Sky at Night Magazine - - CONTENTS - PAUL ABEL is an as­tronomer, writer and Sky at Night Mag­a­zine’s Vir­tual Plan­e­tar­ium co-host

As­tronomers turn their lenses on the is­sues that mat­ter to them. This month: look­ing vs imag­ing.

A sI fo­cused the splen­did 12- inch Zeiss refractor on to the planet Saturn, our Amer­i­can host said, “I think it’s great you still look!” In the balmy heat be­low, the gen­eral chaos of Los An­ge­les con­tin­ued, seem­ingly in­dif­fer­ent to the bright plan­ets of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn now dom­i­nat­ing the rapidly dark­en­ing sky. They were much higher here than in the skies of the UK and that was the rea­son for our visit to the mag­nif­i­cent Grif­fith Ob­ser­va­tory. I waited for the in­evitable ques­tion, and it ar­rived punc­tu­ally: “Can I ask, why do you still look rather than image?”

I get asked this a lot and nor­mally I have a se­lec­tion of stock an­swers, but on this par­tic­u­lar oc­ca­sion, while watch­ing the tur­bu­lent cloud tops of Saturn, I re­turned to the ques­tion anew. With­out too much prompt­ing, the an­swer ap­peared: I do it be­cause I love it – that is, af­ter all, why I am an am­a­teur as­tronomer!

There was a time, be­fore smart­phones, CCDs and pho­tog­ra­phy when the visual ob­server dom­i­nated prac­ti­cal as­tron­omy. These vet­er­ans of a by­gone era ven­tured out to their tele­scopes in much the same way that Colum­bus em­barked on a mis­sion to the New World. They were ex­plor­ers of the next great fron­tier of hu­man civil­i­sa­tion, for noth­ing was re­ally known about the So­lar Sys­tem.

Over time tech­nol­ogy ad­vanced and brought about the nec­es­sary rev­o­lu­tion in as­tron­omy. Space­craft re­vealed the plan­ets to be very dif­fer­ent places, in many ways more re­mark­able and stranger than we first thought. The canals of Mars and ac­tive lu­nar vol­ca­noes sud­denly seemed like quaint ro­man­tic ideas, but we should put them in con­text; they were the prod­ucts of the first se­ri­ous at­tempts at So­lar Sys­tem ex­plo­ration, lim­ited by small ground-based tele­scopes.

This phi­los­o­phy of ex­plor­ing the So­lar Sys­tem for one­self still res­onates with me to­day. Of course I love to see those re­mark­able high res­o­lu­tion images that am­a­teurs now pro­duce, and if I were a plan­e­tary sci­en­tist I would find these re­sults use­ful. I still think it’s re­mark­able that de­tails can now be cap­tured on Jupiter’s moons.

Be­ing an am­a­teur pro­vides me with a dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tion for be­ing at the tele­scope, though; it is still based in science but has the op­ti­mism of the ex­plorer, too. In the same way that a high res­o­lu­tion pho­to­graph of the Grand Canyon is no sub­sti­tute for ac­tu­ally be­ing there, so it is that I find a much deeper con­nec­tion with as­tro­nom­i­cal ob­jects by draw­ing them and study­ing them vis­ually.

Thank­fully I have never seen canals on Mars, but ev­ery so of­ten I look at the Mar­tian deserts and re­call Per­ci­val Low­ell’s at­tempts to un­der­stand the Mar­tian civil­i­sa­tion he hon­estly thought was there. The Mars of to­day is very dif­fer­ent from the one of Low­ell’s era, and yet across the gulf of time we are in some way con­nected by this de­sire to ex­plore and see for our­selves the won­ders of the So­lar Sys­tem, and that is the main rea­son why I still look.

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