Archive for the ‘Navel-gazing’ Category


Why I blog – and observe, and do everything else – so unevenly

March 13, 2017

[Warning: this is by far the most navel-gazey thing I’ve ever posted here. It’s almost entirely autobiographical, and unless you are really interested in the answer to the titular question, I recommend going elsewhere. Proceed at your own risk! – MJW]

Let’s start with the obvious fact that I do do these things unevenly. I’ve noted this before. I’ll have months where I’m out almost every clear night, and months where I never go out at all, even in good weather. Admittedly those zero-observation months are way down now that I have a monthly column to feed, and one of the things I like best about having a monthly column is that it forces me to get out and observe.

The why of this is complicated. Partly it is a complex and seasonally-shifting work schedule. Except for a couple of weeks between terms in August, and a week here or there for fieldwork or a conference, I teach human gross anatomy every weekday between mid-June and the end of October. November through May is given over to research and writing, committee work and other forms of administrativa, and prepping lectures for the next teaching block.

Layered over that is the waxing and waning of enthusiams that I think is natural for most people. As my friend Mike once put it in an email, “I know from many, many years’ experience (in programming as well as palaeo) that my phases of enthusiasm drift in and out of being in a totally random way, so I need to seize each one as it comes past and squeeze it till it bleeds productivity.”

I feel that, strongly. Very strongly, in fact. There are times when Subject X is all I can think about. It literally keeps me up at night. And then a few weeks or months later, I’ll only be able to think about Subject X with an immense act of will, and little to no enthusiasm or enjoyment. These periods of fascination typically last 4-6 weeks, after which I’ll have two or three days of feeling restless and bored as I cast about for the next thing. They also vary in intensity – sometimes Subject X is just something I think about in my spare time, and sometimes it’s about all I can think about during my waking hours. Privately I refer to these things as my ‘manias’, but a therapist once told me they were more likely to be properly classified as obsessions. Although I remain undiagnosed, I assume that there is some behavior spectrum on which I am a few paces farther away from the mean than most people. (If you have some relevant technical knowledge, I’d love to hear from you in the comments, or by email.)

Subject X can be just about anything. I don’t know in advance what the next one will be, and I don’t pick them. Certain subjects come around repeatedly, and other don’t. For a brief period in the mid-2007 it was houseplants. We went from zero houseplants to about 20 in the space of a month. I’ve managed to kill all of them except one over the following decade, and that particular mania has not returned.

Fortunately for my career, the interest that has returned the most often and at the greatest intensity has been paleontology, and biology more generally. It is not an exaggeration to say that my career has primarily been built on work I got done when I was in the grip of a mania. This worked really well in grad school, before I was a parent and when I had few real responsibilities. I could hole up in the spare room and work for 12 or 16 hours a day, emerging only for meals and bathroom breaks, and go to bed happy and fulfilled and ready to repeat the process the next day. Then I’d have months-long doldrums in which I got nothing done.

Even when I’m ‘on’, it’s a lot harder to channel that level of energy and enthusiasm when my days are so broken up by the spectrum of family and work responsibilities I have now. I’m not complaining about the latter! Being a parent is the most fulfilling I’ve ever done by a long shot, and I am fortunate to have work duties that are interesting and rewarding. If anything, I’m not complaining about my present situation as much as I am pointing out how far I got on very little discipline, because I was able to crank out lots of work in very little time. Even now, many of my papers have their genesis around 2:00 AM, when I can’t rest because I can’t stop thinking about a particular problem, and writing about it is the only way I can exorcise it, at least enough to get to sleep.

So, about this blog. Sometimes stargazing is Subject X, and sometimes it isn’t. The first time was in 2007, right after the houseplants. If the houseplant mania had returned and astronomy had not, I’d probably be blogging about plants on an equally erratic schedule. Because even when I’m in the grip of a mania, I don’t always have the desire or time to blog about it. Activity on any of my blogs is like a spring tide, which requires both the major driver (the moon/a mania for that subject) and the minor driver (the sun/interest in blogging) to align. Except for the first couple of years of SV-POW! when Mike and Darren and I were trying to actually trying to get at least one new post up every week, I have always felt that my blogs existed primarily to serve me, rather than the other way around, and I would blog when I felt like it and not push myself to blog when I didn’t. That’s not to say that I don’t care about my readers. I do, and I’m very grateful for all of the kind things people have said in the comments over the years. I wish I had the capacity to write for you more regularly. I guess I do, you just need a subscription to Sky & Tel to see it.

With all of that said, there are certain conditions that tend to push me toward stargazing. I typically do a lot of stargazing in the summer (up on Mount Baldy) and early fall (out in the desert), partly because the weather is nice, and partly because teaching anatomy is sufficiently technically demanding that I don’t have much energy or enthusiasm left over for paleontology, and I’m actively looking for something very different to do and think about. Stargazing versus teaching anatomy: outdoors vs indoors, alone or in a small group vs being in a lab with 50-150 people, no pressure vs trying hard to get everything right, on my own time vs scheduled. It’s the perfect getaway from my day job.

Likewise, I’m blogging a lot right now in part because I have a whole stew of stuff keeping me busy at the university, including some demanding committee work. And in part because I realize that these ‘spring tide’ events of stargazing mania, desire to blog, and time in which to do so don’t come around very often, so I’d better get as much done as I can before conditions change.

And they will change. My ever-cycling interest will turn to something else. In a few months we’ll have a beautifully clear evening and I’ll see the scopes in the garage and do nothing with them because I will feel nothing. I am fully cognizant of this now, and I will be fully aware of it then, but that knowledge will not motivate me. I simply will not care about stargazing, and I’ll go do something else instead. All of the subjects that fascinate me are tinged with this Flowers for Algernon-esque bittersweetness. But I rarely think about that – I’m usually too busy thinking about the current mania.

I have wondered, if this whatever-it-is that I have is ever diagnosed, and a treatment offered, if I would accept it. Sometimes it would be nice to be able to think about what I want, instead of whatever semi-random subject has a hold on my mind at the time. But I don’t think I would give up the exhilaration of these obsessions for mere convenience. I have previously compared them to falling in love, and when you are madly in love, there is no number of ordinary friendships that you would accept in trade.


This blog is inaccurately named

October 28, 2014


My reflectors

Me, back in the spring of 2008. Man, that XT6 seemed huge at the time. It looks tiny now.

Way back in September 2007, even before I had obtained my first telescope, I started keeping a log of my astronomical observations. A bit over seven years later, that log is an Excel spreadsheet that runs to 2564 lines, documenting 595.5 hours of telescopic and binocular observations spread out over 429 observing sessions. As far as I know, I have not missed a single session.

One thing you can tell right away is that my average observing session is a heck of a lot longer than 10 minutes. On average, over the last seven years I have gone out observing 61 times per year–about once every six days–and stayed out for an hour and 23 minutes per session. But this is horribly misleading. In truth my observing sessions split pretty neatly into two bins: those sessions that last 30 minutes or less, almost always conducted from my yard or driveway, and those sessions that last hours and hours, from Mt Baldy, the Salton Sea, Owl Canyon, the All-Arizona Star Party, and sundry other places that I’ve gone someplace else and set up a scope for an extended period. As time has gone on, those extended sessions away from home have occupied a progressively larger proportion of my observing in any given year. Here are some relevant numbers:

  • 2007 (last three months): 45 sessions, 25.81 hours, average of 34 minutes per session
  • 2008: 85 sessions, 67.48 hours, average of 48 minutes per session
  • 2009: 110 sessions, 101.66 hours, average of 55 minutes per session
  • 2010: 95 sessions, 166.73 hours, average of 105 minutes per session
  • 2011: 18 sessions, 47.23 hours, average of 157 minutes per session
  • 2012: 57 sessions, 101.34 hours, average of 107 minutes per session
  • 2013: 26 sessions, 59.62 hours, average of 137 minutes per session
  • 2014 (so far): 9 sessions, 25.67 hours, average of 166 minutes per session

Another thing the numbers at this level do not reveal is just how clumpy my observations are. My biggest sustained run of regular observing was July 2009 to November 2010, when I observed 161 times in 17 months. That was followed immediately by a long dry spell, December 2010 to January 2012, when I only observed 19 times in 14 months, and in half of those months I made no observations at all. From May to September 2013, I only went out twice. This year I did not observe at all between January and June. My islands of productive observing are separated by increasingly large gulfs of not-observing.

What gets me out often? Observing programs. I did almost all of the observations for the Binocular Messier and Deep Sky Binocular clubs from my driveway, in short sessions. Ditto for the Double Star and Urban clubs. Although I made up logbooks for the Bino Double Star Club and for O’Meara’s Hidden Treasures and Secret Deep, I haven’t started those observations yet.

This has implications for my decisions about gear. It doesn’t make sense to keep a large stable of telescopes when I might only get out 20 times in a given year. And if I’m going to a distant site for an all-nighter, I don’t want to take a whole bunch of scopes, I want to take one, or perhaps two at most.

Camp Wedel

The XT10 on one its many, many trips to the Salton Sea.

If money was no object, my ultimate gear list would be pretty short: a big Dob for chasing faint fuzzies, a compact mid-sized telescope that could do almost everything, a smaller or more break-down-able scope for airline travel, and some image-stabilized binoculars for bino observing. I always figured the Dob would be a 14″ or 16″ ultralight truss or strut design, but as time goes on I increasingly wonder if I’ll ever pony up the money for such a scope when the XT10 has so much to show me. In the CN thread “Where does serious aperture begin?”, Don Pensack wrote:

For years I thought an 8″ scope was a “lifetime” scope. Probably around 15000 DSOs are reachable, and pretty much all star clusters. You could spend a lifetime with one and become quite an accomplished observer.

Given that my tally of total objects observed probably stands at around 500 (110 Messiers, 170 other NGCs, ~75 southern-sky objects, 100+ double and multiple stars, 20 or so planets, moons, and comets, sundry IC, Collinder, and Stock objects, asterisms, etc.), it seems kinda silly to dream about a scope that would show me more than the ~20,000 objects left to see in the XT10, especially when said scope will (a) cost a lot more, and (b) be more of a pain in the rear to set up (since the XT10 is no hassle at all).

For a while I thought my compact, do-everything scope might be the Apex 127. But that was before I got into widefield observing and drank the refractor Kool-Aid. Now I think only a 4″ or 5″ apo will do, but that will set me back as much as the 14″ Dob. In other words, not something I’ll be purchasing anytime soon. Ditto for the image-stabilized binoculars. They’re nice, but they’re not urgent.

And, in truth, none of this is urgent. My current scope lineup lets me do about anything I want to, and I’ve always been fascinated by pushing humble equipment to its limits. Although I did get one new scope recently–more on that in the next post.


The new scope and the moon at the All-Arizona Star Party last weekend.