Getting into Amateur Astronomy
As the oldest of the sciences, astronomy has a rich culture
and a long and interesting history. And, as any science, it
has its special language and many technical terms. Naturally,
one is able to best enjoy the discussions when one speaks
the lingo, so begin by reading all that you can. The public
libraries have many books on most aspects of amateur astronomy
and telescope-making. And if one book doesn't grab your interest,
or is too advanced, try some others. You'll come back to them
Read at least one book on mirror-making, even if you don't
intend to make a mirror. For one thing, you'll be able to
understand more of what's being said; and for another, you'll
better appreciate the skill that goes into it. And just maybe,
you may get the itch to push some glass yourself!
Be sure to read biographies of the old-timers: Galileo,
Messier, the Herschels, Halley, Newton, Einstein. Fascinating!
The history of astronomy is a field of study in itself.
Read the astronomical press. Sky
and Telescope as part of the membership in SJAA; Astronomy
is available at many bookstores and also at a reduced rate
through SJAA. Scientific American,
Science, and Science
News have excellent articles from time to time on recent
findings in all fields including astronomy.
You'll want some of your own books, and there are many excellent
publications available. Before spending much money, ask around
at the meetings; you'll be able to preview much of the better
material. Among the less-costly material, the encyclopedic
Burnham's Celestial Handbook, in three volumes, is the great
bargain of the century; it covers practically everything in
the sky beyond the solar system. The Sky Atlas 2000, by Wil
Tiron, is a big bargain, too; it's available through SJAA
at reasonable cost.
There are many excellent planetarium
programs which can augment or replace a printed atlas.
Make haste slowly in buying a telescope. There are many
telescopes and a bewildering variety of accessories being
offered, with many glowing claims as to their capabilities.
But one needs to have gotten some direction as to one's goals
before investing in equipment. As has been shown above, you
needn't have an instrument to participate in observing sessions.
After much discussion with many observers, and many comparisons
between their instruments, you'll be ready to make the decisions.
One may buy a new telescope, or perhaps buy a commercial or
hand-made instrument from another observer. Or you may decide
that you'd like to build your own. You might assemble from
parts, buying or building as dictated by time, finances, your
own abilities, and the size of your automobile.
One quickly outgrows a very small telescope, so you'll probably
want to start with a six inch at least.
One of the outstanding features of astronomy is that it
is so remarkably wide-ranging. SJAA is largely concerned with
observational astronomy. But one can derive immense pleasure
without ever looking through a telescope. The suggested reading
implies that astronomy is a cerebral activity: it can be;
but one can also learn and enjoy the sky without reference
to a single book or chart. Yet one would lose much by ignoring
the books -- what would you do on cloudy nights?
One can get involved in the mathematical aspects; indeed,
many advances in mathematics resulted from the needs of astronomers.
But one can observe thousands of objects with little more
math than counting on one's fingers.
Again, the "paraprofessional"
section implies that one can do scientifically valuable work,
as indeed you can; but one mustn't forget the joy of contemplating
the heavens and admiring their beauty.
So the range is broad. Many other interests and hobbies
tie into astronomy including but not limited to photography,
optics, mechanics,stamp-collecting, history, navigation, timekeeping,
Astronomy is the meeting-place of all the arts and sciences.
And your local astronomical association is the meeting-place
of a wonderfully diverse group of people.
Jim Van Nuland
/ Bill Arnett;
last updated: 1997 Jan 29