If you have a passion for star gazing, telescopes, the Hubble and the universe and this thing we call “astronomy”, you are far from alone. Of course, we know that astronomy is a highly respected science that has produced some of the most amazing accomplishments of the twentieth century. On top of that, it is a thriving area of fascination and one of the most exciting hobby areas going with thousands of astronomy clubs and tens of thousands of amateur astronomers watching the stars every night just like we do.
But did you know that astronomy is one of the oldest and most respected sciences of them all? As far back as before the times of Christ, the wise and thinking people of societies of the time were looking at the stars and finding ways to track and chart them. We who love the hobby of astronomy can chart a proud history of astronomers that tracks across millennia and through virtually every culture in civilization. So for the sake of having some really good trivia to toss around at astronomy club next week, let’s highlight some of the big moments in the history of astronomy.
For many centuries the science of astronomy was not distinct from the practice of astrology. For clarity, astronomy is the study of the stars, planets, and the universe with a clearly scientific approach. Astrology is the study of the zodiac signs and how they influence our growth, our personalities and our daily lives. In modern times, we as people of science discount the astrological side and focus on the astronomy of the heavens. But they were one study for millennia before the age of science made them separate.
There is historical evidence that astronomy was a recognized science as far back as the Babylonian civilization hundreds of years before Christ. But the study of the stars was not limited to one country. There were similar movements going on in China, India, and Ancient Egypt and all over the Arabian Peninsula. The integration of astronomy and religion is so prevalent that we see it in the Christmas story in which the Magi, Zoroastrian priesthood probably from the equivalent of ancient Syria, followed a star to the Christ child. These astronomers were also astrologers and it was that mixture that lead them to be part of this historic event.
The first book on astronomy was written by Ptolemy during the Greek empire. Since that historic publication, the who’s who list of great astronomers charts a path right through the center of modern science including Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Sir Issac Newton, Jung, Michelangelo, Benjamin Franklin and more recently even Einstein and Stephen Hawkings would join that noble list. It seemed that from the renaissance on to this day, virtually any man or woman of intellect dabbled in astronomy at least somewhat and it has always been considered a sign of the learned to know about the universe and things astronomical.
Astronomy has had an impact on so many areas of our lives that we really don’t recognize. Many words in our language had their roots in astronomy such as…
* Influenza which comes from the Latin root word for influence. This reflects an early belief that the position of the moon and stars may influence health and cause or cure disease.
* Disaster which comes from the Latin for “bad star”.
* Lunatic which has the root word “Luna” in it which is the Latin word for moon. This highlights the long held belief that is even prevalent today that irrational behavior and even wild and dangerous things happen during a full moon.
You might remember the Dell computer commercials in which a youth reports this exciting news to his friends that they are about to get their new computer by telling them, “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!” It was a cute series but it reflects the excitement young people get about anything new, particularly if it’s a new machine.
So when its time to finally get your children that very first telescope, you want to make sure it’s just the right thing. There are a number of reasons you should put some serious thought into just what this beginner telescope should look like. Perhaps this will be your children’s first experience with a real telescope. They may have a healthy and thriving love of astronomy from your family trips to the country to watch a meteor shower or just to gaze at the stars. And you may have piqued their interest showing them how to enhance the experience with binoculars or even letting them play with your telescope.
But this is a big moment. You want them to “bond” with this first telescope the way you did and catch the excitement of using the power of a telescope to do things with their love of astronomy that they could never do before. The reasons for taking care with your choice are many including…
* A telescope is a big step into the lifelong hobby of astronomy. If they get the wrong thing, frustration could make them lose interest both in the machine and in the field of study.
* Kids have a short attention span. You want this beginner telescope to take them from where they are to the next level while giving them those gratifying moments discovering new things in the stars every time they use it.
* It has to be a hardy piece of equipment. Kids don’t always know how to treat delicate equipment. So the starter telescope should have some good “training wheels” on it.
* It has to be their teacher even when they don’t know they are in school. A good beginner telescope, accompanied by some stimulating documentation that is written just for kids will stimulate their excitement and use it to teach them to work hard to reach new heights in their quest for knowledge about the stars.
A lot about how you go about getting this first telescope will depend on your own expertise in astronomy. If it is your passion and you have developed a pretty sophisticated knowledge about telescopes over the years, you not only are well equipped to make this choice but you will be there to guide them as they begin to use it.
But if you are just encouraging them in a wonderful hobby that you yourself have not been involved with in depth, first of all, congratulations. You are giving them a wonderful gift of not only knowledge but the love of astronomy and the natural wonder of nature. But you also need some help. So here are some quick guidelines.
* Find the astronomy geeks. They are easy to find in hobby shops, astronomy clubs and societies at the local college. They will help you enthusiastically.
* Look at the telescope you are considering through their eyes. It should not be too complex. Don’t get something that will intimidate them.
* Don’t buy a toy. Your kids will know the difference.
* Make sure it can grow and be expanded as their knowledge expands
It seems from the moment you begin to take your love of astronomy seriously, the thing that is on your mind is what kind of telescope will you get. And there is no question, investing in a good telescope can really enhance your enjoyment of your new passion in astronomy. But don’t be too hasty to keep up with the big wigs in the astronomy clubs that have advanced telescopes. There is another alternative that can give you most of the advantages of a telescope and some extra flexibility and reduced cost to boot.
That alternative is a good pair of astronomy binoculars. Mostly we think of binoculars as the thing you use to see the football game when you have to sit in the cheap seats. But if you do some homework and had a good grasp on what your stargazing objectives are, the advantages of astronomy binoculars over an entry level telescope can be pretty convincing.
* As a rule, they are cheaper. So you can get a lot of good stargazing at much less of an investment. You can always spend more money later but for now, this may be just the solution for you.
* There are not so many accessories. To own and operate a telescope takes a lot of orientation to how to set up and use the device. Beyond that, tuning it for optimum view and diagnosing it when you have problems can sometimes make the telescope more of the passion than stargazing itself.
* It is much easier to use. If you have not bought a telescope yet, you may have seen telescope owners going through a laborious set up and break down discipline for each use. This is time they are not looking at the stars. The binocular users are happily stargazing as this goes on.
* Binoculars are lightweight and portable. Unless you have the luxury to set up and operate an observatory from your deck, you are probably going to travel to perform your viewings. Binoculars go with you much easier and they are more lightweight to carry to the country and use while you are there than a cumbersome telescope set up kit.
So give the binocular option some consideration. To make the most effective choice, however, here are a few facts about astronomy binoculars that will help you evaluate which ones are best for you…
Binoculars have two lens sets, one at the end of the eyepiece and a set right next to your eyes. The ones closest to the eye are called the ocular lenses which magnify the image (make it bigger). The ones closest to the sky are called the objective lenses and the size of these lenses will determine how much sky you can see at once. So anytime you are evaluating binoculars, there are two numbers associated with the set. So if the binoculars have a rating of 15-40, that means that the ocular lenses magnify 15 times and the later number is a relative number to how much of the sky you can see. The higher the second number, the more you can see. The explanation is simple. The bigger the lens, the more light it lets in. But be aware that the bigger the second number, the larger, heavier and more cumbersome the binoculars will be.
No matter how far along you are in your sophistication as an amateur astronomer, there is always one fundamental moment that we all go back to. That is that very first moment that we went out where you could really see the cosmos well and you took in the night sky. For city dwellers, this is a revelation as profound as if we discovered aliens living among us. Most of us have no idea the vast panorama of lights that dot a clear night sky when there are no city lights to interfere with the view.
Sure we all love the enhanced experience of studying the sky using binoculars and various sizes and powers of telescopes. But I bet you can remember as a child that very first time you saw the fully displayed clear night sky with all the amazing constellations, meters and comets moving about and an exposure of dots of light far to numerous to ever count.
The best way to recapture the wonder of that moment is to go out in the country with a child of your own or one who has never had this experience and be there at that moment when they gaze up and say that very powerful word that is the only one that can summarize the feelings they are having viewing that magnificent sky. That word is – “Wow”.
Probably the most phenomenal fact about what that child is looking at that is also the thing that is most difficult for them to grasp is the sheer enormity of what is above them and what it represents. The very fact that almost certainly, virtually every dot up there in the sky is another star or celestial body that is vastly larger that Earth itself, not by twice or ten times but by factors of hundreds and thousands, can be a mind blowing idea to kids. Children have enough trouble imagining the size of earth itself, much less something on such a grand scope as outer space.
But when it comes to astronomy, we do better when we fall into deeper and deeper levels of awe at what we see up there in the night sky. Some amazing facts about what the children are looking at can add to the goose bumps they are already having as they gaze eyes skyward. Facts like…
* Our sun is part of a huge galaxy called the Milky Way that consists of one hundred billion stars just like it or larger. Show them that one hundred billion is 100,000,000,000 and you will se some jaws drop for sure.
* The milky was is just one of tens of billions of galaxies each of which has billions of stars in them as well. In fact, the Milky Way is one of the small galaxies.
* If you wanted to drive across the Milky Way, it would take you 100,000 years. But you can’t get there driving the speed limit. You have to drive five trillion, eight hundred million miles per year to get all the way across that fast.
* Scientists calculate that the Milky Way is 14 billion years old.
These little fun facts should get a pretty spirited discussion going about the origins of the universe and about the possibility of space travel or if there are life on other planets. You can challenge the kids to calculate that if every star in the Milky Way supported nine planets and if only one of them was habitable like earth is, what are the odds that life would exist on one of them? I think you will see some genuine excitement when they try to run those numbers.
Such discussion can be fun, exciting, and full of questions. Don’t be too hasty to shut down their imaginations as this is the birth of a lifelong love of astronomy that they are experiencing. And if you were there that first moment when they saw that night sky, you will re-experience your own great moment when you was a child. And it might set off a whole new excitement.