2005-11-30

A superb souvenir

souvenir
n 1: something of sentimental value
[syn: keepsake, token, relic]
2: a reminder of past events
[syn: memento]
Yesterday I mentioned that a letter I'd written to the editor of Sky At Night magazine had been published in the December edition. I also noted that I didn't have a copy yet (I still don't). Knowing that I wasn't going to get my hands on a copy of the magazine for a few days a friend was kind enough to let me know what the reply to my letter was (the reply is also to two other letters published regarding the same subject).

A copy of the reply has also been posted to the SPA BB. One bit of the response doesn't make much sense to me:
I think digital imaging will encourage many more people to get into astronomy as it gives you a superb souvenir of your nights observing
While I don't doubt for a moment that it's true that images you produce are a "superb souvenir", the response is written such that it implies that sketches aren't. I'd have said that sketches are a "superb souvenir". Sure, my sketches might not be that good but they do act as a great reminder and record of the experiences I've had at the eyepiece so far.

Something else that annoyed me slightly about the editor's response was that it didn't deal with (and, arguably, made worse) the central point of my letter: the suggestion that imaging and sketching were somehow mutually exclusive activities. It seemed odd that he didn't deal with the point at all. He also didn't deal with the cost issue either. And then, when I was provided with a copy of how my letter had been published, I found out why. Here's what I originally wrote:
In the November edition of S@N magazine D Fisher asks the direct question "I was wondering if you would accept sketches of planetary, stellar and other objects." Sadly, you don't seem to offer a direct answer to D Fisher's question; "we won't be publishing sketches regularly" suggests that sketches might be accepted for publication but it also suggests a reluctance to publish them too. It would be nice to see a clear and concise statement of the magazine's position.

More alarming is the suggestion in your response that CCD imaging is "now very affordable". Relatively speaking that might well be the case but it's this kind of attitude that makes astronomy appear to be an inaccessible interest unless you have a startup budget that is heading well into four figures (£300 for the camera, then there's your telescope, etc...). Worse still, it suggests a false dichotomy with sketching on one side and imaging on the other.

I've seen enough letters to astronomy magazines and enough posts to astronomical bulletin boards on the internet to know that a good number of people starting out in this interest are under the impression that you're not really doing anything useful if you're not imaging with webcams or the latest CCD technology -- this is a situation that isn't helped by the sort of answer you gave to the question.

I'm also concerned by the suggestion that sketching is mostly part of "astronomy's past" and, these days, it only serves a useful purpose when recording "transient events". Sketching, if nothing else, is an excellent way of learning to actually observe. It's also a rather good method of recording how an object appears in the eyepiece.

I'm sure captured images make for a more eye-catching magazine and I'd understand a decision not to publish sketches, but could we at least have a clear guideline as to what this magazine will and won't accept? Personally I'd like to see something that encourages people to observe and sketch -- especially given the heritage that this particular magazine draws upon.
And here's what got published:
In November's BBC Sky at Night magazine, D Fisher asks, "I was wondering if you would accept sketches of planetary, stellar and other objects?" Sadly, you don't seem to offer a direct answer. I'm also concerned by the suggestion that sketching is mostly part of "astronomy's past". Sketching, if nothing more, is an excellent way of learning to actually observe. I'm sure captured images make for a more eye-catching magazine and I'd understand a decision not to publish sketches, but could we at least have a clear guideline as to what this magazine will and won't accept?"
Now, sure, I'm well aware of the fact that there's only so much space in a magazine &mdash especially for a letters page — but that's almost a totally different letter they've published there! I really would have liked to have seem them deal with the issues of cost and the false sense of "sketching vs imaging".

It's also interesting to note that this line:
especially given the heritage that this particular magazine draws upon
was left out; the irony here being that the first edition of the magazine came with a lunar map produced by Patrick Moore — a map that was hand-drawn.

I'm disappointed. Not because I want them to publish sketches, but because they seem to be adding to the impression that sketching isn't such a worthy observing technique any more.

File Under: Sky at Night, Sky at Night Magazine, Sketching, Imaging, Sketching vs Imaging.

4 comments:

Kaustav said...

What I would say is that sketching craters on the moon or sketching features on Mars, nebulae, galaxies, etc really does focus an observers attention to details. You are having to look at and visualise every nook and cranny of a lunar crater, for example, in order to sketch it accurately. As you sketch it you're zeroing in and focusing on one thing. This really help me to a) know what I'm sketching in term of the shape, relief, shade, colour and thus become very familiar with such associated features and b) allows me to learn the name of the object I'm sketching.

Imaging using a CCD is great but it potentially captures MUCH more detail than a sketch and as such the imager is in awe of the whole scene and nothing much more beyond that. The detail inspection is often lost and replaced with the "glory" of the image and of having actually done something "high tech" to take a picture. You go look around many astronomy forums on-line where amateurs have posted the digital images and often it’s just a picture, their name and the date they took the image. Where’s the detail? Do they even know what the name of that dark patch is on Mars? What’s the orientation of the image? Etc. With sketches I have often seen people mark down much more detail and this goes to show how much sketching focuses the mind.

I think there's a lot of value in sketching and in many ways it a better way to get a student or ardent amateur to learn much more. There's good and bad in both imaging and sketching but I think S@N magazine are totally missing the point of sketches. From an editorial point of view, however, a hand sketch may not be as enthralling as a detailed digital image. I'll grant them that, but they should have mentioned the educational merits of sketching as I've done so in this comment rather than brush off sketching as a "has been".

Tag said...

You know my feelings on the value of sketching. The editor seemed to grab the "sound bites" that enables the magazineto respond the way they did. (Just pretend the question asked was the question you want to answer.)

Is it fair to think that GOTO's and CCD's are too closely associated? Sort of like star hopping and sketching? When pedestrians come, the two most common questions: "Is the telescope 'automatic?'" and b) "Can you take pictures with it?"
peter

Dave Pearson said...

Is it fair to think that GOTO's and CCD's are too closely associated?

Hmm, yes and no I guess. Personally I don't have a problem with GOTO 'scopes and imaging devices and I can see that if you're seriously into imaging (and some amazing work can be done with imaging — let's not forget that it's about more than taking pretty pictures) then using a GOTO can be a lot of help.

What concerns me the most is the emphasis on imaging and gadgets of all sorts such that more "traditional" forms of visual observing are sidelined. Don't get me wrong, I love gadgets; then again I've probably spent more on building up a set of drawing tools over the past few months than I've spent on anything that comes close to being a "gadget".

I like to read about the gadgets, I like to think about what I might do with them if I owned them; my concern comes from seeing them set up as "affordable" and as the entry-level way of getting into observing such that sketching (which is a form of note-taking) is written about as if it's something of historical interest.

Ian Musgrave said...

Wow, that is one serious editorial cut, it does make your letter less meaningful.

But heck, my sketches are just as much a "superb souvenier" as my web cam images, and I don't have to cart huge amounts of guff around with me, and I don't have to wait ages for my sketch pad to bootup, and I never need worry about batteries.

Sketching does help you concentrate on the details. And I like it for that as much as the fact that I really like ske6tching. I love my Webcam, but I also love my sketch pad.