Tuesday, August 11, 2009

hard to read to end

It's not often while I read something that I get angry. Usually this only happens when I'm wading through a poorly written user manual, typically associated with a computer software application I'm trying to learn.

Actually, I remember getting pretty hot reading the user guide for a Celestron GOTO controller two summers ago...

Early on with Visual Astronomy in the Suburbs, I grew upset. I alluded to this back in July shortly after I picked up Antony Cooke's book from my local library. It seemed that the author was a big fan of image intensifiers and used one to help him view from his Californian backyard.

(The eerie green glow on the cover should have told me something was amiss.)

By the time I reached the chapter "Practical Applications and Viewing Aids," I was angry. I could not put aside the feeling that I was being misled, that the author was biased. Cooke was talking about and showing in photos his typical observing session setup. I was stunned. Are you ready for this? Are you sitting down?!
  • telescope (an 18" Dobsonian with digital setting circles no less)
  • image intensifier
  • extension
  • eyepiece component
  • adapter
  • video camera
  • media converter
  • recursive frame averager
  • desktop (yes, desktop) computer
What?! Pardon? Hello! I thought the title of this book included the word "visual."

Curiously, the owner of all this astronomical and technological equipment does "not see the necessity... of 'go-to' telescopes."

Cooke relayed his excitement seeing a deep sky object from his light polluted backyard. I wanted to share this joy. But his observations were made looking at his computer monitor or the tiny green screen of the intensifier (which he admitted affected his dark adaptation). That's not what I would describe as visual observing.

He clearly has a very different interpretation of visual astronomy. What Cooke really meant was "real-time" astronomy. Observing the here and now, what was overhead, from the comfort of his home, not wanting to drive out of the city for 2 hours, what he could see right now—with a great deal of light amplification!

Cooke talked about sketching. But he was typically sketching from the enhanced image shown on a digital device. He admitted drawing from video taped images. Intriguing on one hand, coaxing out very faint details of very faint fuzzies in far less than ideal conditions. But not normally sketching what he was seeing directly through an eyepiece. Just because you’re using eyeballs in your head does not make it visual astronomy. He argued that since he's not taking a picture with a CCD that it was visual astronomy...

I plodded on. I felt it important to hear what he had to say. And surprisingly found myself actually enjoying his suggestions on gauging weather conditions and making astronomical sketches. His sketches of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were tantalising. His flat maps, while very artificial, were rich with surface detail. Things were looking up. I was anticipating his list of targets accessible from an urban environment. My hopes were quickly dashed.

As Cooke launched into chapter 6, as he recommended what would be required to view each of his favourite objects, I looked at his first choice and noted the "INT" at the bottom. INT meaning: intensifier needed. OK... Next object? Ah, INT again. Next target, INT. Um. What about the... INT. And on and on it went. I counted 62 targets in his primary list, of which 59 included INT. Now I was real angry. He gave me a whopping 3 targets to work with.

I must admit, I started skimming here. I was boiling. There seemed little point in reading his impressions of objects that he said needed amplification, that probably I would not be able to see visually, without aid. He said, "Andromeda is not resolvable visually." Huh. I can see it with my naked eye in the city. I remembered viewing M42 at 77x from the rooftop of my apartment near Yonge and Eglinton and being blown away.

What a minute. That was a curious remark about M31. That made me wonder about his actual sky conditions and imagine for a moment that they were quite a bit worse than what I have experienced. Fine, OK. But then why hadn't he made quantifiable measurements for us? Clearly a gadget freak, he could have aimed a Sky Quality Meter up into his orange-tinged, smog-filled, sea breeze layered skies and given us a reading. Surely, he could afford the $120. If nothing else, for typical nights and perhaps his best ever on record evening, he could have given us some naked eye magnitude limit observations. Oh! Right! He doesn't like using his eyes. Directly. What was I thinking...

I barely looked at his "Second Viewing Catalog." More INTs. I didn't even bother reading the Southern Hemisphere chapter. How thoughtful he provide this information to people who will not even be able to buy his recommended intensifier legally outside of the United States.

Winding down, I read the Postscript of the book. I had wondered if Mr Cooke was going to ever divulge this information. It took him 246 pages to work up the nerve to tell us the price of all this hardware. I had already hardened myself, reading the wikipedia article on intensifiers, learning that they had limited life spans (which the author only hints at), doing some online shopping and experiencing extreme sticker shock. Crikey. One could buy a whole telescope (or two) for the kind of money he wanted us to drop. One could buy a lot of car trips out of town.

The icing on the cake though was that Cooke turned over the last few pages of his soapbox message to the manufacturer of his favourite device. It was crystal clear now. I had wondered for a long time if the author was getting a kick-back. Yes. Yes he was.

I feel I've been had. Sucked in. Misled by a bad book title. There's a bitter taste after this experience. I had two other titles by Cooke on my list of astronomy books to read...

What troubles me is that Antony Cooke oppresses the reader. The tone is that nothing is possible inside the city (save a couple of planets) without extreme amplification. I fear novice amateur astronomers picking up this title will walk away thinking they must either spend thousands of dollars more to see anything inside in their backyard or not use their telescope at home. And that's a shame. My career best view of Jupiter was last summer from the sidewalk in front of my house opposite street lights. The best ever! With a lowly 8" SCT. There is much to see, in natural light, subtle hues, with minimal equipment, and with, admittedly, some assistance, a high-quality mirror or two, and a good, clear lens or two. That's visual astronomy. Direct simple astronomy. Real. Visceral.

Antony Cooke disagrees. He would call me "old fashioned." He doesn't think I should observe "the heavens the old fashioned way." He thinks I am a "fanatic" and that my way is "elitist thinking."


Perhaps the title should be: Image-Intensified Astronomy in the Suburbs.

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