Notes from Under Sky

To Goto or not to Goto

That is the question—or is it?

Recently, Phil Harrington of Star Ware fame posted a call for participation in an informal (read, unscientific) little web poll he had set up. The question at hand: Is GOTO—the ability of a scope to motor automatically to a requested spot in the sky—good for the hobby or not? This issue has taken on greater prominence given the recent introduction of several low-cost GOTO telescopes.

Now, I've made my position on this question clear on a number of occasions: I feel that while I don't particularly enjoy the idea of using a GOTO telescope on a regular basis, I don't have a problem with them in principle, and I think there's a chance—just a chance, mind you—that they may help the hobby in the long run, by giving people a chance to get interested in the hobby who wouldn't have otherwise, for lack of a suitable way to find stuff to look at. Phil has told me he disagrees with that, but is willing to agree to disagree, and I think that's perfectly fine.

So why this poll? After all, I feel confident that Phil is asking this question purely from curiosity—I don't know for sure, of course, but I don't think he plans to do anything with the results other than be enlightened by them, and I hope he shares them with us. But I also think that people feel as strongly as they do about this question for another reason, and that is to develop something like a party line response.

There are certain principles in amateur astronomy that many people hold to be inalienable truths: that aperture wins; that a central obstruction hurts contrast; and that experience helps one to observe more. Yet for all that these are considered safe things to tell beginners, there are people who disagree, or who at least think these "truths" must be qualified—that small high-quality refractors beat larger-aperture reflectors; that a central obstruction hurts, but lack of optical quality kills; that experience helps develop skills but not observing ability per se.

The debate over each and every single one of these things seems to me to be representative of what I call the party line fallacy—that we as the amateur astronomy community need to come up with a consistent thing to say to beginners. I see the GOTO debate as just one more bone of contention to throw into that heap, and I think that the debate is just plain divisive. I see no more reason to come up with such a party line response than I do for automobiles. People have disagreed about what makes a great car since the beginning of time (or when cars were invented, whichever came first), yet buyers are generally able to make sense of the morass of opinions to their own satisfaction.

And that's really the crux of it. People have differing desires to understand what's behind all the various opinions and beliefs. For those who care the most, they will ask. As for the rest of us, well, at the risk of contradicting myself, I'll claim that there is a truth to be seen here, but it's one that goes far beyond our little hobby: try things out as much as you can. I trust I can convince everyone here of that.

Copyright (c) 1999 Brian Tung