FIELD OF VIEW
IN THE FIRST OF A NEW REGULAR COLUMN PAUL ABEL RVEALS WHY, IN THE ERA OF IMAGING HE STILL LOVES JUST LOOKING
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.