As my fourth year into this hobby approaches, I want to take note of some things that have come to light and I think deserve to be addressed. I hope this doesn't rile too many people up - I'm really trying to just cast some light on what I've been seeing. It just saddens me to see the graying hairs of this hobby and I don't want to be all alone in a couple of decades.
My first introduction to astronomy (at least at the amateur level) was at the Stamford Observatory, which at the time was run by a particular individual – we’ll call him Chuck. As I later found out, Chuck was an accomplished amateur who did a lot of great work for the AAVSO – mapping the sky and making thousands of observations of variable stars and novae. Some of his data is still used today. His observations with the Stamford 22” telescope supported the Apollo missions. He was by all accounts a great contributor to science at the semi-professional level. However, Chuck’s scientific prowess and observing skill was not what stood out to me in third grade when I went to visit the observatory for a cub scout trip. His attitude did. The man hated children, or pretty much anyone who wasn’t exactly like him – he’d yell at people for wearing light-up sneakers in the observatory or even for chewing bubblegum, and talked down to you if you asked a question he saw as even slightly stupid. He overall portrayed a pretty negative image of our hobby – and you had to pay to receive this treatment!
Chuck failed to keep the club’s members fresh, and when he moved and retired, the entire Fairfield County Astronomical Society (of which I am a member) basically shuttered, with only five members remaining. The observatory lies in ruins, abandoned, with only vague promises of a replacement, and the nature center is not exactly eager to involve us in the process anyways. Chuck simply did not care what happened after he was gone, and probably repelled many people who might’ve otherwise been interested in maintaining the observatory and fostering further interest.
While the vast majority of amateur astronomers aren’t at all like Chuck – they’re at least a little more civil and polite - I’ve seen far too many who share Chuck’s views. The problem I see with many of today’s astronomy clubs and organizations is that most of the time they fundamentally do not understand how to properly engage/recruit or even relate to new blood, or simply do not try or even care. This comes in several forms.
For one, many (usually older) astronomy hobbyists have ridiculous amounts of money to spend on equipment – some will not even blink at plunking down more money on a new eyepiece or accessory (or heck, even a book!) that costs more than an entire beginner’s telescope – heck, I’m guilty of this myself sometimes. Yet, despite all this spending and investment, the gear itself is seen as arcane. So much useful or easily-fixed equipment is trashed, passed down for almost nothing or simply abandoned because folks can’t be bothered or are too afraid to learn how to take off a corrector plate, clean a primary mirror, or collimate their SCT. And yet online resources make it so easy to learn! I spend more time tinkering with than building scopes nowadays simply because there are so many neglected instruments that just need a quick wash and some tweaking to perform like new again. People think you must spend at least a few hundred bucks to start out in the hobby when there are plenty of unwanted scopes available for next to nothing if you’re willing to do some basic work.
And of course, the sheer size of a telescope, the exact P-V or Strehl rating of your objective, or simply the number of inane computerized gadgets you’ve used to assimilate your instrument into the Borg are used as some sort of contest. Controversy rages over silliness like the minutiae of different types of glass in objective lenses, exact edge-of-field correction of different optical designs, or other absurd and futile debates rather than people just focusing on what plain works. Some claim that a “real astronomer” would never buy a $200 telescope to start out with. I’ve met people who still regard Dobsonians as idiotic and inferior instruments, or think that you can only observe with simple eyepiece designs because of low scatter or something like that. Gatekeeping, ruthless and stupid debate, and simple sizing up and egotism run rampant in the hobby. People laugh at me for having such an “ugly” scope at star parties or criticize me for not using a fancy laser to collimate. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but you’re not entitled to being a snob about it.
The single biggest problem with the state of the hobby as it is, however, is the defeatist attitude that many older folks have towards the future. Light pollution is often seen as a hopeless battle – despite the fact that awareness of the health and environmental problems it causes being at an all-time high as well as the waste totaling billions of dollars each year, many of the older astronomers I’ve talked to both in person and online seem to be unaware of the progress being made – or, if they are, it is simply irrelevant to them because they will not live to see its culmination. Some folks believe “electronically assisted astronomy” – looking at a live-stacked image on a monitor rather than through an eyepiece - is the only pathway to the future because “those gosh darned young folks only want to look at screens, might as well put it on a screen” or because of that defeatist attitude towards light pollution, and refuse any alternative ideas. Many claim “NASA is dead” or that “Musk is a con man/egotist/moron who will ruin astronomy with his Starlink project” when the situations are so much more complicated. And I’ve seen too many old folks on here especially just simply making the sad prediction that the astronomy hobby will die with them or soon after.
As a result of the aforementioned defeatism and infighting/gatekeeping, many folks simply do not seek to introduce new people to our hobby. They keep to themselves, either not engaging with the general public at all or only doing it when they absolutely have to, and in a manner reminiscent of good ol’ Chuck. There are of course many who still try, but to really keep this hobby thriving we need more of that positive energy and work put in.
It’s easy to look all of this in the face and say that the future of amateur astronomy is bleak. I do not see it that way. There is unparalleled access to information thanks to the Internet, for one. But there's also a new kind of excitement about space that I think hasn't been as high since Apollo. Millions watch SpaceX launches and actively follow NASA and ESA programs. I've seen so many people take interest in astronomical events as of late - the transit of Mercury was on the news the other day! But it is all for naught if we do not tap into that interest. The key is to embrace new methods and ideas, and abandon the distorted glasses that so many seem to wear. Even some of the mediocre beginner telescope offerings have a lot to offer the beginner or the casual, for surprisingly little money. Generosity, truly expressing and sharing one’s passion and enjoyment, giving as much as you take, and the embrace of new resources, ideas, and methods to reach others who might be interested are the key to the future of our hobby. The future is bright, but only if we all take steps to make it so.
Edited by Augustus, 18 November 2019 - 08:34 PM.