To begin my quest for the truth, I looked up the definition of astronomy in several sources. The one that seems the most sensible is:
"The scientific study of the universe and of objects which exist naturally in space, such as the moon, the sun, planets and stars."So, what then, is a hobby? Research yielded these results:
"A pursuit outside one's regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation."
"An activity which someone does for pleasure when they are not working."Adding them together I'm not sure what to think about this concept.
'The scientific study of the Universe for relaxation and pleasure'?Sounds kind of crazy, doesn't it?
I was sure I was in trouble when I looked up the definitions of obsession. The first definition wasn't so bad:
"A compelling motivation."Yes, I think I have been compelled and motivated by astronomy in many ways. But then I read:
"A persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling."Eeew, that's creepy.
"Something or someone that you think about all the time."Double eeew, that's really creepy. I may have a problem. I do think about it all the time. I'm thinking about it right now!
How do we tell the difference between a nice, well-adjusted hobby and astronomy obsession?
What are the signs of astronomy obsession? Is there a cure?
Apparently, my search for the truth had just begun.
The evolutionary path that many amateur astronomers take seems benign at first glance. But as you will see, this path is fraught with danger at every step.
The imagination and curiosity of individuals is often sparked by their first experience seeing the stars overhead from a very dark sky. This can happen on a camping trip or a vacation to a remote part of the world, far away from city lights. Most city dwellers, about 60% of the world's population now, never see the Milky Way from their homes. In fact, so few stars can be seen with the unaided eye from the city that most people just don't bother to look up any more.
Once they can actually see stars, patterns in the sky become obvious and the curious newbie astronomer will learn the bright constellations like Orion, Ursa Major, Leo, Scorpio and others, until they know their way around the sky fairly well. In order to see fainter objects the amateur may purchase her first pair of binoculars and learn the sky to more depth.
The acquisition of the first telescope can be the first real dangerous step on the road to destruction. The first look at the Moon through a telescope is often all it takes to get a person hooked on astronomy. Seeing Jupiter and the Galilean satellites for the first time stirs feelings in most people they didn't know existed. The first look at Saturn and its rings is nearly 100% fatal. I think there should be a warning label on every telescope box saying, "WARNING: Looking through this telescope may change your life forever!"
It is the quest to observe all the Messier objects that is the event horizon for most amateur astronomers. Once this boundary is crossed, there is no escape for the unwary amateur. It begins simply enough with casual peeks at the Orion nebula or the Pleiades. Then many of the other bright Messiers become well known to them, and oft visited. Most of the passionate amateurs I know can literally kick their Dob and land it on M81 and M82, after years of showing these two fine galaxies to everyone they know.
This journey usually ends in frustration trying to eek out detail in M108 or the madness of trying to view all the Messiers in one night, an exercise in futility known as the 'Messier Marathon'.
The frustration experienced by amateurs, trying to see faint, fuzzy objects with their first pair of binoculars or their first modest sized telescope, leads to the first obvious symptom of astronomy obsession- Aperture Fever.
This is the unquenchable thirst for larger and larger telescopes and binoculars with which to view fainter and fainter objects. The history of astronomy in the last 400 years is littered with the wreckage of amateur and professional astronomers investing their hearts, minds, souls and money into the quest for larger and larger telescopes!
(Note the telescopes shown here are actually called Obsession telescopes!)
This affliction is so serious I am devoting an entire blog to this subject alone.
NGC and other faint object catalogs
Once hopelessly obsessed with viewing fainter and fainter galaxies, clusters and nebulae, the amateur discovers the New General Catalog and other catalogs and observing lists from which to satiate their appetite for photons emanating from faint, distant sources. As if this weren't madness enough, many take the next step into astrophotography or photometry!
Deep sky photography and CCD imaging
It is with complete reckless abandon that the amateur dives head first into deep sky imaging and photometry. Once she has gone this far there is no stopping her until she hits rock bottom. Nothing else matters anymore, and there is little hope for intervention or salvation until the amateur is insane or bankrupt.
All of this can be graphically represented in what is now known as the Simonsen T-M Diagram.
Other sure signs of impending astronomy obsession for the concerned spouse, relative or friend to look for are:
- Observing alone
- Making excuses, finding excuses to observe
- Daily or frequent astronomy fix needed to function
- Inability to reduce or stop astronomy activities
- Becoming angry when confronted about astronomy habit
- Poor eating habits, increased coffee intake
- Failure to care for physical appearance
- Inability to remember or function properly the next morning
AL- Astronomical League (relatively benign)
ASP- Astronomical Society of the Pacific (could be trouble)
ALPO- Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (time for concern)
AAVSO- American Association of Variable Star Observers ("Houston, we have a problem")
BAAVSS- British Astronomical Association Variable Star Section (it may be too late)
British Astronomical Association Variable Star Section Supernovae Search Committee
(these people are completely mad, avoid any contact whatsoever!)
Where to go for help
If you or a loved one has succumbed to astronomy obsession or addiction there is help, Astronomy Addicts Anonymous (AAA).
The Seven Step Program of AAA is very similar to many twelve step programs for other addictions. Astronomy addiction is not nearly as serious as most addictions, people rarely die from it, so only seven steps are required for the recovering astronomer.
- We admitted we were powerless over astronomy.
- Came to believe that only a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will, our lives and our pocketbooks over to the study of the Universe, as we understand it.
- Made a list of all persons we had ignored or taken for granted, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would cause us to miss a clear night.
- Seek through prayer, meditation, observations and Internet connection to improve our conscious contact with the Universe, as we understand it, seeking only knowledge and good weather.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other obsessed astronomers, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.