Why I Love Astronomy

Proxima Centauri
The surface of a fictional planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our sun. This appeared in “The New Challenge of the Stars”. Notable here is the Cassiopeia “W” on the right with an extra star, that star being our own sun.

Most of my childhood was spent in the seventies.  Technology was still very new at best and the spectacular images produced by the Hubble Space Telescope and even by amateurs today were not remotely possible yet.  The imaginations of space artists were in full control of any astronomical visions of that time.   The visions they produced were enough for me to feel hooked at a very young age.

Astronomy back then was for scientists and wealthy geeks that could afford the astronomical prices of equipment.  Being neither I still managed to develop an interest.  My first astronomy book was The Sky Observer’s Handbook.  This book has been produced since the 1950’s.  It has changed very little since then.  Only the charts have been updated.  Today it has somewhat of a cult following in the amateur astronomer community.  While I was fascinated with this book it was not the one that sold me on this life long love.  The book that did that was “The New Challenge of the Stars” by Patrick Moore and David Hardy.  I was obsessed with this book in middle school.  It opened up a world for me that I cannot explain in words.  It didn’t just show star charts or pictures of stars.  It showed full two page spreads of what it would look like to stand on the surface of another world.  Many science fiction shows of the time tried to do this with laughable results.  These pictures were true scientific visions that changed my thinking completely.  They introduced the idea that these places were real and the universe was full of them with countless variations.

Orion Star Trails
This is a picture of the constellation Orion. The trails are acheived but leaving a camera lens open while the stars move across the sky then following them at the end of the exposure. This picture, taken by John Stofan, appears in “The Sky Observer’s Handbook” but was also the cover image on “Sky and Telescope” in March, 1948

A couple years later I was given my first telescope for my fifteenth birthday.  The first object I ever saw in a telescope was Jupiter.  Seeing it’s moons and colors jump out at me was stunning.  The idea that this place and many others were in the night sky every night amazed me.  The second object I pointed at was Saturn.  Rings as real my own hand in front of me.  I remember being confused that so many people had no idea that all of this was right above their heads and seemed not to care.  I tried a couple times to image the stars with an old “Brownie” camera because it was possible to open it’s lens for a time exposure.  I was not successful unfortunately.  Still, the fascination was fed by the trying.  A year later I began subscribing to Astronomy Magazine.  It published images that I had never seen before and were only then recently possible.  It also made me aware that there was an entire amateur community I was completely unaware of.  I would also be remiss if I did not mention Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos and Contact.  Both extremely influential for me and other countless millions.

Astronomy is more to me than a science or a fascination with pretty pictures.  It is a culmination of everything that matters to the human race.   Beauty, hope, adventure, excitement, danger, power, the need to explore, the need to know where we came from and where we are going, and, perhaps most importantly, to know the mind of God.  One can always look into the night sky and say with definitive certainty that the answers to everything are out there.  Answers of which I would be privileged to know even a minute fraction.

Ice Cave on Pluto
A view from an ice cave on Pluto looking back at our sun by David  A. Hardy. Appeared in “The New Challenge of the Stars”

I did not pursue astronomy as a vocation.  At that critical time after high school I did not possess the math skills necessary to be taken seriously by any institution of higher learning.  There were many reasons for this but none seem to matter anymore.  I held on to my interest and still do.  I still find time to “look up” whenever I can.  Not a single one of those times do I not gaze and wonder and wish that I could stand upon one of the many worlds I have imagined and upon the countless worlds I have not.

5 Thoughts on “Why I Love Astronomy

  1. John:

    Great post! I encourage you to check out both my personal blog and my astronomy blog. I think you’ve hit on something that also struck me at a young age – those “artist renditions.” In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the classic astronomy books (my favorite was “Stars” by Robert Zim) began receiving makeovers. Publishers removed this imaginative conceptions that evoked 1950’s science fiction and replaced them with actual pictures. I didn’t like that. In fact, when I bought the new edition of “Stars” I never used it, preferring the luscious colorful works of art to the rather stark reality from the NASA cameras.

  2. Thanks Chris! Agreed, the renditions are definitely a forgot art. Hubble bridged the imagination gap in some ways but they still don’t compare to a lush planetary landscape of a setting red sun. NASA cameras almost certainly did not capture reality of floating alone in total darkness surrounded by a sea of stars. They have yet to send that “poet” to convey moments like those for the those of us that will never know.

    I’m not familiar with Robert Zim’s “Stars” and will have to find a copy! There are other items I’ve lost over the years that I can’t find as well. I had a solar system map from the 70’s that hung on my wall since early childhood I wish I could find. My belief is it was probably purchased at the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester but am not certain.

  3. And I take it back, I DID have that book!! Just looked it up, fantastic! I had completely forgotten about that one. I must have lost track of it when I was young, wow! Blast from the past!

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