As I mentioned last week, God blessed me with a wonderfully restful vacation after the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. Restful, that is, until my cellphone died and lost all ability to use the navigation software. When it first happened, I thought, “I’ve been driving these roads in Phoenix, Arizona for four days now – I’ll be fine without Siri.” Four hours later, I thanked God for helping me find the house I was staying at, exhausted from the mental stress of asking, “What is this place, how did I get here, and how do I get home?!”
In my defense, even parishioners who spend a great deal of time snow birding (a term used to identify primarily retired people from Wisconsin who spend the bulk of winter in Arizona) complemented me on my courage to try to navigate the city of Phoenix with no GPS. Nevertheless, there is something of the rural kid in me that felt like I failed to use my “natural” directional instincts to find my way home.
What does this have to do with faith and astronomy? One of the tensions I live in as a hobby astronomer is to balance the limited time I have to give to astronomy (given my “day job” as a priest) and the time consuming nature of doing astronomy. I feel blessed with the emerging technologies of automated telescopes that figure out your position for you or augmented reality star charts you can download for free on your cellphone that point you (sometimes) in the right direction of a star or planet. These gifts of technology can help maximize what little time I have to observe the night sky… when they work properly. And therein lies the problem: What happens if we become so codependent upon technology to enjoy the night sky that a dead battery, a worn gear, or a program that becomes corrupt can bring a screeching halt to enjoying the heavens?
The question of how codependent we have become on technology points to another foundational question: Do we even know the “neighborhood” of the night sky?” The first telltale sign that we are too dependent upon technology when observing the heavens is if we look up and can’t identify constellations and planets. If our ability to know the night sky can only be done with an app or an automated GPS tracking system, we’ve put the cart before the horse. Therefore, a first principle of understanding the proper relationship between technology and astronomy would be the following: Does technology act as something that assists us to deepen a preexisting knowledge of the night sky or is our knowledge of the night sky completely dependent upon the technology we use?
The next question we need to explore is whether or not we understand both the limits and the capabilities of the observational tools we already have access to in our homes? For example, I’ve been slowly moving into doing photography as a hobby – both astrophotography and basic nature photography. When you begin to explore this world, you can be intimidated by camera/lens packages that run in the thousands of dollars, mounts that have directions that you need a couple dictionaries to decipher, and “suggested” telescopes that might be perfect for people who have done astrophotography for years, but would be a waste of money for those who do not know how to use the gear they have sunk a couple paychecks into. In short, as is true with most things in life, we need to start with the basics!
The best way to start with the basics is to ask, “Do I know how to take a good picture?” The advancement of cellphone cameras has given to every person the ability to take really, really nice pictures. Not only do they take nice pictures of landscapes, but also simple images of the night sky. One of the things I enjoyed doing at FAW2019 was to wake up very early and watch Venus, Jupiter, and sunrise. There are few things more beautiful than an Arizona sunrise!
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Now, looking at these pictures, they’re not the best and wont be winning any photography awards, but they are meaningful to me because they take me back to those experiences. The pictures are not the experience, but help me experience again those sacred moments. This brings up another important question when it comes to the technology of astronomy: What are you trying to accomplish with the technology, given the understanding of the heavens you have?
If you want to take a picture of a nebula, but don’t even know the basics of taking good pictures, let alone night photography, it would be best to avoid buying any expensive equipment. Rather, take a good pair of binoculars or a field scope that is collecting dust in your closet, go out on a clear night and begin to get accustomed to the night sky. Find the objects that interest you, find them again, find them routinely, and then venture into the question of how to take pictures of the moon, then the planets, then stars, and then deep space objects. In other words, fall in love with the night sky first, navigate its streets without a gizmo, and then try to create meaningful reminders of your experience of the night sky. Personally, I know I will never be someone who will be shooting professional pictures for magazines, so I usually use my smartphone, a field scope, and an adapter to take images. If I want something a little more professional, I rent a quality camera and lens.
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Four pictures taken with the rent-a-camera I never used before. I am particularly happy with the eclipse images since I took them through light clouds. Unfortunately, the clouds thickened just before totality.
Lunar images taken with my smartphone. Not bad!
As you can see, whether it’s renting a rig for the weekend you can’t afford to buy or buying an adapter for your smartphone and field scope that costs less than the rental, you can take some wonderful pictures of the night sky! The key, again, is to ask, Why are you taking the images? When I look at these pictures, I am reminded of two events: 1. My vacation in Arizona, and 2. A family that invited me over to their house because their daughter wants to get into astronomy, but wasn’t sure where to start. If I want a poster for my wall, I’ll go to the store and buy one – they’re cheaper and higher quality. If I want to have personal, iconic reminders of some of the meaningful moments of my life, my love of the night sky, and my priesthood, I’ll take these pictures any day!
Now, I’m not just trying to give you a slideshow of my adventures, but I’m trying to make a point – These pictures are wonderful, but even if I didn’t have them, I would still treasure the experiences they capture. These images fail to come even close to what I experienced when I took them. I can’t smell the night or morning air, I can’t hear the faint calls of the birds, and I can’t hear the conversations I had with the people who joined me in these moments. Photos, in my experience, always fail to grasp the essence of the moment, no matter how good they are.
Nevertheless, no matter how grainy, out of focus, or off center the image is, images like this take me back to the love I already had for the night sky. Put another way, I don’t love the night sky because of the technology I use to observe the heavens – I use technology to help me remember what it was like to dream under a dark central Wisconsin night sky as a child, gazing into beautiful darkness saying profound things like, “There’s Venus… There’s Jupiter… There’s the Big Dipper… Draw the line from the front of the cup… There’s the North Star… There’s the Little Dipper… Follow the arc to Arcturus.” And so fourth.
Spiritual Exercise: Do you know the night sky? Are you willing to fall in love with gazing into the heavens? Does your technology limit you to what it allows you to experience or does technology deepen a love that already exists? Some may complain, “Ah, today’s post was from a hopeless romantic!” A hopeless romantic indeed. And even if our technological genius someday comes crashing down, I will still be a hopeless romantic because I don’t need a motor mount to point me home. I am already home in the wonderment of God’s creation and the beauty of God’s universe.