From the June 2005 issue

Bob Berman’s strange universe: Can’t price passion

June 2005: Are amateur astronomers masochists?
By | Published: June 1, 2005
Bob Berman
Some people cough up $65,000 to climb Everest, then shiver for 9 miserable weeks in cramped mountainside tents, hoping to spend a few frozen minutes at the top. We admire them, but we also know they’re nuts.

Do backyard astronomers possess that same chromosome, the one that controls masochism? If we added up astronomy’s pluses and minuses, would they at least balance out? Such cost-benefit calculations are standard practice in business: Has anyone ever done it for the astronomy hobby?

Witness this hypothetical scene: Bill purchased an ultra-expensive Cassegrain before he got married — his wife would have insisted they buy wallpaper instead. He lives in a suburb of Washington, where the sky is clear one night out of every 36,000. When the sky is cloudless, lights from the nearby metropolis limit the nightly naked-eye view to the Moon, four planets, 28 stars, and a passing police car.

Nowhere in the universe is M57 being viewed in quite this way, except maybe on the planet Melivian 218 — where the mosquitoes play little harmonicas.
So Bill invested in light-pollution filters, which would work better if his semi-insane neighbor hadn’t surrounded his home with yard lights that could turn Machu Picchu into Times Square.

Sometimes Bill begs his neighbor to douse the klieg lights for an hour. The neighbor cheerfully agrees — in exchange for Bill cutting down his prized oak, whose overhanging limbs drop leaves into the neighbor’s pool. Bill says “OK,” figuring it’s a small price to pay for astronomy. He’ll deal with his wife’s reaction later.

Now Bill can haul out his scope — which disassembles into three portable parts weighing only 430 pounds apiece. Bingo, there’s the Ring Nebula, accompanied by an audio soundtrack of buzzing mosquitoes and the neighbor’s yapping schnauzer. Nowhere in the universe is M57 being viewed in quite this way, except maybe on the planet Melivian 218 — where the mosquitoes play little harmonicas.

Other than herniating his L5 spinal disk while toting the scope back inside, the night has been successful. “I love astronomy!” Bill gushes the next day to his psychotherapist. The shrink totally understands: Studies show that intermittent pleasure provides the maximum incentive to repeat an activity. It’s true. A rat will run a maze more often if cheese isn’t always at the end of it.

Part of astronomy’s allure is that we have to work at it. The cheese isn’t always there. We go to eclipses when half are cloudy. We crave ever-larger scopes even though they are bigger hassles. We buy it anyway, the 10-foot Goliath taking up the living room and changing the home’s decoration scheme into “neo-warehouse.”

If the new garganto-scope costs $5,000 and we haul it out 25 times in the years to come, we’ve paid $200 per use. If we gaze at 10 objects each time, it’s $20 per nebula, $20 for each galaxy. Figure about $5 a minute. Imagine if it cost $5 a minute to rent a movie. Would anyone do it?

Well, it must be worth it. Astronomy can be cheap, too: an Astronomy subscription, binoculars, maybe a modest scope, nothing too steep. But how to put a price tag on what we get in return?

The pleasure-module can’t be specified because backyard astronomers seek enjoyment from many different pursuits:

• Variable-star devotees are thrilled when they notice Algol is dim or Mira is visible.

• Naked-eye observers get a charge when Orion returns each year, or when they travel south and see the Southern Cross.

• Planetary specialists stare at the same thing over and over; the thousandth view of the Cassini division outclasses the Mona Lisa.

• Deep-space people live for an averted-vision glimpse of M51’s spiral arms.

• Astroimagers spend days with CCDs and digital tweaking until getting the perfect nebula shot, which they turn into a screensaver.

• Amateur telescope-makers take justified pride in viewing ancient celestial empires through instruments of their own creation. It does not matter that building the scope required a sunless year in solitary confinement in the workshop. (“Who’s that pale, funny-looking man coming up from the basement, Mommy?”)

Most of us belong in multiple categories, but we share the same pleasures: the sight of Saturn’s rings, or M13, or the mountains inside Copernicus casting shadows on the crater’s smooth floor. Wow, does that stuff forever bring a smile to our faces, or what?

As for the work, hassle, and cost that lead up to that moment, the answer can be summed up in two words: Who cares?