Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - 84

NASA / JPL
FOCAL POINT by Thomas A. Dobbins
From wondering to knowing: This image
taken by Voyager 1 in 1980 helped confirm
the multiple divisions within Saturn's rings.
mere telescopic tourists. Rather, we
felt ourselves members of a very select
group who had glimpsed things that
only an infinitesimal fraction of the
human race had seen.
Many visual observations met with
A Privileged
Generation
Planetary astronomers in the latter half of the 20th century
lived in what Carl Sagan deemed " a very special time. "
THIS YEAR MARKS the 50th anniversary
of an address by Carl Sagan to
the annual meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of
Science. One of the leading planetary
scientists of the late 20th century,
Sagan told his audience that they were
living in " a very special time. "
As he noted in a synopsis of his
remarks published in the June 1974
issue of Astronomy magazine, scientists
a century before his time " could ask
the questions but they could never get
the answers. " This was, he acknowledged,
" not because they were dumb;
not because they didn't have the
appropriate passions; but because the
technologies were inadequate. " Scientists
a century after his time, when
robotic spacecraft reconnaissance of
the solar system would be complete,
would learn the answers before they
asked the questions, Sagan predicted.
" Clearly the best time to be alive, "
he concluded, " is when you start out
84 MAY 2024 * SKY & TELESCOPE
wondering and end up knowing. There
is only one generation in the whole history
of mankind in that position. Us. "
I belong to that generation. I've
been an ardent observer of the planets
since 1965. That era, due to the limits
imposed by atmospheric turbulence on
ground-based astronomy, was still a
" golden age " for visual observers. We
enjoyed an insuperable advantage over
photographers when it came to recording
delicate planetary features, because
we could retain fleeting impressions
from moments of the steadiest seeing
and disregard the blurry intervals. The
supremacy of the eye-brain combination
would persist until the closing
years of the 20th century, when silicon
chips and software quickly replaced
the inefficient grains of silver salts that
comprise photographic emulsions.
Encouraged to do " useful work " by
the observing handbooks that guided
my generation of amateur astronomers,
we didn't regard ourselves as
disbelief. Sagan's advisor for his PhD
dissertation at the University of Chicago
was Gerard Kuiper, the leading
observational planetary astronomer of
the era. Based on an observation made
with the 200-inch Palomar reflector
in 1954, Kuiper had proclaimed
with great authority that the only real
division in the rings of Saturn was the
Cassini Division. According to Kuiper,
the host of minor " phonograph
groove " divisions that many amateur
observers reported were either mere
" intensity ripples " or nonexistent. I
still recall the widespread feeling of
vindication among amateurs when the
Voyager 1 spacecraft confirmed the
rings' intricate structure in 1980.
During the closing years of the 20th
century and the early years of this one,
I actively participated in the digitalimaging
revolution. By 2003 the combination
of inexpensive webcams and
freeware like RegiStax made it possible
for an amateur with an 8-inch telescope
to capture images of the planets
that far exceeded the best photos taken
through the world's largest telescopes
before the transition from silver to
silicon. Suddenly it became possible to
obtain a permanent, objective record
of all the planetary detail that not even
the most keen-eyed visual observer
could discern.
I'm privileged to have lived at a time
when I grew up wondering and will go
to my grave knowing. Yet for everything
that has been gained, something
has been lost. I've learned that partaking
of the mysterious can be more
gratifying than solving a mystery.
¢Contributing Editor TOM DOBBINS
still enjoys viewing the planets through
an ever-changing retinue of telescopes.

Sky & Telescope - May 2024

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky & Telescope - May 2024

Contents
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - Cover1
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - Cover2
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - 1
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - Contents
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - 3
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - 4
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