Thursday, May 12, 2016

Averted Vision

“For now we see through a glass; darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
     I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about averted vision of late.

     Although I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been interested in astronomy, the universe, the planets, space travel, etc., I’ve only been really active in the hobby since the summer of ’09. So I can still easily remember how difficult it was for me to make out Deep Sky Objects (DSOs) that others around me kept telling me were bright and obvious. Turns out there were two factors at work here, preventing me from seeing things that everyone else was claiming were practically leaping out of the eyepiece.

     First, I needed to learn just how objects actually looked through a telescope. Part of the problem (especially in this post-Hubble era) is that we’re all accustomed to admiring wonderfully colorful and detailed images of the far places of the universe, and our expectations are skewed. We look at the Andromeda Galaxy and expect to see great spiral arms and dust lanes, when all we can actually see is a soft, basically featureless glow of oblong shape. We observe the Ring Nebula and think we’re going to see some splashy object resembling the last rainbow we saw after a thunderstorm, instead of the tiny, grayish smoke ring that greets us (somewhat grudgingly) in the eyepiece.

     And there’s the training process itself. I’ve been having a lot of fun of late comparing the sketches I made during the 2010 Mars opposition with those of two, and then four years later. It’s amazing how much more detailed my observations were the second and third times around. In 2010, I considered myself lucky to make out the polar cap, and maybe a dark smudge or two on the disk itself. But my later drawings were crammed full of identifiable surface features that actually matched up with what the simulations told me I should have been seeing. Mars wasn’t any larger in the eyepiece in 2012, or 2014, and the seeing certainly wasn’t any better. But my brain was. I knew how to see, and so I did.

     The second factor was more subtle – averted vision. I now realize how frustrating I must have been to the kind people helping me out in that first year of serious observing, as they patiently explained to me where I was supposed to be looking when observing, say, the Crab Nebula - that is, if I actually wanted to see something. (By the way, thank you, guys, for your infinite patience and the valuable time you took with me. I will be forever grateful.) We stargazers have to overcome a lifetime of habit formed in the daylight. We naturally assume that the best way to see something is to look at it. Straight at it. So when we’re showing some visitor to a public star party a relatively faint DSO, no matter what we say they have to fight against the most powerful instincts, telling them that if they just stared more intently at the center of the field of view, they’d finally see the galaxy or whatever it is that we’ve got in the eyepiece.

     The “gotcha” moment for me came when I happened to ask Dwane, who was set up next to me at a Carrs Mill Park impromptu, “What is this Blinking Planetary” (NGC 6826) I see in my star atlas?” He obligingly swung his Light Bucket around and showed me, telling me to look back and forth - first straight at the object, then off to one side, repeatedly. Sure enough, the nebula “blinked” in and out of visibility as I did so. Whenever I looked dead on, it disappeared! But as soon as I shifted my gaze toward the edge of the field of view, there it was. It was the best one minute tutorial possible.

     Of course by now, using averted vision at the eyepiece has become second nature to us “old hands”. We don’t even think about it anymore, unless we’re explaining the concept to someone less experienced. It’s become just another item in our observing toolkit. And that’s fine, as far as it goes.

     But as I said on the last page, I’ve been thinking about this a bit - quite a bit. We are, after all, more than just amateur astronomers (no matter how much time and money we spend on it). In our less than ideal world, we unfortunately can’t spend all of our time at the eyepiece. We do have to tear ourselves away from our scopes now and then and deal with family, co-workers, neighbors, friends, even that less-than-helpful “customer assistance rep” on the phone. I think it would behoove us all to examine our occasional (or persistent) problems with people around us and figure out which of them are “daylight” problems, and which are “dark sky” ones. For the daylight issues, looking them straight in the eye is usually the best and most appropriate course of action. But how many of our fights, misunderstandings, personality conflicts, etc., are dark sky problems, best seen for what they really are by using a sort of “averted vision”? Sometimes we need to stop fixating on what’s pissing us off, and look off to the side - at the person we’re dealing with. We may find that by putting them as a person at the edge of our field of view, we can’t see the root issue of whatever is troubling us at all. But if we look aside for a moment, and see the other person as a person, the solution to that elusive conflict may just suddenly “blink” into view, and the way through it become as clear as the Crab Nebula on a really good night, with our gaze firmly fixed away from the object itself.

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