Houston Astronomical Society Interview

GuideStar header

I was recently interviewed for the Houston Astronomical Society’s newsletter GuideStar. I’ve been interviewed a few times before and have found that the quality of the resulting article depends hugely on the interviewer. Prep is everything. And in this case, Clayton Jeter was a real pro. His questions were thoughtful and interesting, and clearly the result of having done his homework.

The complete interview appears after the jump.

You can view or download the entire issue of GuideStar here.

And now, over to Clayton…

Once every month, I take my stroll out to the mailbox to snatch the newest issue of Sky and Telescope. As I sit in my recliner later and thumb through its pages, I always first turn to my favorite monthly article, ‘Telescope Workshop’. I savor every word. As you all know, I’m a telescope junkie… all designs. For some reason, the telescope (excluding the hand-crank ice cream maker) is my favorite machine on the planet.

‘Telescope Workshop’ is a monthly article written by Gary Seronik. He’s an avid observer of the moon and planets. He’s also a scope lover too like me. He’s got some good thoughts and ideas on telescope design. Enjoy and learn….here’s Gary…

A “Guide Star” interview by Clayton L. Jeter

Clayton: It is so nice to have you here for this long overdue interview. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to corner you for a few astronomy questions. Let’s get started…
How did you first become involved with Sky and Telescope? When did you start writing for them?

Gary: That was back in ’96. They ran an advert saying they were looking for an editor. On a lark, I sent in a jokey resume, not thinking I had chance in a million of being considered. I guess my sense of humour appealed to Leif (Robinson, then editor-in-chief) because I soon got a letter saying they were interested. I was shocked. Next thing I knew, I was flying out to Boston to meet him and the rest of the staff. They didn’t hire me straight away — they were in the midst of some kind of major reorganization that they had to sort out first — but they did ask me to send in stuff, which I did. My first S&T piece was an article describing my optimized 6-inch f/9, which appeared in the June 1997 issue. I moved to Boston in ’98 and took a desk next to Alan MacRobert and down the hall from Roger Sinnott, Dennis di Cicco, and Leif. It was a thrill to work with these guys.

Clayton: You talk a lot about different telescope designs within your column, which is your favorite?

Gary: I don’t really have a favourite. I’m pretty utilitarian in my scope choices — if it works, I use it. That said, since I built pretty much all my scopes, I do have a lot of Newtonians. They work well and the design is very versatile. Can you name another optical train that can effectively span so many apertures and f-ratios? I can’t.

Clayton: Tell us a bit about your 12 3/4” Travel Scope. Just how portable is it? Do you get funny looks from custom agents in foreign airports when they see it?

Gary: That scope has been with my to Costa Rica several times (I lead a star-gazing tour there every year) and across the country too, so it’s portable enough to go on a commercial flight. I take the mirror and mirror box as carry on, and the rest goes as checked luggage. No way I’m trusting that mirror to baggage handlers! As for customs and security agents, they’re mostly curious and, in my experience, usually friendly. Often we’ll get into a long chat about astronomy while I’m gathering my things and putting my shoes back on. I imagine they mostly see the same boring stuff coming through the X-ray machine all day long, so a scope probably breaks the tedium somewhat.

Clayton: Are you a visual observer only? Tell us about a typical observing session for yourself.

Gary: I dabble in astrophotography, but yeah, mostly I like to see the stuff in real time with my own eyes. I find I have a much deeper and immediate connection with the universe that way. I find pictures are one or two steps removed from that experience.

My routine depends to some extent on work. Luckily, where I live, the sky is pretty good, so I don’t have to get in the car to observe. When I’m working on my Binocular Highlights column, I usually get up in the pre-dawn hours. Not only is the world very peaceful at then, but the sky is usually at its best. And since I’m writing for an S&T issue that’s several months ahead, I’m observing things that won’t be in the evening sky for awhile. The pre-dawn ritual is partly a result of me not having my act together enough to view these things a year in advance when they’re in the evening sky!

For binocular viewing I set up my home-built mount (the one described on my web page), which allows me to quickly switch between 10×50 and 15×70 binoculars. I try to use the same gear that most of our readers have, though I’ll haul out the image-stabilized binos too.

Sometimes I’m evaluating telescopes for S&T Test Report. In those situations, I’m trying to replicate what the average user of that particular instrument would be doing. It’s fun and I get the chance to play with a lot of commercial gear that I otherwise probably wouldn’t spend time with.

And if I’m just banging around the sky for my own enjoyment, I’ll choose whatever scope I’m in the mood to play with that night. My 12.75-inch gets the most use — no matter if it’s the Moon or faint fuzzies. I’ve been rebuilding that scope over the winter, so it’ll be getting “first light” for the second time very soon. I’ve got a long series of articles about that project on my web site.

Clayton: How do you rate your overall eyesight? Are you one of those folks with exceptional vision? Can you detect faint colors in those faraway fuzzies?

Gary: I don’t know — I’m probably pretty average. I’m no Steve O’Meara, but I manage to see quite a bit. So much of it has to do with technique and experience that even if your vision isn’t the very best, you can still do very well.

Clayton: Just how tough is it to grind and produce a good telescope mirror? How many have you made? When was your first?

Gary: Wow — that’s a question and a half Clayton!

Making a good mirror is 90% a matter of patience. There’s less skill involved than most people think. Yes, you have to learn to do some things, but they’re not terribly difficult. But the difference between a good mirror and one that’s excellent often comes down to artistry, I believe. I used to teach mirror making at the planetarium in Vancouver and in each group of 20 or so students, there’d always be one or two who just had a certain touch. Real artists. You never know until you try — you might be one of those. If not, you have to rely on determination.

I can’t remember how many mirrors I’ve made — quite a few over the years. My first was a 6-inch f/9 back in ’92. I made, and re-made that mirror many times before calling it “done.” That piece of glass was my education in optics and turned out beautifully in the end. Fortunately, in those early years, I had the help of an excellent local ATM (and close friend) named Lance Olkovick. A phone call to Lance would usually get me back on track if I hit a snag.

Clayton: You have great articles in Sky and Telescope, but placing you on the spot here, how do you like Astronomy magazine? Ever have articles/photos in that publication?

Gary: I’ve never contributed to Astronomy, though I did subscribe in the very early years when Steve Walther was editor. I think the Richard Berry period was good too. But you know, I started subscribing to S&T when I was a kid, so that’s always been my favourite, even long before I got into the writing game. Besides S&T, I also really like the Canadian publication SkyNews, which is edited by Terence Dickinson — one of the finest astronomy writers around.

Clayton: Do you have an amateur observing mentor?

Gary: Not really. I was a loner for many, many years, so by the time I started viewing the skies with other people, I was already set in my ways and knew my way around the sky.

Clayton: Have you a favorite star party that you attend regularly? Are there others?

Gary: Over the years with S&T I’ve had the chance to visit most of the big ones several times, and many of the lesser ones as well. Each one has its own personality and they’re all fun. The one I never miss is the Mt. Kobau Star Party. I’ve been every year starting in 1986. (Jeez, that makes me feel old.) It’s a small event in a beautiful spot near where I spent my childhood, so it’s unique for me. Most of my observing buddies attend as well, which makes it even more special. The other favorite (naturally) is the Costa Rica Southern Skies Star Party, which I lead. That event happens usually in February and lets me see some of the fabulous southern sky. Plus, for a Canadian boy, the chance to observe Orion in the warmth of the tropics is just way too good to pass up!

Clayton: How do you envision amateur astronomy in the next 25 years?

Gary: Hard to say. Right now, beginners have never had it so good when it comes to information and equipment. My colleagues at the magazine and I often reflect on how much decent gear you can get these days for so little money. I think you have to have been doing this since the ‘70s to really appreciate how good things are right now. I have my doubts that this situation will last though since so much of it depends on economic conditions that are bound to change in the coming decades.

Clayton: Do you have any helpful advice to pass on to observers just starting out in astronomy?

Gary: Simple. Follow your interest. I think too many beginners feel like they have to do everything — they’ve got a get a monster scope to see deep-sky objects, an apochromatic refractor to view the planets, and they want to take pictures too. Eventually it feels like a burden. Pick the one you’re most keen on and don’t worry about the others — you’ll get to them eventually. The main thing is to enjoy what you’re doing, otherwise, what’s the point?

The other piece of advice I’d offer is to watch out for on-line overload. The internet is great, and the forums can be very helpful, but they can also be very confusing — on almost any topic you can name you’ll find conflicting points of view. There’s also a lot of stuff out there that’s misleading, self-serving, or just plain wrong. The internet is a very useful tool, but beginners in particular have to keep in mind that opinion and information are often different things. I’d say, get the basics from books and magazines first, then you’ll be better able to wade through the on-line material with some perspective.

Clayton: Is there an email address that you have that a Houston Astronomical Society member could contact you for an additional question or two?

Gary: The easiest way is via my web site (www.GarySeronik.com). If you don’t find what you’re looking for there, you hit the “contact me” link.

Clayton: Thanks Gary for taking the time to share your interest and thoughts within our HAS newsletter, ‘The Guide Star’. We wish you luck with all of your astronomy interests. You told me earlier that you have attended and spoke at a past H.A.S. meeting many years ago. Please come back and visit our society when in the Houston area, we’d love to see you.

Clear skies always!

Gary: Thanks Clayton — it’s been a pleasure.