BIRTHDAY PRESENT OPENS CONNECTION TO THE PAST
Some months ago, I was preparing for an adult family member’s birthday and asked the lucky celebrant for a gift suggestion. The answer? “I really want to get back into sky-watching. I’d love a nice telescope.”
I Googled around, surfed Amazon and telescope.com, and was bewildered by the options available in various price ranges. How should I select a telescope for a beginner? And what, exactly, is a beginner? “Beginner” meant something different to me than it might than to an amateur astronomer with more advanced skills. How to determine which features, which lens types, which scope types to get? I finally settled on the Orion SkyQuest XT6i Computerized IntelliScope.
The scope arrived just in time for the birthday, and while the sheer size of the boxes was a surprise for our family—two huge cartons, one nearly as tall as one of us!—something else hit me when we opened those boxes. Much assembly required. How the heck were we going to put this together? The body of the telescope is nearly 5 feet tall. While the promotional copy said “not designed for astronomers 12 years and younger,” I didn’t realize what we were in for when I ordered it. The setup instructions were bewildering. And if a scientific instrument is gonna work, it needs to be precise. It took me maybe 30 seconds after opening the boxes to realize we were in way over our heads. Uh-oh.
The telescope sat unassembled on a shelf for weeks, then weeks turned into months (needless to say, the gift recipient was bummed). I e-mailed the manufacturer to ask for suggestions on someone we might hire for help, but no reply, ever. I emailed friends, but no help materialized. Finally, a relative had a last-resort idea: why not contact a nearby amateur astronomy club and see if they might help?
A little personal history here: my grandfather was an amateur astronomer (sadly, I didn’t inherit his mechanical skills) who built the world’s first aluminum-domed observatory in his backyard out of scrap metal. He and his buddies used to shoot out the streetlights with shotguns to reduce light pollution and increase stargazing clarity, and they collected scrap glass from a nearby factory and ground their own lenses. He even corresponded with some astronomy luminaries in Los Angeles, where I now live, including the man who designed the Griffith Park Observatory. He once hung out with Einstein, and a historical plaque in his honor is where his backyard observatory once stood. He was a true “maker,” back when makers didn’t get much respect.
So, what would my grandfather do in a jam like this? He’d reach out to fellow amateurs for ideas and support.
We reached out to the Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Club (http://www.smaac.org/), and bingo, it worked: one of the club's members, Robert Lozano, kindly offered to swing by and take a look. Lozano is a serious amateur astronomer who conducts educational workshops and hosts “star parties” (for a fee, he brings a telescope to your party and teaches your guests how to find planets and stars). Setup was complex even for him, and the process took about four hours—but when he was finished, we had a totally killer telescope with a computer viewfinder aid, all ready to explore the night sky.
While he was putting the telescope together, we talked about my granddad and about the club's current activities. I suddenly realized how much I missed this part of my family history, and how at home I feel around astronomy buffs like my grandpa. So, while this gift is now in the hands of someone who is enjoying it very much, the whole experience of reaching out to the local amateur astronomy community for that much-needed help inspired me to make astronomy more of my life—for my grandpa, it was his entire life, and really what he lived for, what gave him the most joy throughout his 96 years on this planet.
I'll be going to the astronomy club's next meeting, and I'll be thinking of him when I do.
(By the way, if you're in Los Angeles and want to hire a great astronomer for help setting up your telescope or tutoring you on astronomy basics or hosting a “star party,” contact Mr. Lozano.)