The other night, I was out taking a leisurely tour of the summer sky with binoculars. It was after midnight, and the world around me was at rest. In the distance, I could hear the waves splashing persistently against the shore, and in the woods beyond my house, an owl called to its mate. The air had that slightly cool, slightly moist feel that it gets at this time of year. In short, it was a lovely night.
The environment that envelops me during an observing session is as much a part of the stargazing experience as the views in my binoculars or telescope. On the best nights, I find myself in a reflective mood, pondering what it is really that draws us to this activity. Backyard astronomy has so many interesting facets that I’ll bet you’ll come up with a different set of motivations than me.
It’s true that astronomy has a scientific stream — and I’ve dipped my oar in those waters often enough to have my name appear on a couple of International Astronomical Union Circulars. Sure, it’s a thrill to have your observations contribute something (however minuscule) to the advancement of the science, but for me, the sensation is short-lived. It’s certainly not why I set up a telescope as often as I do.
And there’s no denying that the equipment is compelling too. There are some who’d call me a gearhead, with some justification. I love telescopes. I love making them, and I love using them. They have the same sort of appeal as a cherished musical instrument does. Binoculars, cameras, eyepieces — the whole works can be a joy to use when they’re well made. Ironically, the better the gear, the less you notice it. It just does what it’s designed to do and doesn’t attract attention to itself.
Undoubtedly, another attraction is the sense of being part of a worldwide community. It’s great to share your observations, frustrations and delights with like-minded souls. Star parties are a great way to connect with other stargazers, and the internet, especially on-line discussion forums, is also tremendously helpful. But I find that this aspect is more of an enhancement to the experience of enjoying the night sky, rather than the activity itself — if that distinction makes any sense.
It’s true that all these things contribute something to the experience of backyard astronomy. But when I think about all this at a really basic level, the thing I inevitably circle back to is that I mainly enjoy the sense of being connected directly with nature. The sights, sounds and even scents of a perfect starry night make me feel a part of the greater cosmos like nothing else. What about you?