Will Work for Photons
Like many people involved in our hobby, I became interested in astronomy as a youngster. I learned to identify the planets and constellations when I was in grammar school, and soon felt the itch to get a closer look at them. By the time I started high school, my sights were set on a very fine telescope made by a local optician named Max Bray. It was a 5” aperture Maksutov-Cassegrain, a “mirror-lens” telescope that combined the best qualities of reflectors and refractors in an elegant, compact package. I had never seen anything quite like it, and I knew I had to have it. All that was standing before me and that beautiful instrument was several hundred dollars. Sufficiently motivated, in the summer of 1974, I started looking around for a way to earn the money.

I soon found my first summer job – thanks to my older brother, Peter, who worked part-time at a local plant nursery. The pay was modest, but my task was simple: water the trees. The nursery had a wide variety of ready-to-plant saplings growing in 55-gallon drums. Hundreds of them. Six days a week, eight hours a day, I walked from drum to drum, giving each tree its daily allotment of water.

Not only was this a summer job, it was a summer job in Phoenix, Arizona. Outdoors. The desert southwest, of course, can get a little warm in the summer. A hundred and ten in the shade isn’t unusual. Unfortunately, there was very little shade among the saplings, so I didn’t even have that small comfort. And the owner of the nursery, the imperious Mister Baker, had some unusual rules for his employees, one of which was that male workers were not allowed to wear short pants unless their legs were “prettier” than the legs of his teenage daughters. At least I would never suffer from sunburned knees.

I suppose it goes without saying that the job was not intellectually stimulating. Finding new ways to exercise my imagination was essential for maintaining my sanity during those long, sun-baked days. I talked to bugs. I made up songs and sang them to the bugs. I counted the leaves on Ficus trees and had deep, philosophical conversations with lizards and ground squirrels. But above all, I continually thought about all of the amazing things I would be able to see once I had the money to buy that telescope. At a dollar thirty-five an hour, it would take about eight weeks. My star-struck eyes fixed firmly on the prize, I dragged a garden hose from tree to tree, soaking the soil, singing to my insect companions.

The dismal summer finally came to an end, and the telescope was mine. It did not disappoint. My first view of Saturn took my breath away. At low magnification, it revealed a small white disk surrounded by an exquisite white ring. Higher magnifications showed subtle colors and details – a faint equatorial belt, Cassini’s division… I could see it all, and much more, through my wonderful new telescope. Amazing. I remember waking my father up in the wee hours of the morning more than once to share the view of a planet or deep sky object. I think he enjoyed engaging the night sky almost as much as I did, or at the very least was happy to indulge and encourage my burgeoning interest in astronomy.

After just a few nights at the eyepiece, I was hooked on visual observing for life. Attempts at astrophotography soon followed. At the state Science Fair in 1976 I won an award from Kodak for some photos of Saturn and the Moon taken with my Mak.

That telescope opened the door to the universe for me. I majored in physics and astronomy in college, worked on policy issues for the NASA planetary exploration program in graduate school, and eventually became a writer for a couple of the Star Trek television series. I’m sure that the aesthetic appeal of astronomy, rooted in my first view of Saturn so many years ago, helped shape my interest in the arts. It also led me to the writing of Carl Sagan, who became a role model for me in exploring the intersections of art and science.

In recent years, with a little more disposable income in my pocket, I’ve had the privilege of traveling to distant and often exotic locations to view solar eclipses, comets, and other things astronomical. Aruba, the South Pacific, the Eastern Mediterranean, Mauna Kea, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Mount Graham – the wonders I’ve seen in the skies of these places are etched deeply in my soul.

Along the way I’ve met many other enthusiastic explorers of the celestial sphere. The members of the Southern Astronomical Society based in Sydney, Australia, could not have been more generous with their time and telescopes. 47 Toucanae through Tony Buckley’s 16” f/7 Dobsonian was mesmerizing. Eclipse cruises in 2005 and 2006 introduced my girlfriend and I to an eclectic group of lunar shadow lunatics. We plan to see many more eclipses in the coming years with them. A chance meeting with another amateur astronomer fifteen years ago led to a six-year stint as a volunteer operator on the 24” TIE telescope on Mount Wilson.

In these tough economic times, I’ve discovered that astronomy can support the dreams of our kids in more ways than one: I’ve organized star parties for various schools here in southern California, not only to inspire the next generation of astronomers, but to help raise money. It’s a sad commentary on the state of our society that public schools need to stage fundraisers to buy library books and paper towels, but I’m happy that by setting up a telescope in a schoolyard, I can bring the value of science into sharper focus.

Not satisfied with restricting my observing till after the cocktail hour, I recently acquired an H-alpha solar observing system for my Questar telescope. Back in high school, I never imagined the possibility of owning a telescope that could reveal detailed images of solar prominences without the need to wait for the next total eclipse. I have a couple of computer-controlled telescope mounts as well, something that professional observatories were only just beginning to implement in the 1970’s. Like many people (including, I’m sure, the guys at Kodak who gave me the science fair award in ’76) I was shocked to see how quickly film cameras were replaced by digital systems in the 1990’s. I can’t wait to see what wonderful new tools become available to amateur astronomers in the coming years.

In addition to the latest technological advancements, I have a vintage instrument as well: a 4” Alvin Clark refractor. Its images are as sharp today as the day it was finished, in 1892. And I still have the 5” Mak I bought over thirty-five years ago from Max Bray (along with several others he crafted in later years). It’s still in great shape too. Unlike many things built today, a good telescope, well maintained, will last more than a lifetime.

Would the views through my 5” Mak be as precious if I hadn’t had to work so hard for it? Probably. But the memory of watering those trees and singing to the bugs as I dreamed about the stars still brings a smile to my face. And more importantly, the brilliant optician Max Bray became a lifelong mentor and friend. Astronomy is more than a science or a hobby. It is a gift that keeps on giving.