What I was or did in my working life means very little to me any more. What I am now is an amateur astronomer, cosmologist and mathematician. More specifically, I'm a survey-level amateur, which means I take subjects right up to the point of, but not into, problem-solving. I learn enough to know and appreciate how problems are solved, but once I learn that much, I tend to move on.
This doesn't mean I can't solve problems - I can. I just don't especially like to. I'd rather use my time exploring new topics than solving problems in old ones.
So, what can this page mean to you? It provides a description of the path I took starting with only a basic knowledge of the night sky, to what I consider a great deal of knowledge in varying but related subjects. You may choose the same path but probably not. But it may give you an approach, or a 'plan of attack'. And I hope you have the same fun that I've had over these years.
The Early Years
I think I was about 12 years old when I 'discovered' the night sky. Now, when I started asking too many questions about something, Dad's tactic was to throw books at me. In this case it was "The Stars - A New Way to See Them" by H.A. Rey, and this became my map to the night sky - the constellations, stars and planets. I spent many enjoyable hours under the sky, picking off one constellation after the other. I think it was about a year later that Dad bought me a telescope. Now, we didn't have a lot of money in those days, so this telescope was way less than great. It was less than 2" of aperture as I recall, and had a 10X-80X adjustable eyepiece assembly, but the mount was so shaky, only about 40X was possible. Nonetheless, it gave me my first-ever closer-up view of the moon and some of the planets, especially Jupiter and Saturn. Even through this inexpensive telescope, first seeing the rings of Saturn rates as an unforgettable moment.
Then came my college days, and I lost interest, and it would be years before I got it back.
Forty Years Later
In 1997, I moved into a rental unit in Tampa FL that actually had a place where it was relatively dark. It was a little finger of land by the bay within easy walking distance, and I enjoyed going out there in the evening. I started remembering how much I enjoyed finding the constellations, but my original copy of the "The Stars" had been lost to me years ago. I stopped at a local Burroughs Book Store to find another book, and lo and behold, there was one copy of my old friend "The Stars". I grabbed it.
Over the next couple of years, I spent a lot of time at my dark place. I got to the point where I could pick out most of the major constellations, and this wasn't easy since I had to memorize the star-maps in my home and take that memory to my dark place. This whole process would have been much easier if I had invested in a red-lens flashlight, but that never occurred to me.
Then, someone built a 4-story apartment building ("ant hill") next to my dark place, complete with all-around security lights. My dark piece of the night was gone forever. That was in 1999.
2003 found me living in Tombstone. I bought a house that had an elevated deck, which gave terrific views of the mountains and also, of course, to the night sky. It was relativity dark here, so I started re-learning all the constellations and other objects in the night sky, and looking for shooting stars.
And, naturally, the more I saw, the more I wanted to see.
In 2004 I bought my first, small, inexpensive telescope. It was a little 60mm refractor, and it was ok for the moon, and for seeing the rings of Saturn (sort of), but I knew I wanted more. The next year I got a 'real' backyard-astronomer's scope - a Meade ETX-90 Maksutov-Cassegrain (MAK). It was easy to set up, and had the "GoTo" capability that allowed me to tell the scope to locate objects I didn't know or couldn't see. This technology was new to me, so it took time for me to make the best use of it, but even this was fun. Through a web-forum Cloudy Nights I was able to get a lot of valuable knowledge, such as being sure your telescope has been outside long enough to temperature-adjust, and also to keep your eyes dark-adjusted. (Red goggles solved the last issue.)
This is when light pollution became an issue. Bright white, unshielded lights, aka "glare bombs", are the nemesis of every backyard astronomer or stargazer. (They're also bad for home security and safety, but this seems to be a well-kept secret.) Now, light pollution isn't really a concern if you're limiting your telescope observations to the moon and planets and to some double stars. But anything dimmer than that, and it's a real problem.
Tombstone has a light-pollution ordinance, but in name only - it places no restriction whatsoever on the amount of light a business or residence can install. That aside, I analyzed the lights that were interfering with my telescope usage and finally came to the conclusion that the only person to fix this problem was me. So, I raised the walls of the observation deck - at a really high cost - to block out virtually all surrounding light. With the new walls, I could now see things through my scope that I could only dream about before.
In 2007 I moved up to a Meade 8" LX90 Schmidt-Cassegrain (SCT) scope, and then in 2008 to the 12" model. I chose the SCT kind of telescope because it's the "jack of all trades, master of none", and gives real good views of just about anything you can name. There are better scope-formats for the planets, or for nebulae, and so on, but across the board for all kinds of objects, the SCT is king, and the GoTo SCT, e.g. LX90, is in my opinion the best configuration for persons where astrophotography (read, big $$$) is not an issue.
Theoretical Astronomy and Cosmology
Along with my observational experiences, I also kept close watch on the science-related TV channels. Back then, the Science Channel had "Space Tuesday", which covered a variety of astronomy-related topics. I was glued to the TV, picking up every morsel I could.
Then in 2007 I discovered The Teaching Company, which puts out courses on a number of subjects on DVD. I got Alex Filippenko's Introduction to Astronomy, and this course blew the doors open for me. This course showed me all the aspects of astronomy. Some of these I had forgotten, and many of these I had never known. But my horizons got immediately expanded in a number of different directions.
The course introduced me to cosmology, which in a nutshell is "the study of everything that is, or has been, or ever will be." In pursuing this, I found myself coming face to face to Einstein's relativity (both specific and general), Newtonian physics and quantum physics, chemistry, and - of course - math. I even got DVD courses on this history behind all these great ideas, both scientific and mathematical, and gained a whole new perspective on how we, as humans, built up our knowledge base over the centuries. Because of all this study, these famous names in history now have a real meaning to me.
I currently have completed 25 courses from The Teaching Company related to astronomy and math, and several DVD courses from other companies.
In addition to just studying and researching, I try to help others through what's generally called 'outreach'. Although there's little interest in astronomy in Tombstone, I do help out by answering questions on internet forums, such as Cloudy Nights and the About.com Astronomy forum. I also participate in online research endeavors at such sites as [email protected] and the Galaxy Zoo. And, I'm always on the lookout for more.
Toward the Future
What lies ahead for me is bounded only by what's out there. I have favorite subjects - nucleosynthesis being but one - that I want to explore into greater detail. And there are objects in the sky that I need to give more eyepiece-time to. I still don't understand general relativity nearly as well as I'd like.
And then there's time. No, not how much time I have left - but time. What is it? What is it made of? Where does it live? How does it work? I spend a lot of time thinking about this, but, alas, I'm no closer to an answer than when I started.
And On to the Stars
Two days before Christmas 2009, I was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. So, I may very well be gone by the time you read this. I'm using what time's left as usual - find more answers, and provide answers to those new to the science.
And when it's time, I get the answer to the Great Question.