The other night I had the privilege to hear a conversation between a number of very experienced, well respected amateur astronomers and a newer, less experienced amateur astronomer. If you added up the years of experience between everyone present it would easily have been 100 years or more. Kinda safe to say “Been there, Done that” would stick to someone in that group. Here is where the topic for my paper comes from. The newer member had recently upgraded from using a nice pair of binoculars to purchasing two smaller (<5 inch) reflector scopes. While sharing the newly purchased telescopes and asking for some pointers, one or more of the experienced members could be heard saying “Oh look, a hobby killer.” This was both disrespectful and disheartening to the purchaser of these new scopes. Read on as I explain my thoughts on this subject.
When you come out to the monthly Outreach events, you will see four basic groups of telescopes being set up: SCT’s on huge mounts, 6-12 inch reflectors on EQ or Dob mounts, some 70mm-90mm refractors, and anything smaller in that horrid category, “hobby killer”. Guests to the Outreach tend to gravitate towards the larger more elaborate scopes and the astronomers with the smaller scopes get little or no attention. One question that I hear every Outreach is, “How much do you have invested in that thing?” Two short years ago, I was that person asking that question to the “experts”, both online and in person. How much is an important question for the person who wants to invest into astronomy, but is afraid to take the financial obligation. I personally own an 8 inch reflector on a Dob mount with everything short of the OTA having been upgraded to be more user friendly for me and my enjoyment. Recently I acquired an EDU-Science 70-700mm refractor for lunar and solar observing, often referred to as a hobby killer, AND that last comment is the basis for this commentary.
Let’s take a moment and consider little Johnny loves to look at the moon and stars. His parental units are not sure if this might be a passing phase and as all budgets are tight, don’t wish to spend a lot of money on a passing fancy. Little Johnnys parental units have no idea what to purchase, but one day while shopping at Hobby Lobby, Michaels, or even the local museum gift shop, they find a few telescope kits. One is a 60mm, one is a 70mm and yet another is 114mm, ranging in price from $70 to $140, a little pricey for them, but not too bad. The telescope kits have, what is described as, everything needed to immediately start looking at the moon, planets and of course the stars. PERFECT! Little Johnny’s parental units take the plunge and pick one of those options and take it home. Little Johnny cannot believe his eyes, his first telescope. His excitement level is off the chart. The next step, since little Johnnys elders have no idea how to use such a complex piece of science equipment and don’t want to break it, the local astronomical society is contacted for any help that may be available. An Outreach event is happening soon and the amateur astronomers in the group will share what to do, what not to do, and most importantly, how to observe the heavens. The days pass slowly as little Johhny wants to play with his new toy and his parental units want to be re-assured, they didn’t waste their money with the purchase.
Outreach day arrives, the new telescope is carefully packed and little Johnny and his support team are off. When they arrive, they are overwhelmed with how large, professional and complex the telescopes being set up by the club members are, and how confidently these complex telescopes are being handled. Some have computers, others wires all over the place, most are huge in comparison to little Johnnys telescope. Sheepishly, they walk about the Outreach looking for someone with a telescope similar to what they purchased. Maybe one or two are seen, but these are not getting the attention the other scopes are. Oh no, was the purchase for little Johnny a mistake?
Finally, they find a friendly face, who asks “Would you like to take a look?” The view is amazing, craters on the moon so big, details that make your eyes hurt, then over to the gas giants and OMG, Saturn with those beautiful rings, then over to one of the nebulae. Little Johnny is crazy excited, and starts to talk about his new telescope and how he is afraid to try to use it for fear of doing something wrong, or worse, breaking it. Their new friend, the expert amateur astronomer, says bring it over so we can look at it. The moment everyone has been waiting for arrives, the new telescope gets unveiled. The expert amateur astronomer looks at the telescope and says with all the knowledge his years in the hobby have gained and says clearly…. “Oh look, a hobby killer”. To support his statement, the expert talks about how each of the other telescopes present are quality scopes, can do sooo much more than the telescope little Johnny was given. If the parental units had only ….. before buying the wrong thing.
Little Johnny has no idea what this means, but his parental units are immediately upset that they were suckered into buying a piece of junk. This was a total waste of time, money and emotional energy. Within a few minutes, little Johnnys new telescope was returned to the car, tossed into the trunk, and when it finally gets taken out of the car, stored in the garage. From that point on, when Johnny asks about astronomy, his parental units redirect his focus to something else. Eventually, Johnny stops asking about the telescope. His desire in the hobby was killed.
My personal experiences were different, yet similar. I bought a telescope after a few months of doing personal research. Yes, in my ignorance and excitement I bought things I didn’t need (and couldn’t use). One comment I heard at my first Outreach was “At least you didn’t buy one of those hobby killers”. Brand new to the hobby and I am being validated as having made a wise purchase!
I heard the term Hobby Killer used over and over again. Often referring to the smaller refractor telescopes available on the store shelf. I often parroted the same sentiments about these telescopes to others, having no experience with them.
It wasn’t until about a year ago, I had a very experienced amateur astronomer share how some of these less expensive telescopes have wonderful optics and junk or sensitive tripods, or have limitations based on ____ (fill in the blank), but do have positive attributes. Often the company selling the telescope has contracted with a company in China to manufacture, then brand the scope as theirs. The quality control coming from China has never been great. I have heard of new telescopes being delivered that had the objective lens installed upside down (try to focus that), or diagonal mirrors being made from cheap glass causing a double or triple item viewed in the eyepiece. With a little bit of guidance on what might be causing poor operation, maybe replacement of a poor-quality part, or an upgrade to a more user friendly part, the hobby killer telescope could become a quality telescope, with limitations.
My view on hobby killers took on a very different light. Maybe the better term could be entry level telescopes or specific topic telescope. No one ever balks when they hear about someone having a solar scope or a lunar (only) scope.
I know when I find someone who is looking for information on what kind of telescope to look into, I always ask “What is it you want to look at? What kind of budget do you have? What is your level of experience?” The conversation can go from there.
To wrap this up. Maybe its not the telescopes that are the hobby killers, but how we, the more experienced amateur astronomers, treat the little Johnnys and his parental units that can kill the hobby.
Very well put. I think sometimes we miss the mark sometimes and it is easy to forget we need to put ourselves in another’s place.
@richard-bagdonas Thanks Richard. I have often shared with less experienced amateur astronomers that every telescope has limitations. As the user, it is our responsibility to accept the limitations and enjoy what is offered. In some ways we can reduce the limitations, but they well always exist.
Short add on story. A friend of a friend has a 60mm refractor, off brand, with all the nuances that an entry level telescope can offer. I showed the owner a few ways to get more from his scope. In total instructor mode, I showed how tightening the tripod helped, lubed the focuser, cleaned the optics and finally offered a few better quality (still inexpensive) eyepieces for comparison usage. It was at this point I asked "What other questions about your telescope can I help with?" It was then i was told what was needed to upgrade that scope for a camera attachment, how can he look at deep space objects with clarity, etc? I shared the following comment... "Your telescope has a number of limitations that wont give you a good experience using a camera and isnt really large enough to use for deep space items." The look on his face was crushed. I immediately asked if he had ever heard of the Hubble telescope. Of course. Any idea why we just spent 10B dollars to put the James Webb telescope out there? Ummm, not really. Simple answer, the Hubble has limitations the James Webb will answer. But guess what, the James Webb scope has limitations also. Someday a different scope will replace the James Webb. The gut punch look faded and got more positive.
For me, the "Hobby Killers" are the really bad ones you see in gift shops but even if you see one of those, dont be rude. If someone hasn't bought a scope yet, I'll help them find one that's going to be good for what they want. In that regard it's good to steer away fro. Egregious "hobby killers". But we should never insult our guest's equipment. Snobbery kills hobbies surer than any optics could