Archive for the ‘Advice from gurus’ Category


Ken Fulton on refractors

October 24, 2013

If I’m succumbing to refractoritis, I’ve at least had some help getting there. David DeLano and Terry Nakazono have let me look through their big beautiful lens-based scopes. Darrell Spencer posted about the crisp views through his huge refractors on CN. And Doug Rennie sent me this back in August. It’s an excerpt from Ken Fulton’s under-appreciated book, The Light-Hearted Astronomer.

Read it at your peril.

Ken Fulton - Light Hearted Astronomer - excerpt on refractors


Camping and stargazing with a child

May 13, 2011

This started out as a comment, in reply to a question from Saint Aardvark on what it’s like camping and stargazing with a 5-year-old along. It grew in the telling, so I’m making it a stand-alone post. If you have ideas, tips, or tricks for making time outdoors with children easier, please share them in the comments!

I started taking London with me to dark-sky sites last summer, when he was about five and a half. Between July and November we went to Owl Canyon, Joshua Tree Lake, Afton Canyon, and the All-Arizona Star Party, so we basically built out from nearby destinations to farther ones. The hardest part for him initially was the long drive. We always pack him a backpack full of books and magazines. I also have a couple of kid-friendly CDs in the car, and I keep a full-size pillow within his reach so he can lay his head down and take a nap while we’re driving.

Once we get to wherever we’re going, London is usually off exploring and looking for bones or cool rocks near our campsite. He is very good at staying withing line of sight and not wandering more than 100 feet or so from me. My first goals are always to get our camping area squared away first, whether we’re staying in a tent or just sleeping in the back of the vehicle, and then to get a fire going for dinner. It helps to arrive an hour or two before sunset; much earlier and we just end up getting sunburned and waiting for dark, and much later and it’s harder to set up in the fading light.

I can’t overstate how useful–nay, critical–it is that I can trust London to mind himself for 30-60 minutes while I get everything squared away. It really drives me nuts when people say how lucky we are that London is well-behaved. It’s true that he has a naturally gentle disposition, but dismissing his good behavior as luck devalues all of the work that we put into disciplining him, and more importantly, all the work that he puts into disciplining himself. It’s precisely because of the effort we all put into maintaining a civil household that we can enjoy ourselves so much when we’re out of the house; good behavior out in the wild is earned by practice at home. I don’t bring this up to be snooty or a tiger parent. I just can’t stand wimps who are too lazy or passive to discipline their kids. That’s a dereliction of parental responsibility and a huge disservice to the children, who will have to learn discipline later on, the hard way, at someone else’s expense. End of rant.

After dinner I make a comfy spot for London to watch for shooting stars and satellites. This might be the lounge chair, if I have it along, or maybe just a sleeping bag and pillow laid on top of a big piece of cardboard on the ground. Or my lap, in whatever seating is available. Usually he tells me when he is getting sleepy and I get him settled in his bed. If we’re sleeping in the back of the car, I make sure a window or door is open so I can hear him if he calls out. He never has yet, but I think the knowledge that he could call for me if he needed is a comfort. And I just don’t want the car sealed up with him inside, even in good weather. I always set up the telescope as close to the car or tent as I can, so I can keep an eye on him and he can know that I’m nearby.

I want London to enjoy these outings as much as I do. I grew up out in the country and the ready access to wide open, semi-wild spaces had a huge impact on me. It’s not really feasible for us to live in the country, so my substitute is to get London out into nature as often as possible, and to try to facilitate his enjoyment of it. Even on the hardcore stargazing trips, I try to make sure that his interests and desires get at least equal billing with my own. I don’t think that’s indulgent–I’d do the same for a camping companion of any age. In the early evening, he mainly wants to run off the cabin fever from the car ride, do a little solo exploring near camp, and look for interesting things on the ground. (I’ve taught him to recognize venomous spiders, scorpions, and snakes. He’s never found any out camping, but when he was four he correctly IDed a black widow spider that set up shop under one of our plant stands in the living room!) I usually grill hot dogs for dinner and then follow up with s’mores. That makes the fixing of dinner something he can help out with, which keeps him engaged and gives him a sense of accomplishment. After dinner, we look for shooting stars and satellites until he conks out. Then I get in a few hours of solo stargazing.

In the morning, we have breakfast and go for a hike. I’m usually running on 3-5 hours of sleep, so having some caffeine available is a must. For the hike, London gets to choose the route and duration (within reason); he’s on these trips to hike as much as I am to stargaze, and we’re both comfortable with the give-and-take involved. If your little one isn’t into hiking, you might see if there is another outdoor activity that they are interested in, that could be their recreational time the way that stargazing is yours. In talking about our hikes, London and I always call them “adventures” that we “brave explorers” go on, and I think putting things in those terms helped inspire him the first few times out. Now he’s so hooked on hiking I could call them “death crawls” and he’d still be eager to get out there.

One last enticement: on the way home, we stop at a restaurant for lunch, and London gets to choose where we stop. This almost always means McDonald’s, but I can live with it. We bring dinner and breakfast fixings with us, so lunch on the ride home is our only extraneous expense. And it gives London a little something to look forward to at the end of the trip, when everything is over but the ride home.

Ultimately, camping with London is so smooth and enjoyable that it’s often the first choice for both of us for passing a weekend with good weather. It’s cheap, too: hot dogs, s’mores fixings, lunch at a fast food joint and 2/3 of a tank of gas usually add up to less money than we’d have spent over the weekend anyway. And it gets us out of the house and at least into some contact with nature. I hope he grows to love wild places as much as I do; I think the best way to cultivate that love is to help him enjoy his time in nature right now. I hope your own family outings are successful, and even when they’re not, I hope that doesn’t stop you from going. It’s worth it.


Observing report: and now for something completely different

October 3, 2010

Last night my son London and I went to a star party at Joshua Tree Lake RV & Campground. The party was hosted by the Southern California Desert Video Astronomers, and it was not like any other astronomical gathering I’ve ever attended. The SCDVA have a nice area of their own off the main campground, with a couple of big white screens on which they project live images taken through their computerized telescopes. It was my first exposure to large-scale video astronomy, and also my first experience with how the SCDVA put on a star party. In short, it actually was a party. There were probably 50 or so people in attendance, and there was an actual program with a series of MCs and live music and a guest of honor.

The guest of honor was John Dobson, who is famous for basically inventing both sidewalk astronomy and the Dobsonian telescope. Dobsonians are just Newtonian reflectors on alt-az mounts, and the name “Dobsonian” was coined by people other than John. In his words, it’s just a cannon mount, and wars have been fought for centuries with big guns on “Dobsonian” mounts. He’s much more proud of having his name attached to Dobson’s Hole, which is what we Dob drivers call the area of the sky straight up overhead, because it’s such a pig to accurately point our scopes at targets near their axis of azimuthal rotation (frequent adjustments in non-intuitive directions, and no leverage short of bear-hugging the scope or putting handles on the side).

What set John Dobson’s alt-az mounted Newts apart from those that had come before is that they were CHEAP and they were BIG. The cheapness was of necessity–Dobson started building scopes when he was a monk, and the associated poverty meant that he had to scrounge for telescope materials. The classic homebuilt Dobsonian had a thick cardboard tube, of the kind used for forming concrete; a base made out of plywood; and a mirror ground and polished by the telescope maker from a big blank of glass–in Dobson’s case, old ships’ portholes. The bigness was of design–Dobson felt, and feels, that the way to get people hooked on the wonder of the universe is to kick them in the brainpan with the view of some celestial object through a great big telescope.

Dobson’s other great invention (or popularization, if you prefer) was sidewalk astronomy. As with the Dobsonian mount, public outreach by astronomers had a long history, but Dobson kicked it up a notch. Before John Dobson, astronomy outreach usually involved bringing people to the telescopes. Dobson brought the telescopes to the people. As he put it last night, he did it to remind people that their address in the universe didn’t end at Haight Street (the famous “hippie” street in San Francisco where Dobson used to set up his telescopes for passersby). Events like International Sidewalk Astronomy Night and Observe the Moon Night trace their roots to Dobson’s brand of engaging the public, and the entire International Year of Astronomy was very much in the same spirit, although obviously much broader.

Dobson–who turned 95 just last month–gave an interview and took questions from the audience, and in all probably spent about an hour speaking. He was very entertaining. My favorite bit:

Woman in the audience: “How did you get interested in astronomy?”

Dobson: “I got born. What’s your problem?”

At that point, surreally, I went on a brief scorpion hunting expedition with fellow PVAA member Cliff Saucier, who had a UV flashlight and asked me if I wanted to see some scorpions. I didn’t know before last night that scorpions flouresce under UV light, but man, they shine like little yellow-green suns. Cliff could wave his flashlight back and forth over the desert floor and from 30 feet out we could see scorpions glowing like flares. The picture is blurry because I took it with my phone, but the colors are faithful, just quite a bit less intense than the live view. You’d swear that the scorpions themselves were radiating. It made them look even more like evil machines than they already do, which is saying something.

Back at the star party, we were treated to a slide show of stunning desert photography and a life performance by “Hurricane” David McChesney, former national champion harmonica player. Now, I am not normally a big fan of the harmonica, but on the other hand, I have never in my life heard anyone play it like Hurricane Dave. For big swaths of his show I was sitting slack-jawed with a big dopey grin on my face, not because he was funny (although he was, frequently and deliberately), but because it’s awesome to see a master working at the top of his game. I was reminded of the quote that the highest levels of performance in any field of endeavor are indistinguishable from art.

After Hurricane Dave, the video astronomy got going. While the SCDVA guys put up one stunning image after another, Clive Wright played his spacey ambient guitar. It was far out, man, and I mean that as a compliment. Up on the big screens we got to see the Ring Nebula, the Dumbbell Nebula, the Swan Nebula, the Lagoon Nebula, the Trifid Nebula, and probably a few others; I didn’t rigorously keep track.

Appropriately, the party didn’t end so much as dissipate. London and I were car-camping–I was doubly happy about that after seeing all the apparently radioactive scorpions cruising around the campground–so when he finally got ready to go down I retreated from the star party scene and set up the Astroscan next to the car for a quick session. I only observed for about an hour, but I cruised through about a dozen of the best and brightest deep sky objects, including the North American Nebula and the Veil Nebula, which I can’t see at all from my side of the mountains. I ended on Jupiter and its moons, which were appropriately stunning.

It was kinda cool to get out with the ‘Scan. The only other time I took it out to a dark site was also a camping trip–back in 2008 I got to take some students from my ecology class camping in Yosemite, and I took the Astroscan along and gave one of the guys his first-ever view of Saturn. It’s a solid little scope. The f/4 light cone is pretty brutal on eyepieces, but it has a crazy wide field and as long as you don’t push the magnification too high, you can have a lot of fun. I have a feeling that scope is going to be seeing more action in the future.

This morning London and I ate a lazy breakfast in camp and took our time getting around. On the drive out we saw a tarantula crossing the highway, so we stopped and watched it for a few minutes. If they gave out medals for doing the spider dance I would have a vault full of trophies, so for me this was an exercise in deliberately creeping myself out. Anything that has more legs than I can easily keep track of is Not Cool in my book. But sometimes even Not Cool is cool. Especially if you and your little boy are scaring yourselves silly watching a humongous spider.

In Yucca Valley we ran into some dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are cool, and roadside dinosaurs are extra cool, but that’s a story I’ll have to take up later this week, over at SV-POW!

Final verdict? I had a fantastic time. At one point when no one else was near him, I got to talk with John Dobson for a few minutes and to tell him how much his brand of sidewalk astronomy had inspired me. He was kind enough to autograph my star atlas; I couldn’t think of a more appropriate thing to bear his signature. The site was dark, the sky was clear, the weather was perfect, and the SCDVA were very generous and entertaining hosts. If you ever get the chance to attend one of their shindigs, do it. Maybe I’ll see you there!


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, 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.