The Novitiate’s Odyssey

Episode Eight: Microscopy vs. Astronomy. Finally, the definitive answer as to why Astronomy is more popular.

By G. Joseph Wilhelm of the Florida Keys


( Editor's note: Previous episodes - part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7. )


(Author’s note: Yes it has been some time since I have penned a disquisition for Micscape Magazine. My employment duties have geographically cast this tired carcass to and fro into some of the most politically convoluted and culturally bizarre regions on the face of this earth i.e. Southern California and Miami. In the latter of which drivers now display the tourism department’s award winning bumper sticker depicting a speeding bullet with the caption “Come back to Miami, we weren’t shooting at you!”I also spent some time in Northern Germany with my brother and family relations and in my travels I have acquired a plethora of microscopical kit that I probably don’t need but want to tell you about anyway. So, like the prodigal son, I have returned to my beloved Florida Keys, or as we prefer to call it, cirrhosis-by-the-sea. Always quick to acquiesce to a threat, I shall resume imposing my Zeus antics and “musings” upon my fan base, or just “fan”, as the case may be.)

To quote Walt Whitman: “I sound my barbaric yawp from the rooftops of the world.”

Welcome to a dose of random logic as applied to an observed confusion as to why the perception persists that Astronomy has more of a discipleship than Microscopy. It certainly seems to be true and I have digested several articles written by enthusiasts of the miniscule comparing the costs of equipment, the relative convenience etc. and wondering why there seems to be such a wide schism in their relative popularity. Indeed, in his Microbe Hunter article “Some Thoughts on Recreational / Amateur Microscopy” Mr. Oliver Kim laments that the recreational microscopist is somewhat a “lone wolf” in comparison to his Astronomy counterpart. Since Astronomy and Microscopy are the only recreational optical sciences where an amateur can make an entirely new discovery, why the imbalance in acceptance? It could be because the beginning astronomer is offered much more information in the form of magazines, online publications, journals and discussion groups. There are also more clubs and other support organizations.

I received a respectable quality 6” Newtonian telescope as a Christmas gift a year ago. This delighted me as I now had a perfectly legitimate excuse for lurking about in the more obscure parts of the neighborhood in the gloom of night. However, some months went by before I had an opportunity to actually engage in some astronomical observations and experience this recreational endeavor for the first time. All of my queries into astronomy preceding this event were answered by a plethora of online sources and also by a local organization. It was through this latter parochial aggregation of rather zealous astronomers that I now am able to conclusively announce the reason for Astronomy’s prevalence of popularity over Microscopy.

It’s because of Rednecks.

For the overseas reader who is not familiar with this epithet that designates a rather large portion of the American social strata, allow me to explain. You can look up “Redneck” on Wikipedia and receive a detailed history of the term starting with its original derogatory connotation from the early 20th century to the present, modern, popular culture application that I refer to here. They proudly accept their moniker as a badge of independence and individuality. They are patriotic, loyal, rabid NASCAR fans, and somewhat suspicious of government and words with more than three syllables. As outdoorsmen / hunters / fishermen they have a consummate appreciation of nature and free beer. They are extremely proud of whatever level and topic of education they possess and will not hesitate to tell you so. Also referred to as “Good ole’ boys”, “Hicks”, “Hillbillys”, “Bubbas”, they have generally migrated from the Southeastern US to everywhere else in America, including the Florida Keys. They are avid gun enthusiasts and excellent shots. (I have it on good authority that it was not Navy Seals that dispatched Bin Laden but a group of Rednecks given the instructions that it was open season on Al Qaeda, there was no bag limit, they tasted just like chicken and Osama was personally responsible for Dale Earnhardt’s death.)

Here in Key West there is no shortage of organizations and clubs that claim to be the “Southernmost” and or “Redneck”. For example; The Southernmost Redneck Yacht Club, The Southernmost Redneck Bocce Club, The Southernmost Redneck Breakfast Club (which meets promptly at 7am Mon thru Sun at the Schooner Wharf Bar and No Grill) and yes, even The Southernmost Redneck Astronomers Club. And although the list goes on ad nauseum, alas, there is no Microscopy Club.

The local astronomy “Club” has no website, no president, dues, publication or other normal club structure. They are just a loose knit group (organizationally and in some cases of cerebral applications) of locals (rednecks) who like to get together for a night of “seeing” as they refer to their nocturnal activities. My good friend Chauncy (CT) introduced me to one of the more prominent members of this society who greeted me with some reticence. When CT mentioned that both I and my wife possessed permits to carry concealed firearms this previously taciturn individual poured forth with effusive acceptance and I promptly had the title of “good ole’ boy” conferred upon me. An invitation to their next astronomical soiree was quickly offered and accepted.

I returned home to clean and adjust my Newtonian in perfervid anticipation of what surely was to be an edifying experience.

Now, this would not be the first time I had used this telescope. Indeed, I had on several occasions viewed the moon both before and after the sun had set, vainly searched for Saturn and even hauled the thing to my roof top where I have viewed a wonderful unobstructed panorama of nature including the widow Johnson’s poolside attire du jour. In general, while suitably impressed by my initial observations, the allure of this hobby escaped my grasp due to the lengthy and tedious set up, the less than ergonomic posture required for viewing and the constant adjustments required in order to keep whatever was the moment’s heavenly body of interest in the field of view (excluding the widow Johnson of course).

As the appointed evening drew nigh, I gathered the telescope and necessary accoutrements while mentally making comparisons on how much easier it was to view an object through a microscope than a telescope. For example, a microscope does not require a jacket for viewing if it is chilly outside, nor does it have to be packed up and driven somewhere. To fully enjoy the microscope experience bug repellant is not required, or a red lens flashlight, folding table and chair, star charts, hiking boots, a thermos for a warm beverage or as in my case, a flask and designated driver. Nonetheless I had CT meet me at my domicile at 3:00 Pm and we hopped in my Bronco and drove to the “seeing” site.

This particular locale was located some seven miles North of Highway US 1 on Big Torch Key, away from intrusive lights, radio towers and heat sources. Sunset was to be about 6:30 but I wanted to get there early to simply lollygag about and let this experience unfold around me. CT dropped me off with my gear and departed to get his “Big Eyes” binoculars. I looked about the area, which I estimated at about 12,000 square feet. There was brush and trees all around the perimeter high enough to hide any possible stray light from a passing car on the road. I noticed the telltale signs of previous use. There were some neatly stacked rocks and small spots clear of any brush or grass which no doubt are already claimed for set up. This being one of those rare occasions when I actually cared I might offend someone, I set up in an inconspicuous spot near the perimeter.

I had only been perusing around for about ten minutes and had gathered some interesting specimens for viewing (I had brought along my recently acquired SP29 and favorite, improvised-from-the-front-lens-of-a-rifle-scope, loupe). I had just settled in at my table where an Amabile Lambrusco was chilling nicely, when the biological warfare team showed up. These three fellows were the vanguard of the astronomy club and arrived in an SUV and pickup truck with their paraphernalia, which included full body Tyvek suits, gloves and respirators. They approached my set up and obviously not impressed with the white tablecloth, iced wine bucket and goose liver pate’ on water crackers, (all of which are atypical to a redneck, except maybe the Lambrusco) advised me to cover it up and move to an upwind location. As I moved they unceremoniously covered my site in plastic and set about their task.

With respirators, protective suits on and a Black Flag fogger in each hand they proceeded to gas the entire area. Working from the upwind side they produced a miasmic cloud of poison that floated gently with the very light breeze across the site and into the surrounding brush and trees. They were done in twenty minutes and it was another ten before they declared the area habitable.

Returning to my table, wine and goose liver repast I was comforted to know there would be no insect related nuisances from mosquitoes, gnats or no-see-ums (no-see-ums, possibly the world’s smallest biting insect. Under the microscope they are simply a huge set of teeth with wings).

Now the pace of activities picked up. members of the astronomy club began arriving in droves, SUV’s, pickup trucks, Jeeps, Hummers and all other manner of four-wheel drive conveyances. (It is obviously a perquisite to being a card carrying redneck to own a 4WD vehicle in Key West even though the terrain is comparable to a flat tropical Kansas and off road excursions are prohibited because of the wildlife sanctuary designation for the entire Florida Keys.)

As this group unloaded I was rather amazed by the spectacle. All manner of telescopes appeared, short and long tube refractors of all sizes, standard and truss tube Newtonian reflectors with all types of equatorial mounts, Cassegrains, some large Dobsonians, some with computerized motorized automatic tracking systems, spotting scopes, binoculars of all types and sizes, in fact, virtually any device you could peer into the night sky with was represented here. Everyone had at least two scopes, some three or four. I couldn’t begin to count how many thousands of dollars was invested in this collection.

While the men did the setup and some rather precise alignment procedures, their spouses fired up the barbeque grills, set out the coolers and made regular beer deliveries to the men folk. At last this was all beginning to make sense to me. Astronomy was as much a social event as anything else. It would be hard to duplicate this with a microscopy event.

My general perceptions of the elements of astronomy that appealed to this particular group were:

  1. It was an outdoor activity.

  2. As with sporting events beer could easily be incorporated as a participatory element.

  3. Size does matter. Rednecks appreciate big trucks, engines, guns, tires & wheels, fish and in this case those with the largest instruments garnered the respect and envy of the assemblage.

  4. Since spouses were generally present there was no need to explain where you were all night when arriving home.

  5. There was grilled food involved.

  6. You could actually see stuff through the telescope.

CT returned during this period of activity. He set up his humongous binoculars on a tripod next to my table and thankfully educated me with the etiquette expected from the evening’s participants. First of all I had to put away my camera. Virtually everyone had on extremely dark sunglasses, some even with welder’s goggles, to enhance their night vision. Cameras were sort of banned so as not to inadvertently flash and cause someone to see spots instead of stars. Not even a red lens flashlight was permitted, these people were serious. This was to be a dark seeing event, meaning no moon. The desired target in the sky was the Nabisco Nebula in the Keebler Cluster (or some such name, all I remember is it sounded like a cookie). CT was pointing out the more serious set ups to be extremely careful of lest I upset the precise alignment for tracking and/or the owner. When permitted to view through another’s telescope, I was not to touch it and ask permission to focus if necessary.

It was then that the most interesting part of the evening arrived in the form of a military surplus truck towing an equally surplus trailer with the mother of all telescopes mounted on what I can only describe as some sort of traversing and elevating anti-aircraft gun mount complete with seat and operator’s hand wheels. The scope looked to be a reflector with a 24 inch diameter x 12 ft long tube made from fiberglass sewer pipe with a camouflage paint job. As he pulled in there was a small chorus of “Heeeeeeeres Johnny!” from some of the group. Out of the cab stepped what appeared to be a member of the ZZ Top band complete with beard to the waist, sunglasses and fedora hat. I asked CT who that was.

“That’s Johnny O” he replied.

“What’s the O stand for?” I inquired.

“Orange” was his simple response.

To my raised eyebrows CT related this story;

“Johnny is a Vietnam vet. Pretty strange fella. From whut we can tell he received a heavy dose of Agent Orange while over there and it’s made him a little unpredictable. He kin be a real nice guy for a short while, and then…… Anyway were jus not sure alla his dawgs is barkin’.

“Awesome telescope” I commented

“Well, we ain’t sure it really is a telescope, he won’t let anyone near it. He does have a really good refractor mounted on the side of the tube where the spotting scope would go and thet’s all he seems to look thru. He does claim to have used his ‘Big Bertha’ to look at all the spots we claim to have landed on the moon and can’t find any footprints, flag, moon rover vehicle or other space vehicle parts we left behind. Sez we never been to the moon, did all them pictures in a studio.”

The rest of the evening was a bit anticlimactic.

The stage was set. Grills and vehicles were packed up and removed from the area so as not to produce heat shimmies in the air. Twilight arrived at 6:30 and full darkness shortly thereafter. The night subdued the volume of the conversations and I got to wander around with CT’s night vision goggles and observe the heavens through other folk’s telescopes. Single points of light had names like “Spock 452” and groups of points of light had monikers like “Galactus Giganticus” none of which had any special visual relevance to me. I’ll stick with viewing the moon and planets thank you. The evening was over shortly before 10:00 when the clouds rolled in, which was just as well because I was out of Lambrusco.

So there you have it. Astronomy lends itself to group participation with mass appeal whereas microscopy is usually a solo affair.

Many astronomers can view the same object simultaneously, no so with the microscope.

For me personally, the rewards of that evening were not worth the effort. But I can see where contemplation of the space around us can incur a unique satisfaction which can be all the more gratifying when shared in real time with like minded persona.

Although Microscopy does not have the infrastructure to be as socially networking as Astronomy, like a fine wine it is appreciated and savored by a knowledgeable few.

The Southern Cross Astronomical Society of Miami will be throwing their annual Winter Star Party in February 2013 on Scout Key which is just a few miles up the road. It’s a six day affair that draws about 650 of these zealots. I might stop in for the party part.



As usual all comments will be cheerfully accepted.

Joseph Wilhelm



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