How did it start?
- There was a specific event: in the 6th grade, I noticed a row of textbooks in a closet, a basic astronomy text called A Dipper Full of Stars. (I already wrote about that here: http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2014/05/01/cosmos-and-my-amateur-astronomy/.) I asked to borrow one and read it. Later I bought a couple mini-paperbacks through the school’s book ordering system, one called Stars and the other The Sky Observer’s Guide.
- That let to requesting a telescope of my own, which I was given for my 6th grade Culmination. Summers looking at the stars in Apple Valley in the dark desert night. Norton’s Star Atlas. An initial ambition to major in astronomy in college. Which I abandoned when the physics got too hard.
- In parallel I became fascinated by star names, which are matters of history and mythology of course, not astronomy. There are several dozen well-known ones (Sirius, Betelgeuse, Vega, etc.) but several hundred more obscure ones, to be found in larger sky observing guides that detail interesting object to see constellation by constellation. One of these was published in 1971, a hardcover for the then hefty price of $12.95, which nevertheless I bought, in May 1972: What Star Is That? by Peter Lancaster Brown. Others were Outer Space: Myths, Name Meanings, Calendars (1964), by Gertrude and James Jobes, which I first saw at the Victorville Public Library, and much later found a used copy of via the internet; it’s exhaustive on how different cultures have described and named stars, planets, constellations. Finally there was Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, by Richard Hinckley Allen, first published in 1899 and reissued in a heavy-duty Dover trade paperback in 1963; this one was exhaustive in its accounting for variations in every star’s name through different cultures and spellings.
- This was perhaps the first topic where I became more obsessed by the peripheral matter of compiling star names than by studying the stars themselves. For several years in my teens I looked for any other astronomy guides that included star names that I could find in libraries, checked out each such volume and compiled which names it included. All these data got sorted into tallies, of sorts, of which names, and spelling variations, were most common for each star. Why did this matter? I’m not sure; but compiling such data (trivia?) seemed important, and came from the same motivation, I suppose, that decades later led me to compile and maintain a website of science fiction awards, which has set a standard for such sites and is widely used.
- More recently I discovered that the International Astronomy Union (IAU) for a working group in 2016 to formalize the official names of several hundred stars, with the results published here: https://www.iau.org/public/themes/naming_stars/
How did it go?
- Apple Valley was the ideal place to skywatch through a telescope; the skies are dark away from city lights, and there was no smog in the desert. (Smog was a considerable problem in LA in the ’70s; my journals from those years frequently mentions not being able to see the hills 3 miles to the north, or breathing problems from long bicycle rides on smoggy days.) I suspect I just left my telescope at the Apple Valley house. For several summers in the ’70s I spent multiple weeks in Apple Valley, in between summer classes, and would often spend evenings out in the yard with my telescope.
- You don’t use a scope to look at the moon much; it’s too bright. But looking at planets is easy and rewarding. What you can see depends on which planets are in the sky at any given time, of course. Saturn’s rings are easy to see, as are Jupiter’s four large moons. Venus is fun to see as a crescent, like a mini-moon. Mercury is hard to spot because it never gets very far from the sun, and so has to be seen just after sunset, or just before sunrise.
- After the planets the fun things to try to see are double stars, binary stars that appear as a single point of light to the naked eye, but in a telescope can be seen to two or more individual stars. Sometimes one is obviously brighter than the other; sometimes their colors are strikingly different (one yellow, one blue for example). In the constellation Lyra, the star designated Epsilon is a double-double–in the eyepiece you see one pair at the left edge of your view, a similar pair at the right edge, separated by 10 times the angular width of each individual pair. (In one of my early journals, I have a long list of a couple dozen double stars I’d managed to “split” in my telescope in just one evening. You just need your Norton’s Star Atlas and plan in advance where to look.)
- Beyond that are the various nebulae and galaxies, the 100 or so brightest of which were compiled and numbered by French astronomer Messier, the list known as Messier objects (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_object). Some of the most famous are the big globular cluster in Hercules, M13, and the Andromeda galaxy, M31. They and a few others are easy to spot in the telescope — i.e. they’re bright enough — but can be disappointing nevertheless, mere fuzzy blobs in the telescope, especially compared to the familiar high-resolution photographs of the objects we’ve seen for decades.
How did it end?
- The looking at stars through a telescope wound down by age 30 or so, when my grandmother died and I lost access to Apple Valley. It was never practical to see stars from the middle of a big city. At some point that I don’t remember, I must have given away the telescope.
- But much later, perhaps 2010, my partner Yeong bought me a telescope, a similar small refractor, for Christmas. It sat outside on an inaccessible balcony of our Woodland Hills house until we moved to Oakland in 2015, where it sat outside on a balcony that turned out not to be inaccessible and someone stole it. He replaced it last year with a Cassegrain reflector (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassegrain_reflector), a scope of similar light-gathering power in a more compact size. It sits inside. It’s useful for seeing the planets, and details of ships in the bay.
- The interest in cosmology has never ended, but rather merged into a general interest in science (in particular all matters about the age and extent of the universe) and how our knowledge keeps expanding, e.g. the current mysteries of dark matter and dark energy.