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Astronomy Biography
Enhanced picture from The Golden Book of Science

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 Big DipperThe 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.

In the following years I actually tried to make my own telescope out of a magnifying glass and a microscope eyepiece without any real result.  I received what I thought was a real telescope around 1968, but it was a draw tube design with no mount and magnified 40X.  It was difficult to focus and at 40X, impossible to hand hold.  I don't think I even tried using it at night.  But during this time I read a very interesting book about the planets and it said that Venus is often seen as a very bright "star" in the western sky just after sunset. And fortunately for me at the time there it was!

I eventually received my first genuine astronomical telescope in 1970 as a Christmas present -- an Edmund 3 inch reflector. Though this could hardly be described as a good telescope, as a beginner scope it was more than adequate but here was the great part: 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.  I cannot even begin to describe the euphoria of actually finding Saturn for the first time and I had done it all myself.  In the coming months I would eventually find Jupiter and Mars.

 

From money earned from shoveling snow that winter, I bought a Nova Home Planetarium.  Though it was fun to use, one big disappointment was that it was missing so many stars as I naturally compared it against what I could see in my suburban sky.  I would add many more stars by carefully punching a very fine pin through the dome.  The result was very satisfying.  The unit itself came with a couple of neat accessories.  First, an arrow pointer so you could literally point to the "stars" on the ceiling.  Second, it came with a secondary projector with slides of various constellations that were perfectly spaced so that you could show the image of the figure right on the "sky" presumably just like a real planetarium show. Finally, there was a small 16mm slide projector and they included 2 strips, one of astronomical objects and the other a fictional account of a moon landing.  What was a "real" planetarium show?  All I knew of that was a small article in an encyclopedia and especially what I saw in the James Dean movie, Rebel Without A Cause. 

More about planetariums in Uncle Rod's Blog: Stars On Ceiling

      

The 3 inch scope was very quickly replaced by my second telescope, 4.5 inch Tasco reflector.  Though this wasn't a great jump in aperture over the 3, it was still significant and I ended using this telescope for several years. It had very good slow motion controls, especially in Right Ascension, a rotatable tube and was still highly portable, allowing quick movements around the yard to get at various parts of the sky.  I have thought of how different things would have been had this been my first scope.  The information that came with the scope was woefully insufficient and in comparison to what came with the Edmund, simply pitiful.  And it makes me wonder how many budding amateurs were unnecessarily handicapped by lack of good information. 

But though I badmouth the information that came with this scope, the guide that came with it, A Key To The Worlds Beyond, it did have a sample observers notebook page.  I quickly adopted its format and from then on every observation I made would be recorded.

  

 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 "Visual Observing Programs For Amateurs" by David Rosebrugh 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 for me 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 mastered the art of star hopping.

T Cep ChartThis 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.

Eclipse of Algol, Beta Per

Eclipse of Beta Perseus -- Algol


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!

 

Mentoring

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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