From the January 2005 issue

Bob Berman’s strange universe: Stand back, Edison

January 2005: Gadgets always attract attention. It's a pleasure to drool at the gotta-have-it equipment you know you'll buy eventually.
By | Published: January 1, 2005
Bob Berman
Isn’t it exhilarating to roam among the armada of telescopes at a star party, seeing hundreds of backyard enthusiasts spread over a rural site like the Mongol horde?

Gadgets always attract attention. You’ve seen those green lasers beamed into the sky pointing out constellations, or tried a home-built binocular telescope. It’s a pleasure to drool at the gotta-have-it equipment you know you’ll buy eventually.

With so many serious backyard amateurs in the United States alone, there’s a steady demand for innovative astronomy-gadgets. Not enough companies exploit this market. So here are 15 suggestions:

1. The Incapacitator. This device shoots a disabling microwave beam at any car with headlights aimed at your dark site.

2. The Ultra Lightweight Mount. Forget “portable” mounts that weigh 1,200 pounds. Within its tripod, this mount has a thick rubber balloon filled with helium gas. The mount weighs less than nothing for transportation. A valve releases the gas into a portable tank for refilling when the night is over.

Whoopee gag: Let’s bring this one back with the observing stool and a built-in whoopee cushion. There aren’t enough stupid laughs at today’s star parties.

3. The TTT. Unlike the VLT, the Very Large Telescope, this is a Truly Tiny Telescope. Its 8-inch mirror has an f-ratio of 0.5, so the tube is only 4 inches long. When you’re finished, the mirror slips into an old vinyl record jacket, and the telescoping fiber rods fit into a billfold-size box.

4. Belladona Eyedrops. Astronomers used these as recently as the late 19th century. They dilate the pupil beyond its usual 7-millimeter limit, letting extra light hit the retina. Downside: Strange health consequences and you look like a lemur.

5. The Neighbor-Brainwashing Tape. This idea comes from The Manchurian Candidate. It’s a CD that plays subliminal messages through your neighbor’s TV, suggesting 300,000 times, “Yard lights bad. Darkness good.”

6. The Anti-Subtlety Device. Some people gaze through scopes at smudgy galaxies and just don’t grasp the thrill of seeing barely there blotches. This attachment creates garish kaleidoscopic patterns through the eyepiece. You tell them it’s the Hippie Nebula.

7. Charcoal-Grill Lighter/Mirror Kit. Remember when we were kids, how we liked to burn holes using the Sun and a magnifying glass? Well, it’s still fun. An 8-inch telescope mirror will set black paper aflame in seconds. The kit includes a fire extinguisher and an insurance policy.

8. Lecture Disrupter. Here’s a sound box with control buttons to release boos, catcalls, or raspberries whenever an astrologer is lecturing about the influence of Mars, or a cosmologist attempts to explain the inexplicable Big Bang.

9. The Black-Eye Gag. Novelty stores used to sell little fake telescopes that would give the unsuspecting victim a “black eye” after using it. Let’s bring this one back with the observing stool and a built-in whoopee cushion. There aren’t enough stupid laughs at today’s star parties.

10. Bad-Seeing Remover. We know how everything is supposed to look if only poor seeing wouldn’t criminally blur the image. These transparencies project a sharp image onto the focal plane. Friends will never know they’re viewing a slide.

11. Scope Cannon. Even though muggers never attack astronomers because they know we’re broke, some beginners might be wary. This attachment lets the telescope tube fire paintballs. They can knock an attacker backward, providing plenty of time to flee with 250 pounds of equipment.

12. Two-Way Mirror. This reflector’s optical coating makes it both transparent and reflective, letting you see through the telescope in either direction, like those sneaky “security” mirrors in some stores. It lets you watch observers’ faces while they’re using the instrument.

13. Minus-Power Eyepiece. This instrument shrinks instead of amplifying. It helps sprawling, unwieldy constellations like Hydra or Ophiuchus fit into your telescope’s field of view.

14. Anti-Insect Accessory. Imagine a telescope’s extension tube with a built-in bug zapper. Dead mosquitoes fall down to the mirror, then slide off and out a slot. Drawback: can cause heart attacks when a monster suddenly enters a lunar crater.

15. Dark-Site Subscription Service. You receive e-mailed lists telling you of newly abandoned toxic-waste dumps and deserted factory towns. Flat ground and no lights, but some of the places smell funny.

Entrepreneurs: Feel free to use these ideas. They’re not yet patented.