James Paulson's roll off roof observatory at the Sunridge Observatory site, taken in the summer of 1986, housing a 10 inch f/5 Cave Astrola Newtonian reflector telescope

Sunday, October 4, 2009

What's Wrong With Today's Amateur

It’s been a while since I posted anything this controversial but I really feel that some things must be said. After many years in this hobby, there are just some things that are happening that really are issues that need to be addressed. These issues have all contributed to a loss of overall skill in amateurs today and are fundamentally changing the hobby from one of amateur scientist into one of space tourism.

1.Top Heavy – many amateurs are of the assumption that telescope gear must be high-end large aperture gear to extract enjoyment from the hobby. From the eyepiece elitists, to the imaging fanatics, many are of the impression that in order to extract quality results one must invest astronomical sums of money. Complete nonsense. Many of these things still come down to one thing – skill. And skill comes with practice, and if all you have ever used is high-end gear you are really at a complete disadvantage. My friends who are vested in this hobby make their own eyepieces, lenses and mirrors and extract just as much pleasure from their telescopes as the ones who will spend ten times the amount of money, possibly even more because they know how they actually work.

2.Dob Mentality – for all the good things that the Dobsonian mount has brought to amateur astronomy, namely portability, simplicity and the ability to mount a large OTA without a large mount, a counterproductive trend has taken place. The idea that ones needs large aperture and the mount is secondary has created limits that were unseen on what amateurs can actually do. Many of them have no concept of Right Ascension or Declination, basically it has turned the hobby into a form of hunting in the sky instead of an art to the movement of the heavens themselves, and an intricate understanding of our own location in the galaxy, because once you know how the heaven’s move, you begin to understand the distribution of the galaxy itself. You are no longer hunting for an object as a space tourist, but rather you are on a deeper quest for the why instead of the what.

3.Technology Dependent – I love my GoTo scope very much. For me, GoTo is a set of setting circles hooked to a handheld catalog driven by a couple of motors to assist in moving my scope. Some folks love PushTo – basically the same thing minus the motors. But these tools have removed newcomers from many important things, the most important of which is looking at the sky, studying an Atlas, digging into books to make lists, and understanding the constellations themselves and their place in the sky. Give many of these amateurs a pair of binoculars and they will struggle with where to begin. Without their PDA’s, laptops, Stellarium, etc, they would not know which constellation to begin with, the lowest point of their observing limits, etc. If you have to dig in a book to find it, you organize it, memorize it, master it, build on it, etc. Technology has made us lazy. If you need proof, look at an 8th grade math class and take away the calculators.

4.Critical thinking – if everyone is thinking the same, it defines a limit not only on growth but on the potential for new ideas as well. By expanding your base level of knowledge about things as simple as types of mounts, optical layouts, craftsmanship, etc, you are more apt to innovate, to master what you have, and to extract more from it. Thinking outside of the box is what has made this hobby greater, and many of those great ideas are right in front of us.

5.Discipline – astronomy is not one of those hobbies that can be mastered overnight. There is continual growth in this hobby in every single direction one looks. If you are a visual observer, there are techniques to practice and develop, books to read, logbooks to keep, and a methodological approach to learning the sky one constellation at a time. If you have the discipline and patience to take this approach, the things you are learning build and develop. As iron sharpeneth iron, discipline sharpens the countenance of one’s astronomical knowledge.

This is just the way I see it. I should write an app for that.


  1. James,
    Once again, my words seem to be coming out of your mouth. What's going on? I agree that the hobby is suffering from some sort of attention deficit disorder. It seems we got to get the latest thing or there is no use in pursuing the starry skies.

    The last telescope I bought was in 1985 and that one is not used much compared to my primary instrument, an 8 inch SCT I got in '83. I still use it every clear night, must be some sort of record. I still have my 35mm camera and yes I still shoot film for astrophotography. Is it better than digital? In my view and in the ways I use it, yes.

    I still use setting circles occasionally, but star hop to most places and I loath GOTO scopes because most object are mapped in my mind and I can get there myself. Modern GOTO users will never learn the sky like that.

    It's not about gadgets, its about a relationship with the night sky. My life is richer for all the hard work I put into it. Technology is great but can be a distraction from enjoying all those clear nights otherwise wasted browsing telescope catalogs.

  2. hey james, i agree most astronomers have a lack of discipline. when i first started, i didn't have goto and it was hard to get around, because i couldn't find many constellations. but i did try, now with the goto i don't even think about finding constellations. i think i should! thanks!

    great blog! enjoy reading your posts!

  3. Hey Jimmy,

    Totally right on. But you contradict your self, go to and dobs don't go together. Today's amateur either loves go tos (my case) or they love Dobs (a lot of other people). The irony is that on a good night I can get 2-3 times more objects than the Dob user. Thats not to say that I go to 2-3x more objects but it is possible. Last week my friend with his dob went to a lot more objects than I did with my 6" SN. I spent most of the night on the moon which was I wanted to do :)