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The Light-Hearted Astronomer

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#1 Michael Rapp

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Posted 15 October 2013 - 08:07 PM

Over the past few months I've noticed a disturbing trend in my astronomy hobby. I wasn't having as much fun as I remembered myself as having. (I go into some of the details in my recent threads in the General Observing forum).

Part of this, perhaps a large part, is that I lost a little bit of what enraptured me in astronomy in the first place: the wonder and the vastness and beauty of it all. I got caught up in wanting to prove that I could be an accomplished observer. I wanted to be known for doing "real astronomy," which to me meant observing the dimmest of objects from the obscurest catalogs with the largest of scopes. Over a period of many years, astronomy simple became about checking items off of lists. A good night had nothing do what I saw, but rather how many objects I had crossed off. If observing an object didn't count for an award, it wasn't worth looking at it.

Thankfully and with the help of some CN members I see where I went astray and I've been trying to get back to observing because it is fun not because it is goal.

I remembered the book, The Light-Hearted Astronomer, which I first read in college in 1996. My memory of the vibe of the book was such that it seemed to be exactly what I needed to read, especially since I've been taking astronomy too seriously.

To my amazement, I located a near-mint copy for only $3 from one of the many online used bookstores on Amazon. I've been enjoying reading it this evening. It is indeed just as light-hearted as I remember it.

It's a little dated, of course, being originally published in 1984, but there is still so much relevant truth and wisdom in it! Chapter 4 should be repeated required reading for anyone contemplating a new scope.

Now back to Chapter 5.... :)

#2 Mike Lynch

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Posted 15 October 2013 - 08:28 PM

Thanks, Michael!!

Great thoughts.... gotta read that one, too!

#3 bumm

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Posted 15 October 2013 - 09:07 PM

Ken Fulton wrote a very unique and fun book there! I can't find my copy right now, (gotta be somewhere,) but I remember enjoying his description of going out in the wilds, where "Mother Nature puts on her horror show." Although much of the scope choices, etc, are outdated, there's still much good about that book.
In regards to your observing history, I think we all evolve or we lose interest. I've recently been having a ball going out with opera glasses and old field glasses duplicating the views described by Garrett Serviss in his 1888 book "Astronomy With An Opera-Glass." I see things I've probably seen a thousand times before with better and larger optics, but they seem brand new, and I see things in them I never noticed before. :)
Marty

#4 Michael Rapp

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Posted 15 October 2013 - 11:04 PM

Well, I'm nearly done with the book -- and I just finished the chapter on observing in the wilds and it is just as you remember it Marty. It describes the experience every single one of us has when we first observe in the middle of no where.

I had forgotten that the entirety of the book is written for beginners in amateur astronomy about to buy their first telescope. The book is essentially 30 years old, yet there is so much wisdom in those pages. The message is clear: keep a level head and you won't go off and buy things you don't need and wreck the hobby for yourself.

The underlying theme of the book is that it is not the equipment but the observing. Indeed, in a few places Fulton can almost come across as hostile towards astrophotography, but it's really about doing astrophotography and not caring to observe at all and also in jumping all-in into astrophotography too soon.

One thing I found curious is that writing in 1984, Fulton prophetically predicts the resurgence of interest in refractors that we've been enjoying for the past decade or so.

And...there is the mildly controversial part of the book. It is the page and a half on women in amateur astronomy. Let's just say the humor is a little awkward here.

There's a term that Fulton uses that I do not recall ever seeing elsewhere to describe diffuse objects: starfog. What a creative way of describing that glow, and fairly accurate for galaxies, too!

The book can be easily read in one evening....I didn't finish it in one evening as the sky cleared so I did some lunar observing. I'll finish it up tomorrow and post any concluding thoughts I have.

#5 esd726

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Posted 15 October 2013 - 11:48 PM

Very good book. I think it was one of my first "REAL" Astronomy books I ever bought (mid-80s).
I dug it out a month or so ago and started rereading it as well :). Boy it brings back memories.

#6 Rich (RLTYS)

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 05:52 AM

Read that book a number of times. The Light-Hearted Astronomer should be required reading. :bow: :jump: :bow:

Rich (RLTYS)

#7 Skylook123

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 07:48 AM

Reading that book about 20 years taught me the difference between "looking" and "seeing", how he was losing interest in the hobby and his artist friend told him to draw an egg. Every night, take the same egg out and draw it. By the end of the week, he was seeing and sketching detail that he never had noticed the first night, and it changed his observational experience.

I can't draw to save my life, so I try to paint word pictures on faint fuzzies, coming back to the eyepiece repeatedly to detect more detail as I write my description. That one lesson from that book, and trying to convey that difference between looking and seeing to visitors during outreaches, saved the hobby for me many years ago and opened up the sky in a way I had never seen it. I still use the lesson on myself and others every time out.

#8 bobhen

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 08:17 AM

Read that book many times. Still have a dogeared copy. Surprising how much of that book still remains relevant for beginners and old timers as well.

Reading Ken's remarks about refractors on alt/az mounts is particularly interesting as he foresaw and predicted the coming resurgence of the refractor back in 1984. At a time when larger Dobs and SCTs dominated, that was not something that most people saw coming.

Bob

#9 Michael Rapp

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 09:26 AM

I also enjoyed, although this may be a bit of confirmation bias on my part as I just bought a refractor, is his assertions that there is more to astronomical viewing than just raw aperture.

I wish I had had the book back in 1991 when I was shopping for my first "real" telescope. It may have made me rethink my 8" equatorial reflector purchase that I could barely move....and that spent nearly a decade out of collimation because I was so afraid I'd break something. A 4" no-fuss refractor might have given me a better experience and perhaps better views more often. (But, in 1991, it was all about raw aperture. If you didn't have at least an 8" scope, you couldn't possibly be doing "real" observing.)

There is something to be said for a 4" refractor as a first scope. What is especially interesting, is that 4" refractors were much, much more expensive in the mid 1980s than they are now, so such a scope is even more accessible to a beginning astronomer than they were then.

#10 Ragaisis

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 10:00 AM

I first read that book a good 30 years ago at least. And found another copy several years back for a buck. I then put it up here on Cloudy Nights as a "pay it forward" lending book. I just sent it to someone who wanted to read it. I paid postage. That person's agreement was he/she would send it to the next person on the list and pay the postage - it doesn't matter if it is across the street or around the world.

This went on well for a while, but eventually the chain broke and I have no idea who decided to just keep it. I sincerely hope it gave them the same desire to observe it gave me. I still consider it one of my favorite astronomy books.

Chris

#11 Michael Rapp

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 11:40 AM

When I read the chapter last night on the various types of amateur astronomers, I read it with a new perspective than I did seventeen years earlier. When I read the section on the Gadget-Mad Astronomer I had a catch in my breath as I realized Ack! That WAS me!

Earlier this year, I had constructed the Ultimate C9.25 Observing Rig™. It was awesome...although it did stop short of having a microwave oven in it. Unfortunately, it was too complex and heavy to really use (for me) and Fulton's point about Gadget-Mad Astronomers never actually getting around to observe hit a little close to home there. :)

#12 Tom Polakis

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 11:51 AM

Does anybody in this discussion know Ken Fulton personally? I always wondered what became of him. I think he was located in Texas, but that's about all I know. Did he belong to clubs in the area?

I read his book when it was first published, and had some good laughs at his take on the Celestron-Meade rivalry, among other subjects.

Tom

#13 amicus sidera

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 12:15 PM

Fulton's book, for me at least, was one of the dividing milestones between the good, old amateur astronomy and the new and not-nearly-as-good. The cover alone was off-putting, but highly signal: whereas experienced devotees of the old astronomy were (at least the ones I knew) to a man intelligent, forward-thinking individuals who had the good sense to check their fuel levels before venturing out on a dark-sky sojourn, apparently the implication was that the "light-hearted" types who were becoming legion around that time, and beginning to supplant the old ways with their own, were apt to leave their foresight (and possibly their eyepiece cases) back home, and suffer the consequences.

Things only got worse between the covers; I found the author's attempt at "humor" rather feeble, and the overall tone just didn't sit well with me. I threw my copy away the day after reading it.

#14 beatlejuice

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 03:41 PM

Things only got worse between the covers; I found the author's attempt at "humor" rather feeble, and the overall tone just didn't sit well with me. I threw my copy away the day after reading it.



I understand that. It's just the nature of your hobby! :grin:

Eric

#15 Zamboni

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 03:59 PM

Over the past few months I've noticed a disturbing trend in my astronomy hobby. I wasn't having as much fun as I remembered myself as having. (I go into some of the details in my recent threads in the General Observing forum).

Part of this, perhaps a large part, is that I lost a little bit of what enraptured me in astronomy in the first place: the wonder and the vastness and beauty of it all. I got caught up in wanting to prove that I could be an accomplished observer. I wanted to be known for doing "real astronomy," which to me meant observing the dimmest of objects from the obscurest catalogs with the largest of scopes. Over a period of many years, astronomy simple became about checking items off of lists. A good night had nothing do what I saw, but rather how many objects I had crossed off. If observing an object didn't count for an award, it wasn't worth looking at it.

Thankfully and with the help of some CN members I see where I went astray and I've been trying to get back to observing because it is fun not because it is goal.


This is interesting in that it's precisely the opposite of my own experience, but makes a lot of sense for the same reasons. I've been doing amateur astronomy for 20 years, largely as a freeform or "lighthearted" astronomer. Last year I found my attention beginning to flag, and found myself getting more out of hobby when I started structuring my observing sessions in the interest of doing A.L. Award programs and building up to AAVSO work. I wrote an article about it that's going to be published in S&T sometime in Spring 2014.

I guess what it boils down to is that if you're in a rut in the hobby, it's time to shake things up a bit. Drifting to a different approach for a while, regardless of which approach you're drifting to or from, can help you get reinvested in the hobby.

#16 Tom Polakis

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 05:09 PM

Fulton's book, for me at least, was one of the dividing milestones between the good, old amateur astronomy and the new and not-nearly-as-good. The cover alone was off-putting, but highly signal: whereas experienced devotees of the old astronomy were (at least the ones I knew) to a man intelligent, forward-thinking individuals who had the good sense to check their fuel levels before venturing out on a dark-sky sojourn, apparently the implication was that the "light-hearted" types who were becoming legion around that time, and beginning to supplant the old ways with their own, were apt to leave their foresight (and possibly their eyepiece cases) back home, and suffer the consequences...



And here I thought that the joke conveyed by the cover was that even though the author's car had run out of gas, he was not going to be without his telescope in his walk to the gas station. Turns out that the joke was that he's one of those dumb new amateur astronomers who couldn't be bothered to look at his gas gauge. Live and learn!

#17 Michael Rapp

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 05:57 PM

The cover is very interesting to me.....

At the risk of over-analyzing a book, I did not realize that he was carrying a gas can, so for seventeen years I've had a different impression of the cover.

To me the cover bespoke of a relaxed and modest approach to astronomy. Driving to a nondescript dark site on the side of a nondescript country road in a modest car, walking out to set up one's modest scope before dark. In other words, a relaxed and unhurried approach to astronomy -- a light-hearted approach, if you will. (I apparently thought the object in the author's right hand was a mount or some other astronomical accessory.)

Now that I realize he is carrying a gas can and is stranded on the side of the road..... I really don't know what to think!

#18 droid

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 07:48 PM

Wow ,so many varying views on this book.

I've had my copy for like ever and love the book.

Back a couple years ago, I asked if any one knew what happened to him. No one seemed to have any idea.
I began to believe that perhaps it was an alias, lol.

Just for curiosity, what type of amateur astronomer are yall?

I'm in the casual Scientific category I guess. though
I've been known to just get transfixed by the night sky with binos and loose track of time.

#19 Michael Rapp

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Posted 16 October 2013 - 08:37 PM

Welp, I finished the book. It wasn't exactly what I remember it being, but that is okay, I still really enjoyed it. Ken Fulton is a pleasant and funny writer to read, almost Dave Barry-esque in a way. I feel that his humor works best when it flows naturally....in the few places in the book where he seems to force it, it doesn't quite work.

(It is noteworthy that one of the longest chapters in the book, Is the Universe a Harsh Mistress?, which is in part dedicated to the idea that amateur astronomy takes effort and dedication is decidedly non-humorous.)

There a lot of underlying wisdom in this book, that while geared towards the first-time telescope purchaser would be good for any advanced amateur astronomer to re-read.

Now that I've finished it, I feel I can better state what the book is really about: it is about all of the traps in the hobby (to continue Fulton's jungle metaphor) that can snag you and cause you lose interest and enjoyment in the hobby.

I particularly tuned into his warnings about astrophotography. Considering I am still trying to recoup the thousands of dollars I threw at imaging a few years ago in a effort to take those spectacular photos that never materialized, I feel that Fulton was spot-on here.

All in all, for the cost of an over-priced Starbucks latte, you can spend an evening reading some timeless wisdom about our hobby and be reminded somewhat of what amateur astronomy was like three decades ago.

(As for the author, some web searches pulled up a few forum posts from 2008 or so that report he is still around, still observer, yet prefers to keep a very low profile these days.)

#20 starbux

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Posted 17 October 2013 - 06:01 PM

... I found the author's attempt at "humor" rather feeble, and the overall tone just didn't sit well with me. I threw my copy away the day after reading it.


To each their own. When I read the book back when it came out, it was the only astronomy book that had me rolling over in laughter.

Mostly over the advertisement descriptions. I used to salivate at the telescope ads in S&T and Fulton spoofed the text of the ads (and the names of the companies) right on target.

#21 rmollise

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Posted 17 October 2013 - 06:10 PM

Does anybody in this discussion know Ken Fulton personally? I always wondered what became of him. I think he was located in Texas, but that's about all I know. Did he belong to clubs in the area?

I read his book when it was first published, and had some good laughs at his take on the Celestron-Meade rivalry, among other subjects.

Tom


I've corresponded with him in fairly recent times. If I recall, he is still interested in astronomy, just not the astronomy writing business, and didn't seem interested in updating/revising his book. Which is a shame. The book is mostly still very, very readable. I did find his "Acme telescope company trope" a little irritating--then and now. If you are talking about Celestron and Meade, just say "Celestron and Meade" for frak's sake. HOWEVER, it is still a classic. :cool:

#22 Astrosetz

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Posted 17 October 2013 - 11:03 PM

The descriptions of the "telescope wars" ads were priceless. Gotta watch out for that photon splatter! ;)

#23 Michael Rapp

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Posted 18 October 2013 - 07:59 AM

It is one of my favorite parts of the book. Indeed, it made my look at some promotional material I've been drooling over recently and made me pause, "hey, these guys are trying to sell me something here. You know, Ken's right....I don't know a thing about coatings....and I'm all giddy that one manufacturer has 40 layers of coating instead of 30." Much truth in his book.

What is also interesting is that while he parodies the ads to great effect, he is also extremely fair to the companies. His analogy of ads as bait is spot on; moreover, his discussion of small companies and delivery time promises later on in the book is very pragmatic.

#24 GeneT

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Posted 28 October 2013 - 10:36 PM

It is a great, fun book. I'm with you. I don't like astronomy programs where you work through a lot of objects on a list. That is a goal oriented approach. I like the free wheeling approach.

#25 desertstars

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Posted 28 October 2013 - 11:38 PM

I've had a copy sitting around for years. A non-astronomer co-worker came across it while helping out at a neighbor's yard sale, and picked it up for me. Sounds like I should dig it out and give it a read.






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