I built my first telescope in 1953. It was an affair of left-over optics from the local eyeglass shop. The lenses were glued into a cardboard tube left from Christmas wrapping paper. It turned out to be good enough to watch a neighborhood girl kissing a boyfriend in their tree house on the next hill. However, this is not what inspired my love of telescopes.
I learned how to grind my own mirrors and soon was looking at the rings of Saturn and the cloud belts of Jupiter. The craters of the moon attracted me briefly before they grew boring. There was a close approach of Mars, but a dust storm on the planet obscured any detail that I might have seen. I spent a lot of time one winter looking at the Orion Nebula through my new low-power Kellner eyepiece. It was my best eyepiece for viewing faint objects; I saved up month’s of mowing lawns and trimming curbs to pay for it. Finally my father took pity on me an ordered one without telling me. It was a wonderful birthday present and I still have it sixty years later, though it hasn’t been used in a long time.
Transparency. I lived in a little town on the northern borderlands of Oklahoma, twenty miles south of Kansas. Our nights were mostly beautiful and clear, either warm and windy in the summers, or incredibly cold and crystalline in the winters. If I weren’t careful, I’d leave a patch of skin behind when I touched a piece of cold metal. But the stars were glorious, the Milky Way flowed like a river through the heavens, and I could see all of the stars available to the ancients. No longer.
Sadly, those days are gone, destroyed by entirely avoidable light pollution. Only in some areas of the plains and the high Sierras (or a favorite spot in eastern Kansas) can one walk out under the vault of the heavens and feel like they are falling upward. Gone are the days of seeing the heavens near Austin, Texas, where a pall of air pollution and mercury arcs obscure all but the brightest of stars. Yes, I can remember the stars in the hills north of San Marcos, Texas. These twinkling little friends are gone, an amazing sight lost to the children of the area who study the sky through pictures on their computer screens or, if they are lucky, live feeds from remote telescopes around the world. How would some lost child know which way is north? Polaris is almost always obscured. How could they know of the glories of the glowing center of our galaxy in the direction of Sagittarius? Something so available and free in my generation has been stripped from their experience. No transparency in those areas anymore.
It’s okay to be selfish about what an unspoiled world has to offer us. Demand what is our heritage. I believe that demand is perfectly compatible with other ambitions. What profits a person who can only hold a picture of what was once loved?