Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is "Romantic" Astronomy Dead?

On CNN's site today is a link which says "Technology is taking romance out of astronomy." It's about Geoff Marcy and his search for planets outside of our solar system. In the article, Marcy is quoted as saying...
"There are no eyepieces anywhere. In fact, we don't have an eyepiece for the Keck telescope... Some of the romance of astronomy is gone."
He's absolutely correct, in my opinion.

Now, I'm not a Luddite. I know that the advances in technology are allowing us to peer farther into space than we have ever done before, opening up new vistas of wonder to the scientific community. But it is impersonal.

I remember having a conversation with a colleague a few years ago as we were sitting in one of the domes of our observatory doing some imaging. We were using a Paramount system, with the latest and greatest CCD cameras and filters. Sure, we were getting tremendous results, but it was antiseptic; there was no real work involved.

The telescope guided itself, the dome moved by itself, the filters changed automatically for each of the exposures. We just sat there in the dark and talked, looking out of the dome opening. Heck, we didn't even really need to be in the dome.

Our conversation was about the so-called progression of the art of astrophotography over the years. As we sat there letting the computers do all the work, I complained that the image would be good, but there's just something about putting a film camera to a telescope, meticulously focusing the image, and then being extra-extremely meticulous is keeping a star in the crosshairs of a guiding eyepiece for up to an hour at a time (in all kinds of temperatures) that gives a person more of a sense of accomplishment than just letting the scope and computer do all the work.

To take a photo with a film camera takes time, patience, and experience. The person earns the resulting photograph. With electronic imaging, you get a pretty picture by sitting around doing nothing. It takes no expertise at all to make a couple of mouse clicks and sit back in a lounge chair for a while.

(I'm not going to talk about the time it takes to manipulate the image in Photoshop or something like that. This has nothing to do with processing of images).

Technology is wonderful, but we are losing something in the transition. Wonderment is being supplanted by instant discoveries. The search is what is important to learning, in my opinion.

And it's not just the high-tech imaging that is ruining astronomy: it's other technology as well. Just try to get someone to go out and look up at the night sky; to put an eye to an eyepiece. Especially today's youth. Why would they want to, when they can sit in their homes and look at "pretty pictures" on the internet? Why take the time to learn the beauty of the night sky and take your own photographs when you can download a great Hubble shot? In this "age of the internet" people "want it now" without any exertion. Click and download, don't do it yourself. Sure, I think the work by Hubble and other instruments are glorious, and they serve a purpose. But photographs that I have taken personally mean more to me than anything I can download. They are personal; it was my knowledge and expertise that brought the image to life.

And this extends to astronomy and science in general. I said above that it's hard to get people to look up. Just try to get those same people to name constellations, or to point out a specific star or planet? Well, I can. I can go out and travel throughout the cosmos because I am familiar with the night sky. (Sometimes I think the people who swear they see "UFOs" wouldn't see them if they knew the night sky).

Some people say "I don't have time for stuff like that" but they can spend their time on frivolous things without thinking twice about it. I say if you have an interest in something, you make the time for it. You don't make excuses.

For me, my relationship with the cosmos is a personal one. It allows me a deeper understanding of the Universe because I take the time to learn. I don't "want it now." And so I pity those who don't spend time out under the stars.

Take the time. Gaze upwards. Experience the wonder of the Universe above you.

And bring a friend.


astropixie said...

interesting post! i agree that technology has taken some of the romance out of astronomy and simple points of scattered light in the night sky generally dont compare to fantastic detail provided in hubble's images... but it's also true that if you step outside and try to see enough stars to pick out more than a couple constellations, it's difficult in cities or suburbs that are swamped with light pollution! i feel lucky to travel to observatories and camp outside away from city lights, because those are the only places i can actually *see* stars and have a chance at making out the milky way. 3 years ago i asked a class of 150 college students how many had *seen* our milky way galaxy and not even a third of them raised their hands. i didnt see it until i was 19 and not for lack of trying... i just couldnt ever make it out thru the lights of the midwest! imagine the difference 150 years ago when every time you stepped outside and glanced upward you saw the milky way across the sky! wow!

mary said...

Well I don't agree about the teenagers thing! Being myself a teenager, although I find the Hubble images intresting and beautiful,it is much more satisfying not to see such a good images; but actually point your small telescope towards something and to look through it. after some minutes looking for it; or setting up the telescope...