The sofa vs. the sky

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Sunday, October 01, 2006

Statistics show Astronomy's loyal followers divide along two paths: "Armchair astronomers," who read about astronomy, and hobbyists, who observe. Of course, we want everyone to read about our favorite subject — we're learning so much about the universe that's new and wonderful — but armchair astronomers only read. I find this behavior puzzling.

You don't need expensive equipment to observe. Heck, you don't need any equipment at all. Let me give you an example.

When we lived in the Desert Southwest, I took the opportunity to enjoy my favorite time of day: sunset and the dusk that follows. I'd go out just before sunset (check your newspaper for times), glance at the reddened orb as it disappeared, and watch points of light appear as the sky darkened.

On the third day of this routine, my wife asked, "Where are you going?" "Out to watch the Sun set," I said. "Come along." She did, and after that day, for 10 or 15 minutes each evening, we put aside concerns about work, what tomorrow would bring, or home fix-up. Instead, we just watched the sky darken.

Sometimes, she'd ask a question: Why does the Sun turn so red? Or what's the bright dot about a quarter of the way up? Sometimes, I'd ask her a question: Do you know what that dark patch of sky opposite the Sun is? Why do you think the planets are arranged like that across the sky? My wife is an artist, not an astronomer, but dusk quickly became her favorite time of day as well. Her sky knowledge also has grown, and all without a single instrument.

You can start observing the same way. Later, you may wish to add binoculars or — dare I say it? — a telescope. But one step at a time.

I'm aiming this series at those of you who set up your telescopes and experience the wonders of the sky. But if you're an armchair astronomer, I haven't forgotten about you. Maybe along the way I can encourage more of you to pop up off your recliner and join my journey.

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