I had an epiphany this weekend that my mid-life crisis is going to be pretty boring. I realized this while I was browsing classified ads for telescopes over at Astromart. What’s that? Why would I be thinking about a mid-life crisis while looking at telescopes? Why was I looking at telescopes at all? Well, that’s a long story.
Before I became a computer dork in high school, one of my first dorky loves was astronomy. My parents had bought me a now classic Edmund “Astroscan” 4 inch Newtonian telescope. This was a simple enough machine to use. The scope was a short tube with a small red bowling ball attached to the bottom where the mirror sat. You pointed the thing at the sky by rolling it around on its red ball-shaped base. Then light from the stars went into the tube, reflected off a mirror at the bottom and then a smaller mirror at the top. You can then look through an eyepiece at the top of the telescope.
I loved the little red ball, and I devoured all of the literature available to me at the time, mostly in the form of the classic Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines. I remember the awesome back cover ads with the orange Celestrons. I remember the first writeup of the now iconic Dobsonian telescope in S&T. I even wrote a letter to John Dobson himself, who was gracious enough to reply to an enthusiastic 14 year old. I then had an extended period of time in junior high when I considered building my own larger telescope. I went so far as to scam a subscription to a magazine about the subject: Telescope Making, published by the same people that put out Astronomy. This project never materialized. Instead I started to get interested in computing machines, initially motivated by the notion of building a piece of software to generate astronomical charts, and maybe even control a telescope. I soon realized that my real talents did not lie in building physical machines, but rather abstract machines made out of patterns of electricity.
I came back to all this a few weeks ago when I found out that some publishing company had made the entire run of Telescope Making magazine available for download on the Internet. You can find it in google. One thing led to another and I was soon buried by a wave of nostalgia. I had kept a cursory eye on astronomical matters over the years by buying the odd issue of S&T but I had never dug deeply into it. But these days the Internet lets you dig into anything as deeply as you want with just a few clicks of the mouse and visits to Google.
The best of the sites I found is clearly Cloudy Nights which contains all manner of discussions of interest to the astro-dork. From there, you can then visit Uncle Rod who seems to have used every telescope made between now and around fifty years ago. And of course there is Astromart.
A lot has happened in amateur astronomy since I stopped paying attention. Meade and Celestron are still the big players, but both almost went out of business. Meade is now fighting its way back. Celestron is owned by the Chinese. The Chinese appear to own most of the rest of the optical industry as well. This has had the effect of making many things, like exotic refractor telescopes, into reasonable affordable commodity items.
In addition, computers are everywhere. They control the telescopes. They hold larger star charts than ever could have been printed on paper. They capture photographs of celestial objects more easily than the guys who used to soak Tech Pan film in hydrogen gas could have imagined. In particular, the use of digital video equipment, from fancy custom cameras to simple webcams, in capturing astronomical images is something that I never could have imagined possible. All in all while the 14 year old me would have expected a lot of this to have happened, he would still have had reason to be amazed.
Studying all of this material over the last few weeks brought me to a few interesting conclusions.
First, the astronomy hobby forums are all filled with older guys like me who are still stuck on telescopes just like I was when I was 14. This is apparently true of every hobby driven Internet forum in the entire universe. Just replace the telescopes with some other object of affection.
Second, the obvious path for my mid-life crisis would be to build a permanent and completely automated observatory in my back yard. Fundamentally a mid-life crisis is about rediscovering the unfulfilled dreams of your 14 year old self. While most normal 14 year olds dream of cars and well endowed women, I’m pretty sure that the 14 year old me could not have imagined anything cooler than a completely automated, computer controlled observatory in my back yard. That’s just how I would have rolled. I mean, just imagine it. Running the telescope and capturing awesome digital images all from the comfort of my bedroom inside the house.
Third, while computers have had a bigger impact on amateur telescopes than I could have imagined back in 1977, the 2010 me can’t fathom how slowly the amateur astronomy industry moves. The basic user interface for controlling a computerized telescope was first made practical and usable by Meade in the mid 90s. And it basically has not changed since. You put a small computer inside a plastic hand set with a few dozen keys on it and 2 lines of LED text. And that’s what you use to point the telescope.
Most computerized telescopes still use RS-232 ports for external connectivity. So if you want to control the scope with your laptop you need to find someone to build you an exotic one-off cable. Worse, it never occured to anyone until just last year that wireless control might be a cool idea. The SkyFi is particularly sweet because they also make an iPhone application to talk to their device, so you can control your scope with your cell phone. Still, how does it take more than 20 years to go from a clunky wired handset to a wireless remote? Note, if you study the SkyFi page that I just linked to above, you will note with great irony that it only works with telescopes that have an RS-232 port.
The result of all of this is that my remote controlled automatic backyard observatory would still take a lot of legwork to put together. Although most of the required pieces are in place.
So, for now, my real mid-life crisis will be delayed while the world waits for a few more critical pieces of infrastructure. Surely a video-based camera system with a wifi chip in it can’t be far away. Meanwhile, I can enjoy myself like I always do. Looking at the Internet and thinking about how much fun it would be to have some of this equipment, while avoiding the actual task of going outside in the cold and cursing the Pittsburgh weather. I would do this secure in the knowledge that if I ever did actually buy a telescope, Pete would just mock me for having done so when Pittsburgh is known to be cloudy on 90% of the nights … unless I buy his.