Shedloads of good stuff from Jay Reynolds Freeman

January 7, 2010

I just stumbled across a several troves of useful and frequently hilarious articles by Palo Alto-based amateur astronomer Jay Reynolds Freeman, and I am posting the links for your entertainment and edification.

I decided to hunt down more of his writings after reading “Refractor Red Meets the Herchel 400“. The Herschel 400 is one of the most difficult observing clubs administered by the Astronomical League; many observers would say that tackling it with anything less than a 10-inch scope would be a doomed enterprise. And yet Freeman did the whole list from Palo Alto, within the San Francisco light dome (!), using the titular refractor, which has a scant 55mm of aperture (!!!). To put this  in perspective, the most popular scopes for beginners are 6-8 inch (150-200mm) instruments; my little Mak has an aperture of 90mm; and most good-sized scopes have finderscopes with 50mm of aperture. I would not have thought it possible to do the Messier list with a 55mm scope, let alone the Herschel 400; it is akin to finding out that someone circumnavigated the globe on a surfboard.

There is a nice batch of his articles here at Observers.org, most of which are pitched at beginners. The standout is “Recommendations for Beginning Amateur Astronomers“, which is available at several places on the net in several versions. If you own, want to own, or think you may ever own a telescope, read it right now; most of the advice on choosing and using a scope that you will ever read will be a less funny, nth-generation rehash of points made more economically and entertainingly in this piece.

The second and even bigger batch is at Cloudy Nights. I particularly recommend the article “10,000 Objects Logged“, which gives a quick and inspiring look back at several decades of observing. Freeman started out with about the humblest equipment possible, and still achieved more than most people probably think is possible:

My observing program used to be simple: I only had a 7×50 binocular. With good dark adaptation, high transparency, and maniacal persistence, I managed to find all the Messier objects with it.

Keep in mind that this is the same Messier list that I am currently tackling, with some exertion, using a 6-inch telescope.

Now, you might think that a guy who has done the Messier list with 7×50 binos and the Herchel 400 with a 2.2-inch telescope would be a champion of small aperture instruments. And he is, within limits. But here’s what he has to say on small versus big:

I don’t know where the idea came from, that small telescopes get used more than large ones, but as far as my own experience goes, that notion rates with flat-earthism and the luminiferous ether as unadulterated nonsense. If I could have only one astronomical instrument out of all the ones I have owned, it would without question be my Celestron 14.

I think it is worth pondering the fact that the same person who has logged thousands of observations on a telescope the size of a piece of furniture then took time to do a few hundred on a telescope the size of a rolling pin.

It is worth pointing out that Freeman has done serious technical work in astronomy, too. In that vein, and because it is one of my favorites of his, the last article I will recommend is his review of the movie Contact. That one is at his astronomy homepage, which has many but not all of the articles posted in other places, and quite a few more besides. His reflections on the Apollo program are fascinating and moving.



  1. I finally had some time to explore the Freeman site yesterday. There is some VERY interesting information, and some of his explanations of things, like eye pieces, clarified some of the mystery I’m still encountering about astronomy equipment.

  2. […] list this year. Right after I started on that project, I found out that some people–including Jay Reynolds Freeman–had done the whole list with 50mm binoculars. I hadn’t ever taken on a binocular […]

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