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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Christmas gift from 25 years ago

I couldn't let this day go by without honoring what has become without a doubt the most treasured Christmas gift that I've received over the course of my life...

Christmas 1982 was dominated by the Atari 2600 (which we got that year). But more than anything else, I wanted a telescope. All my life I've been interested in astronomy, and the craze really took hold when I was 6. When I was 8 my Mom bought me an subscription for a magazine called Odyssey. If you were a science geek/nerd growing up in the Eighties, you might have heard of it: it was a monthly mag for young people produced by the publishers of Astronomy.

Well, by the time I was in third grade, I wanted a telescope of my very own. And in Odyssey's October or November issue that year, it had a buying guide for telescopes. And that's what gave me my initial education in things like "aperture" and "focal length" and "equatorial mount" and the difference between "refractor" and "reflector" (seriously, what 8-year old kid talks like this?). I started using that kind of terminology on my parents, and they no doubt wondered what kind of kid they had given birth to.

So anyway, my sister Anita woke me up on Christmas morning (as she usually did) in 1982 to tell me that it was time to see what Santa had brought us. We got our parents up, and Dad went into our living room and closed the door while Mom had us waiting outside. As out we did it in our house, Dad told us that everything was read and tat was our signal that we could open the door and see what Santa had left for us.

I didn't see it at first. It was kind of backed up against the wall on "my" side of the tree (Anita's Christmas toys were on the side closest to the door and I was on the other side, toward the far wall). We saw the Atari 2600, and a bunch of games including the now-infamous Pac-Man (those sound effects still get on my nerves just from thinking about them). I also got some Star Wars toys, a few of the new G.I. Joe figures. And still I didn't see it.

"Chris, Santa brought you a telescope!" Mom finally said. And that's when I first looked upon it...

A full quarter-century later, and it still looks exactly the same as it did that Christmas morning so long ago. A 3-inch refractor (meaning it uses lenses) made by Bushnell. Equatorial mount. Several eyepieces that could be used to magnify the image to various degrees. A moon filter and sun filter (although I never used the sun filter: even as an 8-year old, I knew there had to be something very wrong with looking at the sun through a telescope, no matter how "well-protected"), a prism attachment that let you look through the telescope without straining your neck, a screen that worked with the prism to project the sun's image onto (which I did do several times to safely observe the sun), a Barlow lens to increase image size, a few other goodies that came with the telescope.

That's what made Christmas 1982 so special for me: that I had my own telescope! At last, I would be able to see the rings of Saturn and Jupiter's Great Red Spot in real life! All day, I kept thinking about how I'd take it out that night and use it for the first time. Dad hooked up the Atari and Anita and I took turns playing it, but eventually I was content to let her have it for the rest of the afternoon, while I read through the telescope's manual and studied up on how to use it (I say again, what kind of 8-year old kid turns down a then-hot video game system to read a telescope user's manual?).

We went to my grandmother's for Christmas dinner that night, and unfortunately by the time we left it was turning cloudy and much colder. When we got home later that night the moon was barely visible and I tried to use the telescope for a few minutes, but the clouds finally overwhelmed my effort. I brought the telescope back into the house, and the next night had much better luck because it was clear and got a very good look at the moon. It was so bright that I had to use the lunar filter to decrease the amount of light that reached the eyepiece. It also made the moon look green (and my Uncle John asked if that meant it was really made out of cheese).

In the days, weeks, months and ultimately years that followed, I used that trusty telescope to look at just about everything else that I could pick out of the sky with it: a few months later, I saw the rings of Saturn for the first time. Not long before that, I was able to see Jupiter and its four major moons. I could barely make out the ice cap on Mars (which was in recession at the time). Then 1985 rolled around, I was 11 and Halley's Comet was returning for it's once-every-75 years trip back toward Earth's neighborhood. I first spotted Halley's Comet with binoculars in November of that year, and then found it with my telescope. After it came back around the sun in spring a few months later, quite a lot of people were asking to come over and for me to let them see it through my telescope. Yeah, it wasn't as spectacular as Comet Hyakutake ten years later (which was a big mutha that wowed everyone at Elon when it came near us... yeah I used my 'scope to look at that too) or Hale-Bopp a year after that, but to be able to say that I not only saw Halley's Comet, but helped a lot of other people to see and enjoy it too, is something that I'm always going to be proud of.

Twenty-five years later, and not much has changed. My telescope is still kept in my parents' living room (which isn't really the "living room" in their house at all: my family has mostly done "living" stuff in what we call our "den") and it hasn't been stored anywhere else when not in use even once in all that time. I've still kept it clean and all the optics in excellent condition. It works as beautifully today as it did a quarter-century ago.

Yeah, I know: amateur astronomy technology has come a long, long way in that time. These days, it's hard to buy a decent telescope without a clock-drive (which keeps the instrument fixated on one object in the sky by compensating for the Earth's rotation), which my telescope doesn't have. A lot of people like reflectors more than they do refractors, because you can make a reflecting telescope pretty darned big and some of them can even make out Pluto, which a 3-inch aperture will never do. I don't know if I'll ever be able to hook up one of the fancier digital cameras to my telescope, to send an image straight to a computer...

But I don't care about those things. And even if I were to get some snazzier telescope, you would still find me using my beloved 3-inch refractor, and Lord willing someday I'll be letting my own children use it to discover the beauty of the heavens.

So in honor of my beloved Bushnell 3-inch refracting telescope: here's to twenty-five wonderful years of working together, and hopefully twenty-five more still to come. How many other Christmas presents can it be said have been enjoyed for so long? :-)