Doing More With Less — In The Footsteps Of Galileo

Saturday, March 07 2009 @ 05:20 am EST

Contributed by: dgrosvold

Galileo's original 2“ Refractor
Lora and I spent a couple of interesting weeks this winter as a result of the ice storm that came through on January 27th. As many of you know, the electric utilities in NW Arkansas were hit pretty hard, and it took some time for the various utility companies to get power restored to those of us in rural areas. Most people in town had their power back on within a few days, though even a few days is uncomfortable and even dangerous when the temperature outside is in the teens and twenties. It took over two weeks for the power in our neck of the woods to be restored — many folks around us had no way to heat their homes or keep their wells from freezing.

Lora and I were lucky. We had a good woodstove and a supply of firewood for heat, propane for cooking and hot water, and since we're connected to rural water, we had that available as well all through that period. But we did come to appreciate the luxuries of electricity. We're so used to just flicking a light switch that I still couldn't break the habit even after two weeks of being without power. I’d walk in a room and automatically flip the switch.

As a society, we depend these days on instant communication — getting weather reports and other communication by e-mail and the World Wide Web that we take it for granted that it will be there whenever needed. During this two week period, it was much more difficult for us just to find out what the expected low would be for the coming night, as well as when we might be able to expect the power to return and whether the roads were passable or not. We did find that we could get by with far less than we've become accustomed when it became necessary.

With the economic downturn, we are all being forced to do more with less these days. The Arkansas Oklahoma Astronomical Society is in a tenuous position right now with the Coleman Observatory, which we've had to close to protect our interests. We've found that many of us as individuals have also been put in a position to get by with less, whether it be with housing, fuel, food, or our discretionary funds. This certainly puts a crimp on our amateur astronomy activities, as well as our public outreach efforts. It's become important for us to decide exactly where we will spend our limited funds on equipment, as well as travel to club functions.

I believe we can do more with less. As an example, today, we normally consider a 10“ to 12“ scope to be a medium sized telescope. These days, behemoth super-Dobs hitting the 36“ aperture range at f/3 are becoming common at larger star parties. We've grown accustomed to having the very latest gear as the disposable portion of our incomes grew larger and larger.

Amateur astronomers even 30 years ago considered an 8“ scope to be fairly large. Amateurs in the 70's actually aspired to build their own 6“ Newtonian telescopes and put them on equatorial mounts made of plumbing-store parts. A 1.25“ Kellner was a high-end eyepiece back then. Nowadays, some folks think nothing of plopping down the price of a commercially-built 12.5“ Dobsonian just for one of those super-mega-ultra-wide eyepieces.

I, for one have personally been impacted by this economic downturn, including my amateur astronomy activities. I have had to put off astronomical equipment spending that I had planned for earlier this year until things improve. However, there is still a lot I can do with limited resources. What convinced Galileo 400 years ago that the Earth orbits the Sun and not vice-versa? How did one man make such a startling discovery, armed with just a 2 inch (5 cm) single-lens telescope?

This year, 2009, has been designated as the International Year of Astronomy in celebration of the this 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s first observations at the telescope, and the huge significance of those early observations of the night sky. Even with the widespread access to education and information, many people today don't even know what Galileo did. Yet, astronomers in the 21st century still build on the legacy of the 400 years of work that followed, the foundation of which was laid by his pioneering discoveries.

It was exactly 400 years ago, in 1609, that Galileo first observed the moons of Jupiter. These four largest moons are now known as the Galilean Moons, as Galileo recorded in the Sidereus Nuncius, his 1610 publication. The observation was very controversial as it proved that Earth was not the only center of movement in the universe, which supported the idea that Earth moved around the Sun. This, of course, eventually led to Galileo's imprisonment as a heretic.

What does that have to do with us as amateur astronomers today? Lots. If the motion of the moons of Jupiter can been seen in a 2“ scope with a lens that most of us would throw out, how much more can be done with modest affordable equipment available today? The celebration of Galileo's contributions to modern science couldn't be more timely. We can show others that they don't have to invest in a large array of expensive equipment to enjoy the wonders of the night sky. In fact, all one has to do is join the club, and by just paying dues they can have access to a wide variety of materials, from books in our library to loaner telescopes, and even discounts at local book stores. Let's see how we can use Galileo's example to do more with less.

Dave Grosvold

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