Telescope for Christmas?

Did you buy a telescope like this for Christmas? Well please don't expect to ever see images like the ones shown.

Did you buy a telescope like this for Christmas? Well please don’t expect to ever see images like the ones shown.

A few years ago I bought a telescope for my son: Sorry Maxwell, it wasn’t Santa Claus.

I bought a decent model, a Meade ETX-80, which had a mount that could automatically track stars and conveniently packed away into a special back-pack. It cost about £300.

It was easily the most expensive piece of optics I had ever bought, costing even more than my spectacles. But despite all my knowledge, and all the reviews I read, I really didn’t have any idea what I would be able to see.

Looking at terrestrial targets – distant chimney pots and the like – the telescope was astounding. It was easy to see insects on bricks 100 metres away. But it was all much harder trying to find an astronomical target.

With help from an expert colleague, Maxwell and I managed to attach a web-cam and after many hours we got some nice pictures of the moon. We were really pleased.

But viewing ‘deep space’ objects such as the galaxies shown in the advertisement was impossible. Actually it was possible to just about detect and get a sense of these galaxies. But it was impossible to see these object in anything resembling the detail shown.

It was not really a matter of magnification: it is a matter of faintness. The telescopes just don’t capture enough light, and our eyes are not sensitive enough.

I received the advert on an e-mail from a well-known camera shop, and I imagined such telescopes being bought for children who would then be disappointed. So I just thought I would mention it.

Seeing astronomical objects with your own eyes through a telescope is a transformatively positive experience: I remember buying a £40 telescope from pedlars in Greece a few years ago and watching the moons of Jupiter changing from one evening to the next: I was astounded. And the fact that the light wave which reached my eyes was the same light wave that had left Jupiter a few hours previously was part of the wonder. Seeing it on a screen would not have been the same.

But failing to see astronomical astronomical objects can have a similarly powerful negative experience: confirming one’s anxieties about the difficulty of ‘science’.

My top tip is to buy an astronomy magazine and attend a local astronomy club. In my experience you will find the people a bit ‘odd’: but they will be delighted to let you see what their years of experience have achieved.

Update: For my Birthday, I was given a book on the history of telescopes – An Acre of Glass by J B Zirker. To be honest, it’s not a very well-written book, but I do find the subject interesting and it has many fascinating details which a better-written book might have left out.

The book makes it clear that the last 50 years has seen astonishing progress in astronomical imaging, and this is likely to continue for many decades to come.

But I fear the perfect images of the cosmos which can now be produced routinely have spoiled us. They are beautiful and mysterious, to be sure. But in the same way that an unobtainable super-model can make one’s actual partner seem ordinary, somehow the perfect images which can never be seen directly, make the glimpses of distant galaxies viewed from Teddington seem less astonishing than they should be.

7 Responses to “Telescope for Christmas?”

  1. Nestor Patrikios Says:

    Nice post Michael. I bought a cheap refractor a while back and regretted it. Plastic lenses and crappy focussing made it almost impossible to use. But with the kids now 12 and 11, and re-inspired by your blog, perhaps it’s time to dip my toe into the cosmos again.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Max would probably lend you his scope – it is rarely used – but visiting a local astronomy club is probably a good first step.


      On 03/01/2014 12:12 pm, “Protons for Breakfast Blog”

  2. Mary Anne White Says:

    Michael: your mention of books prompted my comment. My husband and I are both scientists (chemists) but neither had that much interest in astronomy, nor did our children. However, my daughter (now 28 and a math teacher) gave me a book for Christmas that had sparked her interest in astronomy: “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming” by Mike Brown (Planetary Scientist at Caltech). It’s meant for general (adult) readers and it is very engaging. It also provides insight into the life of a scientist, and concerning how scientific decisions are made. And it convinced me about the title topic.

  3. Patrick Franks Says:

    Good blob Michael! Your advice is spot on! Always worth talking to club memebrs and if possible looking through their scopes prior to buying one. An odd bunch maybe, but always willing to help and advise! Its a great shame that these “misleading” images are put on the boxes and used in the advertising. The eye rarely sees much detail or colur of dep sky objects. But you’ll be amazed by what an attached camera can see, even with fairly modest scopes.

    • Peter Woolliams Says:

      Wise words Michael. We are spoilt by what even modest DSLR can show that the naked eye view and demotivating…. It’s hard to find things, you may need filters, it takes dedication to perceive things, not helped by the ever expanding light pollution. However we have so much data and images from robotic probes and satellites, Microsoft worldwide telescope can show you the sky far better than most scopes will…. Plenty to inspire and get people hooked, but in a different way than before. Also Citizen science can now allow you to contribute to the science that until now was impossible…. Ever interesting times!

  4. Sun Spotted in Teddington | Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] out the skylight at Jupiter. Using first binoculars, then a small telescope, and then finally the telescope I bought for Maxwell I saw Jupiter’s disc and its 4 Galilean moons perfectly arranged in a […]

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