desire to.

My story begins, like many, when I was a young child with a telescope. It was a cheap telescope and gave me more frustration than pleasure, but it was the start of looking up. Later in life I felt my passion returning and a gift from my then girlfriend (now wife) of a 4.5″ Newtonian reflector got me on my way. I started as many do looking at Messier objects and reading every astronomy book I could get my hands on. I learned the constellations, how to recognize the planets and how to find many galaxies, clusters and nebulae with my first telescope.

For me, though, I was not getting enough photons. Objects do not look in telescopes like they look in photographs. Most are dim, fuzzy blobs that are barely visible. My next step was taking pictures of astronomical objects with a common camera. You can take some great pictures of some great objects with a common camera. This method of photography is called “piggy back” because you attach your camera to a telescope and use the telescope to keep the camera pointed at the object as the earth turns, a process called guiding. The camera uses its own lens and is not coupled to the optical system of the telescope.

The next step was using a camera attached to the telescope optically, which is called “prime-focus”. Here the telescope acts as the lens of your camera. This gives you much more light due to the larger nature of the telescope aperture, which in turn gives you better resolution of fine details. Prime-focus photography is much more difficult that piggy-back photography, but the results are stunning.

As I started to take more and better pictures of this freaky universe, I felt myself reaching a bit of a wall. The process of taking these pictures is enjoyable and exacting, but is not astronomy in the actual definition of the word. I wasn’t really studying or researching anything, I was just taking pretty pictures. I still love imaging and I consider it a great thing, because it brings the universe home to us in a way we can share with people. But my understanding of astronomy was not progressing. I felt it was time to start getting ready to study astronomy in the true sense of the word, and this means learning the language of astronomy, which is mathematics. To that end, I started taking classes at the University of Minnesota. I have a degree in music and needless to say, we did not study a lot of heavy math and physics in music school. I have started to take Calculus and Physics courses. More on that here.

I knew, though, that it would take me years and years to get to the point where I could study astronomy in the “professional” sense of the world. What could I do in the meantime? It didn’t take much looking to find the answer: study variable stars. It turns out that amateurs like me can make important contributions to science, and learn a lot along the way, by taking measurements of variable stars with a CCD camera. A CCD camera is a special kind of digital camera that is used for astronomy. (CCD means “charge coupled device” and you find them in common digital cameras, camcorders and scanners). There are so many stars in the sky and comparatively little time on “professional” telescopes that professional astronomers can’t really cover all the objects all the time. While some professional astronomers look down their noses at us silly little amateurs with our silly little telescopes, most do not. They appreciate the vast coverage that amateurs are capable of and use our data to correlate observations they make with rare large telescope time. On my research page I have some of the light curves and data that I have gathered. I intend to continue working with the AAVSO, the CBA and other loose-knit collaborations to gather, analyze and publish data on variable stars.

So now you know. Astronomy is the study of the true nature of the universe. It is the most important thing in the world. It is as frivolous as music and as serious as religion. Astronomy matters.

Astronomy Matters

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