In Which I Get a Whiff of Something That Will Become an Obsession
As thrilled as I was to see the images sent back from Jupiter by the two Voyager spacecraft on the evening news throughout 1979, it was nothing compared to the indulgence I felt sitting with National Geographic‘s January 1980 issue. The cover sported a false-color image of a volcano’s eruption on the moon Io. The story recounted the approach to and fly-by of the gas giant by the robotic probes, and detailed the struggles of mission scientists to make sense of the treasure trove of data returning to the Earth every day. I re-read the article so many times that this particular issue of my father’s National Geographic archive was the only one that ever appeared used.
As I read, I would picture myself soaring above Jupiter’s cloud belts as if I were a passenger on Voyager or a resident on one of the moons constantly stretched by gravitational tides and bombarded by cosmic rays from the main planet. The idea never failed to terrify me as I learned about the incredibly low temperatures and the giant storm systems that could easily swallow the entire Earth. It reminded me, in a way, of looking at the pictures of spiders’ faces in elementary school picture books. The images gave me nightmares, but there was something about their strange beauty that made me keep looking.
One Saturday later that year, as we piled into the family car for the weekly visit to my grandparents’ house, I remember my father wondering if “it” would fit into the hatchback of a Pinto. I asked him what he was going to put in our car, and he replied, “I’m getting my telescope,” as if it were something I should have known all along. I thought I had misunderstood; A Ford Pinto’s hatchback could hold quite a bit of cargo, and it seemed all the more cavernous in relation to my ten-year-old frame. That must be one heck of a telescope, I thought.
During our visit, probably while most of us watched Dance Fever with Deney Terrio (my grandmother’s favorite), my father disappeared into the car port for a while. When we got into the car to drive home, the end of a wide, white tube, covered by something that looked like a shower cap, extended from the trunk over the rear passenger seat. When we rounded curves in the road, heavy, metallic clanks issued from behind the seat. This all seemed wonderfully mysterious and exciting.
When we set up the telescope the next day, I realized that I did not understand much about telescopes at all. It was hard to get my head around the idea that this one used mirrors, not lenses, to produce an image. The observer actually looked into the scope at right angles to the tube, and from the front, not the back. In fact, when the telescope was fitted onto its massive metal pier base, I had to stand on a step stool to look into the eyepiece. Stranger still, when my father pointed the scope at the chimney on our house to test focus and optical alignment, the chimney appeared upside down and backwards. Here was a new frontier of knowledge for me to conquer.
I later learned that this telescope was the iconic RV-6 Dynascope, made by the Criterion Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut. Its 6″ diameter f/8 optical system was a classic setup for everyone from beginners to advanced amateurs since the time of Isaac Newton, and gave images that astonished me. The inverted image was correct for an astronomical telescope because a telescope needs additional optical components to produce a correctly-oriented image, and they rob brightness and clarity. The $194.95 price tag for an observing package including three eyepieces and a quality sidereal drive motor to track celestial objects automatically represented great value.
I just could not understand why, now that my father had brought this treasure into my life, he was so hesitant to use it.
With hindsight, I realize that we lived in a place that made astronomy inconvenient. Our house was located in an area of dense woods, so the only visible sky was directly above the cleared part of our yard. Complicating matters, there was hardly a level square foot on our entire acre, meaning the mount could not be set up to follow objects easily as the Earth rotated over the course of a night. There was no possibility of staying up late enough to use his telescope on work/school nights, and often on weekends we were faced with the options of staying inside by a cozy fire or freezing out in the yard while trying to track down astronomical targets. The fire usually won.
But I was ten! Like all ten-year-olds, I was made of rubber and magic, and never ran out of energy. I wanted to set up the scope! I wanted to move it around the yard each time we looked for a different celestial object! My father was not quite as enthusiastic about these endeavors as I was, but over the next couple of years, there were enough clear weekend nights when I was able to persuade him to go stargazing that I was hooked for life.
I can only clearly remember seeing four objects from my early days in astronomy: Jupiter (of course; after Voyager, how could we not check it out for ourselves?), the Moon (the one object other than the Sun that everyone can find and identify), the Great Nebula in Orion (which, in retrospect, I have a hard time believing ever rose above our tree line; it may be a false memory), and the Andromeda Galaxy, which passes nearly overhead at our latitude.
Thinking back on this, I realize that these may have been the only objects my father knew how to find. His reluctance to go observing with me more often may have stemmed from a fear of seeming inadequate to a young son. I know he did not have any star charts detailed enough to match his scope’s capability. I struggle with this fear of inadequacy myself, and that may explain why it took me so long to find Millbrook’s observatory or to believe that anyone there would care about my interest.
It may seem odd, but I will never forget the smell of that telescope. The fact that it was stored in my poorly-insulated attic bedroom certainly made it more prominent. To this day, every time I get a whiff of Bakelite (the Dynascope was actually made of phenolic resin) I am right back there in my parents’ yard, teetering on a ladder and focusing critically on Jupiter’s Galilean satellites. I recently learned that other astronomers had distinct and fond memories of the Dynascope’s aroma. Various on-line astronomy discussion board posts likened it to the nose of a fine wine, or even an astronomical aphrodesiac!
Spurred on by Voyager and by the premier of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on PBS, I began to devour every astronomy-related book I could find in our small local library. Our librarian, Mrs. Card (you can’t make this stuff up), must have wondered just how many times a person could read, re-read, and re-borrow the same books. I treasure one of these above all others: Starlight Nights by Leslie C. Peltier.
The author tells the story of his life in astronomy in a way that expresses simply but poetically how much a love affair with the night sky can mean to a person. I have since shared the book with people I care about, many of whom have little interest in astronomy, and even they become captivated by the storytelling. From his first glimpses of the Pleiades and Halley’s Comet when a young boy to his national recognition for variable star observations and comet discoveries, Peltier was someone in whose footsteps I wanted to follow.
Soon, my father bought for our home library a copy of James Muirden’s The Amateur Astronomer’s Handbook.
Little did I know that a seemingly-minor passage in the book would be so intertwined with my adult research. For star charts, Muirden recommended The Telescope Handbook and Star Atlas by Neale Howard.
Like many of the other books I read, The Amateur Astronomer’s Handbook contained illustrated sections on the workings of telescopes, and it looked incredibly simple to make one. All I needed were a couple of lenses and a tube. I even thought of a source. The next time I had an appointment with our optometrist, Dr. Tischler, I asked him if he had any lenses lying around that he wasn’t using, and if so, might I have them? Everything makes sense in your head when you’re ten. He explained to me patiently that his were not the type of lenses I needed. I could not understand why he did not understand my project, and left that day somewhat miffed. I had made an impression, though, for Dr. Tischler kept a close eye on my interest in telescope building. It was many years, however, until I could show him something I had made myself.
At about the same time, I began my forays into binocular astronomy because of an opportunity that may have seemed like drudgery to some. A high school in a nearby town hosted a Gifted and Talented program for students of middle school age on Saturdays. I cannot now recall how my parents found out about this, but it may have been through my mother’s job as a first grade teacher in a local Catholic School. The program was run by Dr. Sally Reis from the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, and for several weeks, eager, nerdy children indulged their interests in music, debate, photography, archaeology, rudimentary computer programming, and in my case astronomy. My class met in UCONN’s planetarium, and it was taught by physics professor Dr. Cynthia Peterson. She provided exactly the primer I needed, a thorough but non-threatening introduction to the constellations and the fixed and wandering objects to which they served as signposts.
The course provided each of its attendees with a planisphere, a rotating miniature star map that shows what objects are visible in the sky at any date and time. One of its interchangeable wheels showed deep-sky objects visible in binoculars, and so I finally had a way to tour the sky on my own. I’m glad I began my explorations with binoculars rather than a telescope, because it taught me much more about the sky than I otherwise would have learned. First of all, binoculars orient the image to appear the same way it does to the unaided eye. I could point my binoculars at a visible pattern of stars and see it somewhat magnified, but I could also see many fainter stars in and around it. This demonstrated the advantage of increased light-gathering power, since the lenses had more surface area than those in my eyes. Also, because binoculars offer a wider field of view than a telescope, they made navigation among the stars to locate the brighter objects much easier. Still, when you’re bitten by the bug, you’re never satisfied. I wanted a telescope of my own.
When I got my first summer job in high school, I had access to significant sums of money for the first time. I confess that, like a good American consumer, I caved. I had been looking at a red Tasco 2″ refractor telescope in the window of our local camera shop. It was new. It was shiny. It was red! So one day, I went to the bank, withdrew money from my savings account, and took home my very own telescope.
I believe that department store telescopes have done more to discourage generations of budding astronomers than all of the cloudy nights in history. They usually have useless finder scopes and unmanageably-small eyepieces that produce way too much magnification. That way, the manufacturer can sell them as “500-Power” telescopes to appeal to power-hungry Americans who don’t know any better. Worst of all, they invariably have flimsy mountings that cannot hold the optics still enough for the user to get a good view of anything. This one was no exception. On the other hand, I remembered that my astronomical hero Leslie Peltier had worked a summer job to save the money for his very first telescope: a 2″ refractor!
Fortunately, I still had a desire to build something, and that made me willing to tinker with this scope until it worked better. Based on other models I had seen in magazine ads, I had my uncle help me drill the tube and tap in a mechanism to hold the scope solidly in one position. I hung weights from the accessory tray on the tripod to minimize vibrations from wind and my contact with the telescope. I fashioned a long dew shield out of cardboard and black construction paper to keep the objective lens from frosting over. All of these improvements made the scope’s performance acceptable, and though planets were my favorite targets, I was able to see examples of every class of object beyond the solar system: double stars, open and globular star clusters, galaxies, and planetary and diffuse nebulae. I used my binocular star wheel supplemented a rudimentary atlas purchased at a local book store.
And, like Leslie Peltier, I carefully smoked a glass disk with oil lamp soot to make a filter which, when placed in front of the telescope’s objective, allowed me to view the sun and its spots. I wasn’t always successful in my hunts, but I was leaving the nest for the first time.