Monday, August 13, 2012

Astronomy (Stars not Horoscopes)

When I was in seventh grade I decided to perform a great social experiment. I decided to put on a label for all the school to see, that I liked astronomy. For the first time that year, I remember finding three-ring binders that had clear plastic on the front and back, and I tore photographs out of my Astronomy magazines of nebulae, globular clusters, and solar prominences and slid them into the front and back of my binder. In fact, every single month, when the new issue came out, I would go straight to my room, turn to the back of the magazine, and start planning which photographs would go into my binder that month.

I didn't realize at the time, but I think my parents were desperately hoping that their thoughtful and intelligent seventh-grader would start showing an interest in something that might lead to a career, or at least a college major. Now that I'm the parent of an eighth-grader, I've become aware of the crippling fear that starts to creep up on some parents around the middle school years. It goes something like this: 

"My kid is really smart and has so much potential, but I'm afraid that he's just going to flit around from interest to interest for the rest of his life and end up not graduating from college until he's 33, even then getting a degree in English, not in something useful, and he's going to struggle and barely pay bills and worry about money every single moment, and life doesn't have to be that way!"

So you start thinking about ways to take the things that your kid is interested in and push those interests a little bit further, give your kid opportunities to explore those interests, in hopes that you might spark a life-long passion that will lead to a sense of purpose and resolve. I'm no longer worried about my eighth-grader, or at least, not worried in the same way that I was a year ago. For his birthday, he and I went to the local computer store, bought components and built his first computer. So many of his interests revolve around gaming, creation, and the internet, and at 13 years old, we decided that the time had come for him to have his very own screaming machine. Whatever he does, he'll be fine. I'm fine, and he'll be fine.

When I was in seventh grade, my passion was astronomy. Mom and dad gave me a subscription to astronomy magazine, and I became completely fascinated by astrophotography. If you're not familiar with it, astrophotography is not just pointing a camera at the sky and snapping a picture. First you need a good telescope. When I say good, I don't mean one of those little $100 jobs that you find in your local department store. I'm talking about something put out by companies like Meade or Celestron and, depending on your ambition, costing upwards of $10,000. Now, you can get a good-enough scope for something closer to $1000, still not chump change, but that'll get you started. 

When you buy the scope, though, you need to think about the tripod. Not just any tripod and mount will do. There are specific kinds of mounts that will allow a person to turn a knob ever so slowly and move the telescope in conjunction with the earth's rotation, allowing a camera attached to the lens to take extremely long-exposure photographs without the star field blurring from the apparent motion of the stars across the sky over the course of the night. These days you can even get powered mounts that will do all the work for you, assuming, of course that you've set up your tripod and scope properly.

Yep. You can't just put the telescope in your yard and point it somewhere. Not only do you have to locate north, and you have to know your latitude and longitude as precisely as possible. First of all, finding north and pointing there are no mean feat. We generally know Polaris, at the tip of the Little Dipper, as the north star, but point a telescope there, and you still haven't found north. True magnetic north is somewhat off from Polaris. You didn't think we'd be so lucky as to have a star in just the right place, did you? Second, you have to adjust the position of your telescope to allow for the earth's rotation at your specific latitude and longitude. This is not terribly difficult, but I will give you fair warning. If you happen to be dating someone, a person that you potentially might end up marrying, and you tell that person that you know the specific latitude and longitude of your house, you may, possibly, be in for at least 11 years worth of good-natured ribbing over how nerdy you are. I won't reveal my sources, but I can say with absolute certainty that this can happen.

As it turns out, by the time you upgrade to the really stable tripod with the motorized mount and buy a camera and an adapter to hook it up to your telescope, and buy the various filters you'll need, you're looking at close to $2000 worth of expense, and I've just never made it up to that kind of money. I have a 3.5" Newtonian reflector collecting dust in my closet, that has come with me to every home I've lived in for the last 12 years, and one of these days I'll pull it out and hopefully impress the kids with the little bit of knowledge I've acquired over the years. One more way for daddy to prove that he knows a little something about nearly everything.

My parents couldn't get me the big telescope rig, but they got me a trip to Georgia Tech during the summer after my seventh-grade year for a science summer camp. I spent two weeks learning about hovercraft, and bottle rockets, and flatworms. I'm not a scientist, but a valuable bit of knowledge started to worm its way into my brain.

I found out that when I let my geek flag fly, people liked me better than when I was trying to remain unnoticed. My parents helped create the geek monster you know today by buying me a magazine subscription and encouraging my early interest in science. I'd love to say that I learned to be myself, no matter what, but years of high school and attempting to impress all the wrong girls were still ahead of me. Lessons don't really sink in that quickly in real life. 

The telescope might be in the closet, but I've never sold it or given it away. My friends are the best kinds of geeks I can possibly imagine, and the skies still call to me.