I have very mixed feelings about astronomical equipment. There's no doubt that it's important. Galileo's telescope blew the science of astronomy wide open, and every major advance since then has depended on improvements in instrumentation. On a more personal level, telescopes are marvelous, especially when you turn them to the sky. They draw you into a strange, magical world beyond anything that the uninitiated can imagine.
On the other hand, it's easy to get so obsessed by gear that it actually detracts from the observing experience. That's particularly obvious in discussions about astronomy on the Internet, which often degenerate into pointless squabbles about equipment.
The Cloudy Nights
astronomy forums pride themselves on being the friendliest place on the Internet.
I've recently been spending a fair amount of time in the Cloudy Nights
forums, which their members describe, with some justification, as "the friendliest place on the Internet." The ambience there is really wonderful; people are genuinely friendly, welcoming, and helpful. But it's interesting to note that the glue that holds the whole thing together is equipment reviews. And it has become the custom for participants to sign their articles with a list of the equipment they use. I went along with that custom when I started to participate, but it still bothers me. True, these equipment lists do tell me something about the participants, but I'd much rather know what people do
than what they own.
Steve O'Meara's biggest telescope is a 4-incher that's getting on toward being an antique, but nobody doubts his prowess as an observer. Conversely, I've met people who've loaded up on fancy gear and have no clue how to use it.
I spend my fair share of time thumbing through catalogs and dreaming of things I might buy. But I've found that the urge usually goes away if I just sit on it for a while. Because when all is said and done, I absolutely don't need new gadgets; I can't even take proper advantage of the ones I already own. What I really need are clear skies and the time to enjoy them things that money can't buy.
Posted by Tony Flanders, March 16, 2007