Monday, September 9, 2013

Is Organized Astronomy Dead?

If this were a Monty Python sketch...or a scene from Princess Bride...

It's a conversation that crops up when friends desperately want to observe in dark skies on that rare weekend but don't want to face going alone. So they try and reach out but to no avail. Dark sky sites sit empty on pristine nights. Why?

My good friend Nicole explains the benefits of actually joining a club here and explains it better than I can. So please do me a favour and read her blog entry.

The answer or answers most likely do not point to a single cause but many contributing factors. However, it is somewhat alarming to hear this chatter. Organized groups that are floundering because of lack of attendance, interest what have you is common place today. But I have to pause a moment and consider if the statement is true that organized astronomy is dead.

Visit a Saturday night at the David Dunlap Observatory and tell me it's it "dead", "mostly dead", or "I feel happy"?...

One of the best things and perhaps the most unique thing about this hobby among others is that you make it what you want. There is no "Gold Standard" to govern your choice. You don't pick "HO Scale" and build from there. You pick whatever tools you need to make your astronomical experience the best for you. So the idea of it being accessible is not in question. Anyone can "do astronomy". It is perhaps one of the most beginner friendly hobbies out there. Get a great book, and go out and look. That's it.

Except that...astronomy is becoming increasingly inaccessible...

Light pollution has all but wiped out the traditional 60 minute drive and pushed it into 90 minutes or more to get that great view. There are still pockets of dark near the GTA within 60 minutes but going out on your own finding a spot might prove troublesome. With fuel costs pushing 1.40 per litre in the GTA, a lot of people might not want to do it never mind the actual time invested, the late night drive back, and the lack of sleep the following morning. Light pollution is most likely the number one killer of organized observational astronomy.

As a result of being squeezed (or hosed) at the pump, a lot of us are relegating our observations within that awful light dome called the Greater Toronto Area where we still can get our lists semi- completed, observe double stars and a handful of deep sky objects that keep us interested. Others who make an investment into video astronomy, are able to view fainter objects via a screen and a nifty camera made by companies like Mallincam. We crave dark skies, but can't find the time, rationalize the fuel consumption or find friends willing to do it. And if we do travel, it's maybe once a month or perhaps a few times a year like StarFest, the Algonquin Adventure, Manitoulin.

There other points to consider of course:
-Shyness or prefers to go at it alone (lone wolf observing is not a bad thing, some prefer it)
-Previous bad experiences
-Snobbery or "Old Boys Club" (this in fact is in a death spiral of it's own, thank the stars!)
-Lack of interest or "does not apply"
-Limited opportunities for growth etc, etc.

The list could go on and on....

Don't get us started about the weather either. This is becoming an embarrassment in Southern Ontario as we gamble against forecasts that seem to tell nothing but lies. Where pristine skies are promised, hopes are dashed, dreams crushed as transparency falls apart around us and we pack up wondering why we even bothered to try in the first place. Yes, all that money spent on fuel, food and time preparing for it seems so wasteful. You can bet this is a major factor too, if not one of the most prominent.

It might seem to be all doom and gloom, but it really isn't. The DDO Saturday and members nights are flourishing which is a positive sign. Mississauga has adopted a new street light campaign and is phasing out the older and crummy high pressure sodium street lights with fancy, full cut off LED lighting. You can learn about that here. It will be interesting to see how much that will affect local conditions in my current city given our one site is by the lake which is not a bad site. We have spotted double stars down to magnitude 11.

Wherever you find yourself in this hobby, enjoy it, indulge in it and share it with the locals and friends. And if you feel the need to include yourself in "like minded groups", do yourself a favour, find a local club....

Last night we gambled...and sort of won and lost. It was fun knocking off a few Herschel Objects, but also nice to get a pic like this to take back. That dead piece of wood is pointing the way...will you follow too? Image from Tiny Marsh near Elmvale.

No comments:

Post a Comment