Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Working in Imperfect Conditions

Sidewalk Universe Guy commented on a recent post of mine about taking astronomy to the public in less than ideal conditions. To me, it seems only natural. I know, astronomy is mostly a solitary endeavor, and public outreach astronomy doesn’t appeal to every astronomer. But for those of us who enjoy dealing with the public, what time is better for it than just before full Moon? Or a night when seeing isn’t quite perfect? I learned early as an astronomer to use what I’m given to my best advantage.

In the fall of 2008, I was taking an astronomy course at Purdue North Central. It was the follow-up class to one I had taken in the spring, and that first class had awakened my love for astronomy. I bought my first telescope that summer, and was learning my way around the sky. On the first day of the fall semester, I handed out flyers to my classmates that I was going to try to have observations after class every Monday when the weather allowed. Almost every Monday I had my telescope set up after class, but the idea never caught on. My teacher, however, had been assigned to our class just before the semester began. He was an Earth sciences instructor, and while knowledgeable about planetary geology and atmospheres, he was grateful for my insights on the history of astronomy and observational astronomy.

Our class was required to have an observation session, and after the change to Standard Time in early November, our class met after dark for the first time. It was a beautiful night, much better than one would expect in November, but there was high humidity, and it didn’t take long before I noticed it distorting our views in the eyepieces. We were just behind the Technology Building, and near a parking lot, which meant lots of lights around. After the observation, for the written portion of the assignment, I wrote:

“Despite unseasonably pleasant weather, I sensed that few people were willing to walk to a more remote campus location that I believe would have reduced light pollution, and therefore improved the quality of our observations. There always seem to be trade-offs in astronomy, and especially so tonight. Would I rather have a warm night of bad seeing but the company of my classmates, or an exceptionally clear, but cold night observing alone? Would I rather captivate my audience in the glow of campus lights, or lose their attention during a forced march to darker skies? Alone those answers are easy, but since the benefits of a cooler night and a longer walk would be negligible to novice observers, I must, at least for tonight, consider the light pollution and warm, moist air to be positive for the overall experience.”

I think too many astronomers get obsessed with waiting for a brief moment of absolutely perfect seeing, and forget that even when conditions are less than ideal, there are beautiful views to be seen, especially to untrained eyes, seeing them perhaps for the first time. That’s why I love sharing my telescopes with the public. Nobody’s ever looked, and said, “Saturn looks okay, but you should have waited for a night without so much turbulence in the atmosphere.” All I hear is, “Wow! You can see the rings and everything!” Sometimes people will notice the image bouncing around on a windy night, or see shimmering around the lunar limb and ask about it.

Like I said above, public astronomy isn’t for everyone, but if you like talking with people, especially about astronomy, when the sky conditions aren’t going to let you push your limit, why not grab your scope(s) and find a spot with people passing by? It will satisfy your itch for astronomy, and maybe give a new perspective if our universe to the people you meet.


  1. Nice post Paulie!

    I hope I was not misunderstood, the less than ideal conditions is something that I embrace as part of the process.

    Your last two paragraphs really nailed it my friend!

    Like you I have had wonderful sessions with the public in less than pristine. These times are filled with excitement, awe, laughter, and a sense of community that is wonderful to experience. You are so right in that we forget that our guests do not expect the same things as we do and we need to learn from this. In fact as I write this I'm doing a quickie less than ideal Lunar observe (drive way) and I'm having a blast.

    I greatly respect your willingness to do what you are doing and I am looking forward to more good reads for you.

  2. I got what you were saying. Like I say, I accept what the sky gives me, and try to enjoy it, even if it's not perfect conditions.

  3. Spot on Paulie! Thanks for sharing and for being brave enough to put yourself out there.