My life with telescopes

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
March 4th, 2024

“You have a telescope! Use it much? What can you see? Can we take it outside and look at the moon?” Our visitor is asking about the telescope in the corner or our living room and his enthusiasm is infectious.

It revives my own, which has been dampened by a combination of aging eyes and increasing light pollution. Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy seeing some of the more popular and, by now, familiar sights in the universe. Close up views of lunar craters, the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter are as spectacular as ever, but the thrill of the hunt for fainter objects – wispy filaments of interstellar gas that look like a pelican, a dumbbell, or the outline of North America – fades with the growing effort of finding them.

And it doesn’t help that the telescope and its tripod get heavier with each passing year.

This particular scope is the most recent in a long line of light catchers that I have owned since I was in the seventh grade. A mere 10 inches long and four inches wide, it outperforms scopes many times that size. The secret is in the placement of mirrors inside the tube, delivering bright, magnified images of celestial wonders to the eye of the observer.

What also sets this beauty apart is the GPS locating system that moves the scope up, down, and sideways until the target is centered in the field of view. This is especially useful when the target object is so small, dim, or distant as to be invisible to the naked eye.

My telescopes come with memories as do most of what I have accumulated over my past three score and 16 years. In that time, I have owned five scopes, six if you count the one I got at a yard sale but never used for want of a proper mount. I still have them all as well as a pair of giant binoculars that fit easily on a photo tripod, travel conveniently and provide the advantage of using two eyes, which is especially helpful when your dominant telescope eye isn’t as sharp as it used to be.

The first time I looked through a telescope and saw the rings of Saturn, I was hooked. The image seemed to float in the black silence of space. Gone was the noise of the factories humming across the marsh, gone too were the sounds of traffic in front of the police station across the street.

We huddled on the side of a photo shop in the deepest shadows we could find where even the bright lights of the supermarket parking lot were blotted out by a nearby building. The people who showed me this wonder, the man who owned the photo shop and his daughter, were still there. I heard his voice asking me what I saw and probably telling me how to bring the image into sharp focus. The girl was probably telling her father how amazing the planet looked and asking for another turn at the eyepiece. Their voices seemed to come from far away because now, I was elsewhere, with my whole attention focused on a tiny circle of space holding an even tinier golden orb encircled by a perfect ellipse of luminescent rings.

When I was 12 years old, not long after I started wearing glasses for severe nearsightedness, my mother bought me my first telescope from our friends at the photo shop. It wasn’t the same one we looked through that night, but the kind of basic second-hand model that you buy out of love when money is tight.

Although the optics were flawed, they were good enough to bring me the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, craters on the moon, and the wonders of some of the brightest double stars. The telescope became an extension of my improved vision and I took every opportunity to scan the night sky for something I had never seen before.

One clear summer night, three friends and I pitched a tent in one of their yards, and I brought my telescope so we could watch the skies change as the earth rotated under domes of summer, fall, and winter before the sun rose to annihilate spring.

In the yard, we were isolated from suspicious or sometimes just curious onlookers, but I learned early that there is nothing like a telescope in a public place to invite some probing questions from the police.

“Well, hello officer. I’ve just been looking at the rings of Saturn. Care to take look?” The good-natured constable usually did and, satisfied that no mischief was afoot, went on his way.

A few years later, with another group of friends, I wasn’t so lucky. We had driven out into open land, far from city lights, and set up the scope on the edge of a farmer’s field. The sky sparkled with a million points of light, but we had hardly begun when the police arrived, asked what we were up to and told us to move on.

My first telescope saw me through high school, college, and graduate school. When I got my doctorate, I celebrated by buying a more powerful instrument that I had coveted for years in the pages of Sky & Telescope magazine. This one, standing almost four feet tall with a six-inch mirror, did it all.

It brought me farther into space affording views of fainter objects. In time, I learned how to photograph what I was seeing through the eyepiece, and when Mars made its closest approach to Earth, I was able to capture an image of the red planet’s green bands and white polar caps.

There is satisfaction in learning how to navigate and photograph the night sky with the aid of a telescope, serenity when a telescope transports you to your own private piece of the universe and joy in sharing these experiences with others. I will never forget the smile on the face of an old woman from rural Ireland visiting her daughter in Boston when she got her first glimpse of the craters on the moon through my graduation scope.

New technology continued to offer up more and better telescopes. A smaller, lighter, bright orange version of that early light bucket traveled with me to Bonaire on an excursion with a local astronomy club to view Halley’s comet. The skies on what was advertised to be an almost cloud- free island did not cooperate, but we shared our disappointment and the successes that some had when they were able to capture the comet on film between the clouds.

The telescope that now sits in the corner of the living room followed on the heels of a larger version of itself whose flawed optics did not give it much observing time. I wonder now if it was my own vision and not the telescope that was flawed. No matter. Its successor performs admirably and carries the memories of many happy nights under the stars including sessions with patients and interns at Westborough State Hospital where we started an astronomy club.

I have lived with telescopes for more than 60 years under the dome of heaven. There, every night, whether or not anyone is looking, stars are being born while others die. Galaxies older than the history of life on earth appear to us as they were before anyone was here to see them. Planets sit like jewels on black velvet, inviting the observer up through the tube of his scope into a place of silent beauty, insulated from the cares of everyday life.

I have enjoyed these sights in solitude, in the company of friends, and under the eyes of watchful policemen. I have invited family members, guests in my home, curious strangers, patients in hospitals, children and adults to glimpse worlds of beauty and wonder that are there for the looking. The telescopes that have taken us there are still here. Hollow tubes, conduits of starlight and dreams, they feed imagination and memory both. Sometimes all it takes is a simple question about the scope in the corner of the room to start the reverie.

And now our visitor calls me back from someplace far away. “Did you hear me? You look like you were thinking about something else. Can we take it out now and look at the moon?”

“No, I’m sorry, not now. It’s too cloudy. But maybe tomorrow when the sky clears. Come back then and we’ll have a look.”

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