From the December 2005 issue

Bob Berman’s strange universe: Seven holiday secrets

December 2005: If someone you love hints for a telescope, break the news to them about these hidden realities of backyard astronomy.
By | Published: December 1, 2005
My phone rings a lot in December. The voices are those of friendly strangers wanting advice about buying a telescope for a geeky loved one.

I tell them the same thing you would tell them. One size doesn’t fit all. Need portability? Get a Schmidt-Cassegrain (SCT). Plan to spend a few grand? Get a 10-incher with all the gadgets. On a budget? Go for a Dob. Does the recipient value craftsmanship over light-gathering power? Get a Maksutov. Is this an all-thumbs person incapable of mirror collimation? Choose a 5-inch refractor. Got a permanent site for a roll-off shed? Spring for a 10- or 12-inch f/6 Newtonian. Need something indestructible for a child, or a scope for under $250? Get a 60- to 80-millimeter refractor with 11/4″ eyepieces, and upgrade to a decent 50mm finder.

“Go-to” models are popular. But impatient adults fumble around with them, unwilling to do the start-up steps where you aim it at a few famous stars and press buttons. Such restless beginners should probably get GPS models.

But hold on. This is “Strange universe.” What’s strange about beginners getting a first telescope? Answer: the seven secrets.

If someone you love hints for a telescope, break the news to them about these hidden realities of backyard astronomy.

1. Few objects in the universe look spectacular through average telescopes.
People imagine their new scope will be a magical portal to colorful, swirling nebulae and gold-and-blue spiral galaxies. Um, not quite. Serious observers are happy with faint, colorless smudges because they’re thrilled to behold a galaxy 50 million light-years away. But beginners, recalling magazine photos, expect countless Hubble-like galaxies bedecked with spiral arms.

So what makes newbies gasp at the eyepiece? The non-Full Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, and the Hercules Cluster (M13). Maybe the Orion Nebula and a few others. A sustained appreciation for the rest requires a serious relationship with astronomy. If this is a lark, an impulse, it’s best not to overspend.

2. It’s a black-and-white universe.
Sure, you’ll find a few pastel binaries like Albireo. And Mars is yellow-orange. Uranus and some planetary nebulae are greenish. But that’s about it. New backyard observers expect a gardenlike cosmos of vivid rainbow colors, and that’s not going to happen.
3. You can’t just point a telescope anywhere and see something interesting.
Raw beginners think the sky is crammed with goodies like the shelves of a supermarket — there’s a reason it’s called “space.”
4. Everything’s blurry most of the time.
That’s just how it is. Only the degree of smudginess varies. And no wonder: When a 12-inch scope points one-third of the way up the sky, it’s looking through 30 pounds of swirling gas. Thirty pounds! Miles of air! You and I are used to it; we simply wait for the moments when the seeing steadies and we ignore the rest. We also know enough to “use low power when the seeing’s sour.” Speaking of which:
5. Low power is usually better.
As longtime director of two observatories, with 33 years of guiding the public on endless viewing nights, using 6- to 40-inch instruments, I employ magnifications below 100x half the time, and below 180x ninety percent of the time. But beginners reach first for a high-power eyepiece; that is, if they can even figure out that it’s the one with the lowest number written on it.
6. A planet-observing session means staring like a catatonic for an hour or more, waiting for moments of exquisite seeing.
Beginners imagine one merely points the scope at a planet and Wham!, you’ve got it. Observers from Galileo onward have learned otherwise.
7. Telescopes work poorly on wooden decks, and you can’t point them out windows, open or shut.
They must be hauled out and in. Chiropractors love backyard astronomers; we help put their kids through college.

You and I have gotten past these misconceptions, so let’s help the newbies whose observing world seems as confusing as string theory.

Then they can move on to steps two and three: coming to grips with constellations that bear no resemblance to anything whatsoever, and stars whose names are more easily pronounced by growling dogs.

Happy holidays, and welcome to the strange universe.