Sunday, August 07, 2016

Lessons From Leslie Peltier

Not too long ago, on advice from my friend Roger, I decided to start reading Leslie Peltier's autobiographical "Starlight Nights". Here, I must confess that I was only familiar with Peltier in passing. I was aware that he had written a great book on binocular astronomy, and that he was an early member of the AAVSO. Beyond that, the man was a mystery to me.
After I finished reading "Astronomy With An Opera-Glass" by Garrett P. Serviss a second (maybe third) time, I went over to this "Starlight Nights", and have been enthralled.
More than that, however, is the fact that he has touched upon some truths that I've often considered but never really have given much thought to.
The one thing that he stressed is that the best way to learn the night sky is directly, that is to say, by oneself. I suppose to a degree it is akin to that old adage from Benjamin Franklin; "Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn." The best way to learn the night sky is to simply go out and observe it.
The other take away I've gotten from the book so far is that the size of the instrument used to observe the night sky is really less important than the tenacity of the observer. As Serviss' book has demonstrated, something as small as an opera glass is sufficient. The great French astronomer Lucien Rudaux also felt that way. In Peltier's book, he goes into some length about how effective his first telescope, a humble 2" (50mm) terrestrial telescope was.
A terrestrial telescope, if you're not familiar with them, has a complicated optic train in order the create an erect image. From personal experience, I've found that the amount of light lost in one is quite high, certainly more so than an equivalent sized astronomical telescope.
Yet he was able to view and achieve quite a bit with this instrument. It would be easy to say it was his location, the rural reaches of Ohio, or the time period, the early 20th century, that enabled him to accomplish what he did. Perhaps so.
Though I am tempted to say balderdash.
I live in an area where, to my south, is the booming metropolis of Jacksonville, Florida. To my northeast are two paper mills that run twenty four hours a day. Nearby is a shopping area, and my own neighborhood has those bothersome sodium streetlights.
Yet I have been able to see quite a bit.
Certainly, some of the more distant objects are lost. I don't see much in the way of galaxies here, and some of the fainter deep sky objects are all but invisible. But the wonders are there.
It just requires tenacity coupled with the act of simply looking.

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