(Akkana's thoughts on visual astronomy)

What good is an observatory?

What good is reality, when you can display a picture of anything at all on your computer screen, in 24-bit color?

What good is the outdoors, with the wind on your face and the chill biting your fingers, when you could be indoors, sitting in a cushioned chair in a climate-controlled fluorescent-lit room?

Why spend effort trying to locate an observatory in a dark site, or waste money maintaining a large telescope instead of a small one? After all, M42, M31, M13, and the double handful of other bright objects, are pretty -- everybody says so -- and once you've seen one fuzzy patch, you don't really need to spend time trying to notice differences between various different fuzzy patches, do you? Sure, some of the fainter fuzzy patches are farther away, but why should that be exciting to someone looking at it? If you just want to look at things that are far away, you can always download images from the Hubble web site.

Why waste your time learning to use a telescope, learning to find your way around the skies, making friends with the constellations, learning patterns in the sky which you'll greet with warm recognition every clear night for the rest of your life? Wouldn't it be easier to punch in a couple of coordinates and wait for the telescope to slew automatically without your having to work or think or learn?

Why waste time learning observing skills, getting good at seeing details in almost invisibly faint objects, when a camera, or, better yet, a computer controlled CCD array, can capture light much better? Isn't the human eye obsolete as a research tool, anyway?

What good is it to anyone that there are people intimately familiar with the constellations, who spend their nights scanning the skies looking for comets and other new objects? Surely any new comet would eventually show up on some computer-monitored CCD survey, so why should we get excited about the guys shivering out there with their binoculars, or glorify them by naming objects after them? Isn't a name like "C/1996 B2" just as good as "Comet Hyakutake"?

What use is the look on someone's face when they see Saturn through a telescope for the first time, or the shout of a child saying "Hey, Mom, Dad, come look at this!"? They've all seen photos of Saturn before, bigger and better than they see it through a small telescope -- why waste their time showing them a live image, and why do they always seem to get so excited about it?

What's the point of trying to take your own photographs, when anything you could possibly want to photograph has already been shot, and you can order the full-color poster for $14.95 without having to learn about guiding or equatorial mounts or exposures or reciprocity failure or any of a million other annoyances?

What, for that matter, is the point of trying to study anything at all? When you observe through a relatively small telescope, you're not seeing anything that a thousand other people haven't seen before you; when you try to solve problems in your physics classes, those problems have all been worked out before, and the solution's in the back of the book. Other disciplines aren't any better -- when you analyze Hamlet, you're only repeating thousands of analyses that preceded you. Write a program, and you're probably just solving some problem that someone else has already solved. You're probably not adding anything new. So why bother studying or working at anything?

Darned if I know what good any of this is. I sure hope it's stays clear tonight, though, so I can go out and observe.

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