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.
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.