From the August 2004 issue

Bob Berman’s strange universe: Astronomy for free?

August 2004: Here it is — the year's cheapest astronomy event.
By | Published: August 1, 2004 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Bob Berman
Here it is — the year’s cheapest astronomy event.

Should astronomy experiences be rated according to price like cars? Why not? Ours is a consumer society. A lot of people equate high quality with high cost. Why should the universe be different?

I refer, of course, to the wonderful Perseid meteor shower on August 11. This year, the Moon won’t interfere: ideal conditions. It’s one of the few skywatching experiences that actually can be ruined by using a telescope or even binoculars because you need a whole-sky field of view to catch the most shooting stars. As with the northern lights, the shower just cannot be improved with fancy equipment.

The entire hobby or science of astronomy was once like that. You’d marvel at the Milky Way, learn the constellations, point out planets and watch them ramble against the starry background. But our obsession with equipment now makes it hard just to sit there and look up.

So round up your family and friends and head for the Greek island of Limnos for the Perseids. It’ll sound impressive, guaranteed.

So how can we make the Perseid meteor shower expensive? After all, this is necessary if we’re to convince our materialistic friends it’s worthwhile.

Textbooks say amateurs still can do “useful science” when it comes to meteors. Great — but what can we buy, what do we do? Easy, just count the meteors each hour.

Count them? That’s it?

All right, there’s some equipment for this event. A red LED console attached to a button can keep a running total without having to keep track yourself. But while such a gizmo is cool, it just isn’t pricey.

So how’s this: an EKG that blips and counts each time you gasp? Because bright meteors make everyone draw an involuntary breath, that would work. Or perhaps we could attach that LED counter to a headset microphone running to a decibel meter registering sound, so it tallies each time anyone proclaims, “Whoa!” or “Did you see that one?”

Still too cheap? Then travel. Meteors are much better from the country than the city, so you need to go somewhere to optimize the experience. A desert is absolutely optimal. How about Chile? Think I’m joking? Look at the ads. There are more and more overseas-adventure-type astro-expeditions organized around events that you can see from home. I’ve been the lecturer on a bunch of them. When Comet Hale-Bopp came around a few years back, Tom Bopp, Fred Whipple, and I did a “Comet Cruise” to the Caribbean. It was packed, despite the fact that you’d see the comet just as well from Kansas. So round up your family or friends and head for the Greek island of Limnos for the Perseids. It’ll sound impressive, guaranteed, and the meteors will be appreciated much more when they cost a hundred bucks apiece.

(While this is all tongue-in-cheek, there’s truth behind it. A long time ago, I’d let friends attend my college classes for free. Then I discovered that they were the only students who would arrive late or raise their hands and wisecrack. I finally realized that many people do not value what they get for nothing. I started insisting that friends pay to attend the lectures like everyone else, and wham!, their attitude in class totally changed.)

So forget Messier-type catalogs with objects listed by magnitude, right ascension, or distance. We need to classify astronomy targets by cost of enjoyment!

Top-rated event: a total solar eclipse. You always must travel, and the trip is usually more than $3,000 for a 3-minute event. So an eclipse costs $1,000 a minute. No wonder they look so awesome.

This is why the great 1991 Baja eclipse, which lasted nearly 7 minutes, and which you could drive from Los Angeles to see, gets a low rating. That one set some people back only $70 a minute. It went on and on. We were tempted to read paperbacks by the light of the corona just to kill time until it was over.

Next: the Magellanic Clouds and other Southern Hemisphere delights. These can’t be seen from the United States; you have to journey south of the equator. That’s pricey.

Then come super-faint goodies like the crimson color of emission nebulae. For a direct view at the eyepiece, they require big apertures. Expensive equipment. In deep space, seeing red is a status thing. Like paying extra for a particular paint scheme on a motorcycle.

Meanwhile, maybe we can upgrade the meteors by finding sponsors for them. Pepsi brings you the Perseids! Alas, for this year at least, the shooting stars remain free. Let’s try to enjoy them anyway.