Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Is the romance gone?

In this recent article on CNN's website, renowned planet hunter Geoff Marcy commends on the work he does with the Keck telescope. It notes that when taking data, Marcy isn't even at the eyepiece of a telescope. He's in a building 45 minutes away giving directions to an operator who points the telescope for him, and Marcy just takes the data. There's no looking through an eyepiece anymore.

The article then quotes him as saying, "Some of the romance of astronomy is gone."

The scene he describes is not at all uncommon. Research just isn't done by naked eye. It's done with photometers, spectrographs, and CCDs. More and more telescopes are becoming operated by remote. Many professional astronomers are barely familiar with their constellations.

But does this detract from the beauty and romance of astronomy?

In my opinion: Hardly.

During my internship this summer, we visited Mt. Wilson observatory. This is the observatory at which Hubble made his groundbreaking discoveries.

At one point in the tour, our guide described and event in which a young relative of one of the astronomers at the observatory, who was very much enamoured with the field, was offered the chance to control the telescope for the evening. It was a cold night, in the mountains, in a telescope dome exposed to the outdoors. After a single night of freezing his ass off, the youngling gave up on astronomy forever.

I fail to see where the romance is in this.

But somehow, I'm not positive that's what Marcy was referring to. Possibly it was to the grand views that could be offered that cannot be replicated on a computer screen.

Yet, as much as I love stargazing, and have my own 8" telescope, there's really very little that looks like much of anything through even a modest telescope. Let's take a few examples. Here's a few images I took awhile back with exposure times that give images similar to what you'd see with your eyes:





If you don't recognize these objects, they're M31 (the Andromeda Galaxy) and M42 (the Orion Nebula) respectively.

Now let's see what those look like with long exposures from modern telescopes.

Source


Source


To me, these new visages have in no way diminished the beauty of the astronomical world. Sure, it's a bit less personal, but the views now are so far beyond anything available in the past, that it's just as captivating.

The romance isn't gone. It's just matured.

And now, I don't have to freeze my ass off to partake in it.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree. Surely Marcy knows that pro astronomers haven't relied on eyepieces in years/decades (just being poetic for the interview I suppose). This shouldn't be surprising to anyone since pros need to collect serious data, not just subjective, personal views. Of course, there's still plenty of "romance" for amateur astronomers. Long live the eyepiece.

Stephen said...

Out of Marcy's work is from at least a couple years ago, some hot Jupiter was found via wobble, and they wanted to look for a transit. The transit was expected to be much easier to spot, and so wouldn't need the mighty (expensive) Keck. They knew when and where to look. A 6 inch (150 mm) scope with a CCD camera would have been enough. So, my club's 12.5" scope with it's cameras could certainly find this sort of stuff, with a bit of effort. That would be really cool. Usually, the big scope is used for followup.

Shital Shah said...

I think you are missing the point. Romance has perhaps little to do with efficiency and getting tons of data. There is difference in "Aha!" moment when you find faint blob of Andromeda by an hour of painful star hopping in cold night through 6" scope for the first time in your life verses you look at nice printouts from 6 floory scope. BTW, the photos in this post are false color beyond visual spectrum and so misleading to people.

Jon Voisey said...

Shital: I think you're missing the point. There are many different types of romance. One can certainly be that "Aha!" moment after finding Andromeda (although I hardly think it should take an hour to find since it's visible to the naked eye from a half decent location).

But another is seeing something extraordinary. My point was that our eyes are limited since they cannot take long exposures and are only sensitive to a narrow range of wavelengths.

The idea I was trying to get across is that what's lost in the "Aha!" moment, is more than made up when technology allows us to comfortably view things that are far beyond the abilities of a simple eyepiece.

mollishka said...

Most big telescopes, actually, when you are observing at them, you are in a little room in the same physical building as the telescope. You can walk out into the dome and realize, "oh, that image was crap because there is a big cloud right in front of the telescope." At Keck, however, you don't want to be up there at 14,000 ft and deprived of oxygen. (It'd be more hardcore, but not in a romantic sense to be sure.) Several new telescopes, partially because of location and partially because of the fact that a huge heat source where the silly humans are (which in turn disrupts the atmosphere and thus the image quality), are considering adopting this not-really-remote observing technique.

Also, perhaps the quote was taken out of context. Planet hunting is finally reaching the point where it takes a second thought to remember which dot is which planet on all of their favorite plots ... discoveries (e.g., of planets) are much more romantic when not many of them are known. While Earth-like planets are still frontier-quality and "romantic," hot Jupiters are rapidly becoming run-of-the-mill, oh-we-already-have-some-of-those type objects.

Shital Shah said...

I think you are missing the point. Romance has perhaps little to do with efficiency and getting tons of data. There is difference in "Aha!" moment when you find faint blob of Andromeda by an hour of painful star hopping in cold night through 6" scope for the first time in your life verses you look at nice printouts from 6 floory scope. BTW, the photos in this post are false color beyond visual spectrum and so misleading to people.

Stephen said...

Out of Marcy's work is from at least a couple years ago, some hot Jupiter was found via wobble, and they wanted to look for a transit. The transit was expected to be much easier to spot, and so wouldn't need the mighty (expensive) Keck. They knew when and where to look. A 6 inch (150 mm) scope with a CCD camera would have been enough. So, my club's 12.5" scope with it's cameras could certainly find this sort of stuff, with a bit of effort. That would be really cool. Usually, the big scope is used for followup.