My interest in astronomy goes back nearly as far as I can remember. What may be unusual is that I can recall what ignited it. I was either 6 or 7 years old and we were at our neighbors lake cottage and they always went down to the shore to watch the sunset over the lake. One evening we stayed out a little longer as the first stars were appearing in the sky. This neighbor knew the constellations and proceeded to point out the summer triangle and named the stars! Before this, I simply assumed that new stars were out every night.
The pictures at the left and right are from the out of print book The Golden Book of Science. The picture of the big dipper spawned may nights of fruitless search for this object because I was looking for a much smaller star field. But the searches were fun and I definitely remember finding Orion during the winter months.
I eventually received my first telescope in 1970 -- an Edmund 3 inch
reflector. Though this could hardly be described as a good telescope, as
a beginner scope it was more than adequate and the information that Edmund
supplied with the scope was outstanding. This was important because like
many other amateurs, I had no one to help me. Everything I learned was either
from a book or by experience.
My second telescope was a 4.5 inch Tasco reflector. After nearly two years and exhausting the list of possible objects, I fancied myself a pretty good observer. I then ran across a book that had reprints of old Sky &Telescope articles. The piece was "Observing Programs For Amateurs" by David Roseburgh and it was my introduction to variable stars and the AAVSO. The attraction was immediate. 1) It provided a way to do useful (scientific) observing, and 2) it looked easy! In 1973 I received introductory material from the AAVSO and with the chart of T Cephei (finder and 'B' chart) shown in the article, I went for my first variable star. After trying to find this very bright variable for many hours over several nights, I gave up. The fields I saw in the telescope simply didn't match the chart. I made a drawing of what I thought might be the field and filed it away.
Later, with my life savings of $300 dollars, I mail ordered a 10 inch (25cm) scope from Essential Optics. It was a deal that seemed too good to be true and almost was. Two years later (and a year after I thought my money was gone) the scope arrived, and it turned out to be a wonderful instrument. It seemed like this scope could find and see everything I went after, especially the faint NGC objects. Not only was this telescope relatively big, but it came with an 8X50 finder scope. The finding technique that worked time and again was to use the Skalnate Pleso Atlas (limiting magnitude 7.5), which had all the NGC objects already plotted, and had a striking similarity to the view in the finder scope. Fortunately, this atlas also had variable stars plotted; that is, if their maximum brightness was at least 7.5. There I stumbled across the plot of T Cep, and it looked easy.
This time, after what seemed like only a few minutes, I had positively found the variable! A few more minutes after identifying suitable comparison stars, I had my first estimate. (Therefore, the total time for my first variable estimate: 6 years. Consulting the drawing I made earlier, I had in fact found T Cep those many years before.) The training I received by finding all those NGC objects was time well spent since unwittingly I had learned the art of star hopping.
This was 1979 while I was still in college. I lived in Milwaukee and at this time I became active in the Milwaukee Astronomical Society (MAS) (thanks to accessibility of a car), met Gerry Samolyk, and joined the AAVSO. The MAS has a long history with the AAVSO, and many great variable star observers worked from the MAS observatory. As a result, they had nearly the entire catalog of variable star charts, the standard charts being genuine blue prints. I made a few hundred estimates using the 12.5 inch telescopes using setting circles, but never liked that finding technique. I preferred my atlas, so I started the arduous task of making photocopies of sections of this atlas to paste onto my charts.
Under Gerry Samolyk's directions, I also observed eclipsing binaries. Though it was great doing eclipsers, it was even better doing them with an experienced observer. Gerry's work is inspiring and he became my model of what a variable star observer can be.
I have observed the cataclysmic variables from the outset. I was under the impression that these were objects that were supposed to be tackled by more experienced observers, but HQ gave me the chart of U Gem in my starters packet!
Though in one sense it was a triumph to have finally found that first variable star without any help, it is also very sad because any experienced variable star observer could have assured me that I had found the variable and that alone could have been all the difference. I might have added six years of variable star observing when I really had a lot of time to devote to astronomy. What would have happened if I actually had a mentor? I never lose sight of this and it was a driving force that made me want to mentor new observers. But there is another factor. As proud as I am about learning variable star observing by myself, I nearly stopped as soon as I began. Even on the some of my first variable star estimates, I noticed a devastating position angle effect which made stars seen at the right side of the field brighter by a half a magnitude! My immediate conclusion: I could not observe variables because I could never produce accurate estimates. I might have given up, but unlike 6 years earlier, this time I was not alone. Gerry Samolyk in an off-the-cuff remark mentioned a technique that many observers used to produce accurate estimates, and it helped to almost completely alleviate this problem.
Can I train anyone to be a variable star observer? No. An amateur has to choose this and think it would be great to contribute to the science of astronomy. The best I can hope for is to lend an ear, supply encouragement, and maybe supply that one piece of information that might make all the difference. The real secret to longevity in variable star observing has almost nothing to do with contributing to science and almost everything to do with liking (or even loving) it since we do this as a hobby. No one will ever get that chance if they find it initially too difficult and little hope that it will ever get better.
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