What Type of Astronomy Enthusiast Are You?

From casual to serious, amateur astronomers cover the spectrum.

Dickinson - AstroDay

The universe of amateur astronomy encompasses a wide range of activities and interests. Some trek to dark-sky sites to use telescopes, while others enjoy keeping up with the latest scientific developments by visiting web sites (like this one) and reading magazines. Courtesy Terence Dickinson

There was a time, decades ago, when the popular image of a typical amateur astronomer was a teenage version of the Hollywood portrayal of the mad scientist from cheesy 1950s science fiction movies. No Carl Sagans or Neil deGrasse Tysons back then — neither the real ones nor the movie versions. A 1950s teen astronomy nut (like me) had no public figures as role models. I remember in 1958 describing my passion for astronomy and skywatching to a cousin at a family gathering. “Why would anybody be interested in that?” came the unvarnished response. Sadly, it was a not uncommon remark at the time. Since then, things have evolved significantly, vastly improving the image of both astronomy and its fans.

A pivotal event that elevated the subject — if not to “cool” at least to “interesting” status — was the 13-part 1980 Cosmos television series by Carl Sagan, which became the most-watched science series in television history. Today, astronomy documentaries are common on both the Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Channel.

Never has there been a better time to get engaged with things astronomical. In my experience, the largest group of astronomy enthusiasts is a category usually referred to as the armchair astronomer, someone who is fascinated by the subject’s majesty and immensity but is restricted in the amount of skywatching he or she does. Armchair astronomers scan the web and astronomy publications, attend the odd public lecture and catch the above-mentioned television specials. They love the subject. They may have a small telescope for occasional celestial viewing, but often, because many live in urban areas not really conducive to outdoor skywatching, they do less of it than they would like. This might be you.

Seronik-binocular observers

Not all active observers use telescopes — ordinary binoculars can show a great deal. Courtesy Gary Seronik

Or you could be an active observer, someone who has lists of astronomical events at the ready for the next clear night (or weekend) as well as telescope equipment to examine the night sky. Active observers often have previously sought-out dark-sky observing sites and semidark locations closer to home.

A third category is the equipment aficionado, someone who appreciates fine craftsmanship in telescopes, optics, accessories and related electronics. Most equipment aficionados purchase telescope components for assembly into a complete observing or astrophoto system. A few even fabricate parts themselves (optics, mounts, home observatories) to complete their own astro-arsenal. In the era half a century ago that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the few manufacturers of telescopes that existed hand-made virtually every part of a telescope — and charged accordingly. Many amateur astronomers decided to do it themselves, with predictable varying levels of success, ranging from jewel scopes to junk scopes. Today, much less costly mass-produced telescopes of excellent quality are readily available and completely homemade telescopes are far less common.

Finally, we have the true amateur astronomer, the amateur scientist who has selected a sector of astronomy as a specialty and focuses his or her activities into that niche. Examples are variable-star observing, supernova hunting, comet sleuthing and even such extreme specialties as searching for extra-solar planets. Astronomy is one of the few scientific disciplines where amateurs can still make real contributions to the field. It takes true dedication and resolve, and probably fewer than 1 percent of those who call themselves amateur astronomers actually do this type of disciplined self-training and observing.

What type of astronomer are you?

Categories: Getting Started, Observing the Sky
6 comments on “What Type of Astronomy Enthusiast Are You?
  1. All we had was the library and few astronomy books in the 1960’s then my astro hero was Patrick Moore. Thus 54 years still doing astronomy. As for my friends here in Halifax, I managed to get them – even the bullies and leather jacket toughies interested in some astronomy once they looked at Saturn through my 60mm Tasco refractor. I started in Aug.1960 on my birthday at 6 years old.

    I find now that because of space probes ect amateur astronomy is slow and not popular like the 60-70’s.
    Granted, some outreach observing to the public may
    get 1-3 interested in looking, but when the main speaker nkows everything – and tells the public a sunspot is a shadow projected onto the solar surface and Look see a sunspot break up in a minute… yeahh.. that is really bad to tell the people looking.

    We do some observing sessions at the university and those who come to look usually say “That small smudge is the Andromeda galaxy?” I say welcome to reality… they are expecting to see colors like in books… I try for colorful objects – doubles like Albireo which is interesting and each sees a different color. If Saturn is up — usually get the “wow .. see the rings!!” Also I tell the people NOT to turn there ipods..ipads or whatever on and show them to look with their eyes NOT technology… also telling them that they are looking into the past as we are on a time machine.. is cool.

    I think astronomy is struggling but we’ll hang in there… hopefully…

  2. I would describe my self as an ‘Armchair Astronomer’. I began learning the sky after Apollo 8 and avidly watched the BBC show ‘The Sky at Night’ with Patrick Moore. Within a year I had completely learned all the constellations and soon had a pair of binoculars.
    I do like going out and observing from time to time especially when there’s a nice comet to be seen (I intend hunting down Comet Jacques’ this weekend). But I don’t feel impelled to go out EVERY clear night, just when I feel like it. I get my telescope out from time to time and look at Jupiter, or Saturn, The Moon, Orion Nebula etc but never does it feel like a duty.
    Often I’ll go for a walk and just enjoy being under the canopy of the night sky on a Moonless night.
    Astronomy to me is a connectedness with the Cosmos and enjoying the peace and majesty of the stars, enjoying the sounds of the night.
    Watching the seasonal procession of the constellations is always a joy I never tire of.

  3. Harold B says:

    I’m in between an armchair astronomer and an active observer. Love to get out more often!

    Last year I started an Astronomy Club at a local school for grades 4-6 and tried to get them interested in the subject, we had 6 girls and 4 boys showed up. We met once a month and talked about different subjects, projects and experiments. A couple of things the children enjoyed was making their own Planisphere, I made scaled sun and planets and we walked the distance to each planet it was nearly a kilometer walk, we had lots of fun. This year only one student was interested! I asked myself why? The kids are interested but they don’t want to spend the time learning it, it’s faster and easier to see the pretty pictures on the Web and check out their apps or watching some You Tube, it’s different world today people don’t take the time and enjoy our world, the sky and it’s treasures.

  4. Dave says:

    You forgot me, and folks like me: sidewalk astronomers!
    Some of us use simple scopes, with adequate (but not ‘whizzy’ and expensive) eyepieces to share the view with passers-by.
    Amateur astronomers have glommed onto the “Dobsonian Revolution” but forgotten the main reason John Dobson I veted the sidewalk scope in the first place.
    Share the view!

  5. Bill Magee says:

    I have been observing the celestial wonders for many many years but just completed viewing all 110 Messier objects 2 years ago;not for any certificate but just for personal enjoyment and achievement! I would regard myself as an armchair, internet,out in urban suburban and dark skies with SCTs 8″ and now for the last year a 6″ (that I won from where do you Celestron contest ) and binoculars, amateur astronomer.
    I am now back living in Dark sky country in Northwestern Ontario in the very small hamlet of Jellicoe. I have been busy lately and due to weather and lifes other challenges and have not had the time to observe much lately. Hope to be out again soon to enjoy the view that was created just for us to ponder about. I have shared the sights with whoever is around or have invited others to come and have a look see. My most used eyeball enhancer I have used over the last while would have to be my 20×80 binoculars mounted on a home made parallelogram and tripod mount.I have dabbled in astrophotography but mostly enjoy just looking up !
    Peace and Clear Skies
    Bill Magee

  6. Living in Vienna, Austria, I was mainly an Armchair Astronomer. Since my wife and me are spending half time in Canada in locations with pretty dark skies I advanced to an active observer. Though I have a little telescope (90mm refractor) and binoculars (9×25 and 10×70) it happened that I observe mainly digital pictures on the computer screen. For shots with more magnification I am using a Bridge Camera (Canan SX50HS). With an optical zoom of uo to 1200mm it shows nice views of Jupiter’s four Galleian Moons, with a little bit on phantasy the ring of Saturn and nice details of our Moon. It is also quite nice for loooking up double stars. It is just not always easy to find them…

    Seeing all the nice pictures in magazines like Skynews I got a Canon 60D SLR with right now 3 lenses: 18 – 200mm (3.5 – 5.6), 50mm (1.4) and Tamron 10 – 24mm (3.5 – 4.5). I am using mainly the 50mm lens. It is light and you find easily your targets with the tilting and turning monitor. You can find many of the Messier objects, Uranus and Neptune can be found thanks to detailed charts and I am hoping to find the one or other Asteroid. And with the help of star atlases you can explore the night sky step by step. The white angle zoom gives me a great overwiew. The Milky Way is nice to see or its great to explore the constellations. Eventually I can use my telescope for photography, too. With a T Adapter I can use the Canon 60D directly. The other choice is using a little Canon Point and Shoot camera (28 – 140), a digital camera adapter universal and a 40mm eye piece. Results are quite nice. It is just not very convenient to carry the relatively big and heavy telescope compared to the light weighted camera tripod. And it is sure not easy to find objects with the Alt-Azimuth tripod. So the first choice is always just a camera and the small camera tripod.

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