Astronomy: Hobby or Obsession?

I've often wondered if astronomy is still a hobby for me, or if it has evolved into something much more serious. Have I become obsessed?

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.

First Telescope
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!"

Messier Objects
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'.

Aperture Fever!

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
Misery loves company, so inevitably the obsessed astronomer will end up joining mysterious, secret societies and organizations of similarly afflicted astronomers. The danger these organizations pose to you or your loved ones is directly proportional to the number of letters in the acronym associated with them.

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.
  1. We admitted we were powerless over astronomy.
  2. Came to believe that only a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will, our lives and our pocketbooks over to the study of the Universe, as we understand it.
  4. Made a list of all persons we had ignored or taken for granted, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  5. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would cause us to miss a clear night.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
If followed faithfully, the astronomer may once again become a functioning member of society, but he will never return to a completely normal life. The best we can hope for is some inner peace and an acceptance of our relationship with the cosmos, as we understand it...


Anonymous said...

Definitely an obsession!


RevAaron said...

Holy heck! I've done everything except the CCD imaging. AND I own an Obsession (the 20"). Save yourselves, there's no hope for me!

Anonymous said...

LOL....I really enjoyed this post. I am in no way yet "obsessed", but really enjoy the hobby. Ok, gota go, my 8" SCT needs its daily cleaning, I have to map out my 5 hour observing run for tonight, print my 22 pages of finder charts for my targets tonight that are assorted by RA, prep the car for the 2 hour drive to dark sky site, pack my 3 scopes, 18 accessories, 4 books, 3 star maps, 2 laptops, 1 battery pack, table, chair, 2 thermos with extra strong coffee and think of an excuse for coming in late tomorrow for work (again). Obsession, ha ha, you guys need to tone it down a little I think, after all, its just a hobby man!

RevAaron said...

Hey, just had a thought - if I fall off my ladder and break my neck in the middle of the night in a remote area while using my 20" Obsession, I'll be one of the few people who do actually die from an astronomy addiction.

AstroMike said...

It's just an excuse so that in casual conversation you can drop the line - "I've got a full set of Bessell filters". For those of you who like to mix astronomy with heights, here's a question for you. Where is "Gasgoine's Leap", and for what is it infamous? If you get this right I'll want to know why!

Stephen said...

I don't recommend EQ mounts for beginners. I don't recommend low end EQ mounts to anyone for anything. In fact, cheap "beginner" telescopes are much harder to use than scopes for "advanced" astronomers. Compare a $20 50 mm TwinStar refractor to a $500 250 mm Orion xt10. The Twinstar's alt-az mount sticks, so to move it to the object, you often overshoot in either up/down or left/right. The xt10 goes where you put it, and has adjustable tension if it doesn't. The TwinStar bounces around for ten or more seconds after you let go of it, or after your eyelashes touch it. The xt10 settles down in under a half second, and is critically damped so it never oscillates. The focuser on the TwinStar sticks - it's very difficult to get an image that works. The xt10's focuser may work best in one direction, but at least it smoothly moves, so you can put it where you want it. And so on. The advanced scope is easier to use.

So, you might consider a small dob for the "beginner scope".

I haven't succumbed to aperture fever. If i want a view through a huge scope, i can use the club Big Dob scope any time. And besides, there will be two or three guys to help set it up. And someone will probably even know where to point it.

But i've recently been investigating low power eyepieces. My dob came with 48x and 120x. I obtained a 2x barlow, giving me 240x. Much over that, images get pretty faint. I want a big wide field of view. Well, that's going to be a 2" eyepiece, instead of 1.25". Exit pupil calculations suggest around 33 mm. Don't want to waste any photons. So i tried some of the cheaper $100 2" eyepieces from 24 mm to 38 mm. Great - only $100! But i discovered that they all are either in focus in the center or in a ring around the outside, but not both at the same time. That is, unless i've also got a $230 Paracorr. Oh, and the Veil is best in oxygen 3, so i'll need a $150 filter. So $480. That's only a little less than the scope was originally. At least i don't have to buy it all at once. And, i have a $25 gift certificate at the closes astronomy store...

Who'd have thought that low magnification would be expensive? Why are cheap 50 mm scopes sold with 640x? Because high magnification is cheap (even when useless).

Laurel Kornfeld said...

Obviously, this entry is intended to be humorous, but being the rebel I am, I would like to offer a different viewpoint entirely. Before doing so, I will add that although I love astronomy, I have not progressed to buying a telescope due to funding issues or to astrophotography, which may be problematic with my technical ineptitude (I'm not sure I could ever learn how to use the equipment correctly).

My main point, however, is this: I don't believe an "obsession" is necessarily a bad thing. This is a cultural bias that comes largely from Hollywood, which depicts anyone single-minded and intensely passionate about anything as the equivalent of a stalker.

If you love something, what's wrong with thinking about it all the time? For creative types including artists, writers, musicians, scientists, etc., this is often a normal way of being, and this type of intense focus is often what results in great discoveries or works of art.

I believe it's better for someone to have something he or she loves and can't wait to do every day or night than someone who does little more than watch TV and lives "a life of quiet desperation." How boring!

Not all obsessions are the same. Astronomy isn't going to destroy one's liver or lungs. If it's not hurting anyone, what's the problem?

Anonymous said...

*holds up hand*

Hi, my name's Markus, and I'm an astronomer...

("Hi Markus.")


john cheng said...

Appreciate your take on a great hobby...Got here via the AAVSO Writer's Bureau

This article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Guide Star, the newsletter of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh.

John Cheng
Guide Star Editor