Monday, June 18, 2007

Volkswagon Observatories and Telescope Dreams

My father had a 1964 Volkswagon Beetle, purchased new just a couple of months after I was born. (The fact that he selected a VW bug in an age of cars still characterized by the gas-guzzling behemoths of Detroit says a lot about his personality and is worthy of its own blog entry.) If you're familiar with the old Bugs, you'll recall a small area - ostensibly for storage - just behind the back seat. No doubt this tiny area, carpeted in a fabric comparable to a penitent's hair shirt, was a product of the VW's rear-engine design. Actually, however, I think the designers had the storage of small children in mind when they added that space to the Bug's layout. For me, at an early age, it was a perfect retreat on lengthy car trips. I recall many hours prostrate back their, lulled to sleep by the characteristic noise and vibration of that air-cooled engine.

Yet I also remember lying in the rear looking up at the stars through the VW's oval window, a site made more spectacular on those monthly occasions when we'd visit my grandparents on the Eastern Shore. We would stay until dark, and then head for home on what was usually a 2 or 2 1/2 hour drive, down the Shore and across the Chesapeake Bay. With so little light pollution, the view was always striking.

My parents have noted that these occasions usually sparked a barrage of questions about planets, stars and astronauts. Remember, this was a golden age for NASA and our space program, years punctuated by the successes of the Apollo program. And as I noted in a previous entry, my homage to the late Wally Schirra, these guys were my heroes! Sure, I was interested in the usual 7-year old stuff: G.I. Joes, Matchbox cars, and baseball. But already I was establishing my geek credentials with an interest in history and astronomy.

The interest in history was not a surprise, given our family habit of taking Sunday drives to Williamsburg, Jamestown, and local Civil War battlefields. Frequent trips to Washington, D.C. only solidified this passion. When the Smithsonian opened its new Air and Space Museum I was hooked. If one had asked me at 10, "What do you want to be when you grow up, Brian," I would have answered either an "astronomer" or "archaeologist." Upon reflection I realize that I was also starting to ask questions about the "nature" of the universe and its creation, and wondering if it would be possible to reach any of these celestial objects if one had a rocket fast enough. I'm still fascinated by those questions today, hence my continued interest in astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and space travel. (Polling my 7 and 8-year old sons recently I learned that they both want to be professional baseball players. My younger son added that he also wants to be a children's book illustrator. My older son wants to sing in musicals when he's not playing ball. Faced with that range of interests, I have no doubts about their paternity!)

It wasn't long before I started begging for a telescope so I could see first-hand some of the wonders encountered in dog-eared issues of Sky and Telescope. At 11 I took my first earnings from a summer of cutting lawns and purchased a 3-inch refractor. It was ok; I had incredible views of the moon, could see the rings of Saturn and resolve some of the fuzziness of the Orion nebula. Like countless generations of amateur astronomers before me, I would note the changing positions of Jupiter's Galilean moons from night to night. Nevertheless, I had already set my sights on bigger scopes, and remember leafing through copies of Astronomy magazine, salivating over the latest Celestron and Meade scopes, usually the big Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors on fork mounts. But at well over $1,000, I knew these were out of reach. So I waited, and waited, until 1994, when I decided to reward myself for completing my Ph.D. by purchasing my dream telescope. I scanned the ads at Astromart for a used 8-inch Celestron (like the one pictured above), found one I liked, and spent the money without hesitation.

All too often long-deferred dreams are tempered by the reality of experience. Desire clouds our judgment and the adrenaline-fueled anticipation sets us up for a letdown. At 30 I had the awe and giddiness of a child and, thankfully, was not disappointed on this occasion. The reality matched the anticipation. After pointing the telescope at some pretty obvious naked-eye objects like the moon and Jupiter, I set the scope up to find an object so faint that one had to rely only on coordinates to locate it. Much to my surprise, I succeeded in finding the Ring Nebula, which even in an 8-inch scope appears as a faint, donut-like gaseous cloud. (The false-color image of the Ring Nebula above was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The colors correspond to the presence of different gasses. For example, blue indicates helium, while green indicates oxygen.) From there I trained my sights on galaxies, globular clusters, and other nebulae. Galaxies are particularly stunning because I'm always compelled to reflect on their immensity, with billions of stars swirling in a beautiful elliptical pattern, while contemplating our minuscule size in the universe. The Andromeda Galaxy (pictured below), visible as a faint smudge with binoculars, is particularly arresting because it is thought to be similar in size and shape to our own galactic home. It's the astronmer's equivalent of gazing in a mirror.

When I moved to New York City I had to sell the telescope, realizing that I would have neither the space for it nor viewing conditions worthy of such an instrument. I still look skyward, picking out constellations when they're visible and, under the right conditions, pointing out fuzzy patches that would reveal themselves as nebulae or clusters even with binoculars. And again I'm waiting . . . waiting for an opportunity to share the hobby with my boys and purchase a new telescope. This time I doubt it will be as serious a setup as my Celestron. So now I salivate over 8 and 10-inch Newtonians on Dobsonian mounts, biding my time.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

I remember when the VWs first came out. My oldest younger brother had a red one. That compartment behind the seat? That's where he "kept" his traveling companion, "Duke," a fully-grown St. Bernard.
Great post. And you took the words right out of my mouth- ..."Faced with that range of interests, I have no doubts about their paternity!"