ScopeX 2006 ATM Perspective – by Chris Stewart
6 May 2006 dawned crisp and clear. My prediction (given the weather so far this year) was that we would have a small thunderstorm in the afternoon and then it would clear. And indeed that is what transpired, though I was both surprised and delighted at how brief the storm was. Arriving at the Military History Museum before Scopex is always a slightly nerve-wracking time, as the worrier in one whispers "what if nobody comes?" There are always sporting events and so on that clash and steal our numbers. However, as always, by 7h30 activity was already ramping up. This, together with the distraction of last-minute preparations and set-up soon dispelled the notion.
By nine, setup was largely complete and already the public was arriving. There appeared to be somewhat fewer home-built telescopes this year, but more commercial instruments on display outside brought up the numbers and made for a good show. Certainly there was variety. Unfortunately the Bloemfontein contingent had space restrictions in their transport, so left their telescopes behind. Nevertheless, they had an excellent and very educational display. We look forward to seeing them again next year, hopefully with a good crop of home-built instruments - they tell me their ATM group resumes activities next month and they are committed to showing off their handiwork. The Pretoria crowd also put on a good show, and indeed walked away with a fair share of the ATM awards.
As with last year, the ATM judging was performed by Dave Blane, Oleg Toumilovitch and myself. And as usual there was much of interest to be considered, to the extent that we were sad not to have more prizes to award. However, we soon settled on the short list and achieved unanimous consensus. Long ago, we selected the following four criteria for our deliberations: Practicality, Innovation, Workmanship and Ambitiousness, which we believe are the core tenets of the ATM movement. Even those of modest means can thus be rewarded for their efforts, encouraging others with similar constraints. Equally one hopes to spur people on to tackle more ambitious projects, create things of beauty and advance the art through application of lateral thought and ingenuity. From what we saw on the field, the approach still seems reasonable. Having selected the prizewinners, we try to allocate the prizes in such a way as to best meet the perceived needs of the recipients, while taking into account the relative merits of their work and the market value of the prizes. Of course, this process can be akin to comparing apples with Zeppelins, but we try! Having three judges with very different perspectives helps to normalise the whole process of adjudication.
Grant Porter, inspired by Howard's legendary book, decided to venture into the world of fibreglass fabrication - a messy, difficult process. In this, his first attempt, he succeeded in producing a work of art. Tube, mirror cell, saddle and even the finder scope mount all turned out brilliantly. If this was not enough, an elegant silky-smooth Crayford focuser and swoopy Dobsonian mounting rounded out the package. (And yes, the scope does not just look good, it works too!) For this, we considered Grant's scope to be the "best on show" of the new crop; he garnered the set of 4 multicoated eyepieces, Barlow lens and 4 filters in a hard case, donated by Eridanus Optics.
Dirk Wolmerans produced a rather nice 8-inch Dobsonian of conventional appearance, but with some interesting touches (like the storage and attachment arrangements for the tube end cap). The f/4,5 primary mirror presents a big challenge as a first-time project; Dirk's attention to detail, thoughtful persistence and scientific approach resulted in excellent optical quality. It earned him a Meade Electronic Eyepiece sponsored by Techno Pro.
Johan Smit showed what can be done with truly basic materials, if one does one's research, thinks laterally and is prepared to be unconventional. His telescope may look to the uninitiated as something less interesting than those of superior superficial finish, but careful examination of the focuser, spider and finder scope assemblies will be an education for many. The engineering is imaginative and very effective, largely making use of readily available scrap material. Johan was awarded a green LASER pointer from Photon OptoElectronics.
Luke Arnott also embraced the ATM philosophy of scrounging whatever material comes to hand. From some old packing cases, he fashioned an eye-catching square plywood tube and a lightweight but very stiff Dobsonian mount. Aluminium angle adds strength at critical joints, finishes the edges and gives a nice appearance. His finder scope mount, also in aluminium, features an effective X-Y adjustment mechanism that probably went unnoticed by many, as the critical mechanism is subtly executed. The robustness of this instrument was highlighted by an incident in the evening, when a kid pulled the scope over onto the paving. The loud bang of the impact attracted much attention. After simply slipping the finder objective back in place, the scope was back in service, displaying the splendours of the heavens to a long queue of visitors. Luke received a hansome 20mm Wide Angle eyepiece from Techno Pro for his efforts.
Alas, we only had 4 main prizes available this time, but as in each of the preceding years there are a number of other people's work that at least deserve honourable mention... Chris Curry's nascent Dall-Kirkham is an advanced optical system in the making, featuring a lightweight tube fabricated from veneer. We hope to see it completed next year. Fred Oosthuisen constructed an eye-catching round tube, comprising many longitudinal strips of solid wood - a painstaking mission. Bert van Winsen displayed a 6-inch Newtonian on a collapsible mount with all-bearing axes having adjustable friction brakes, all designed to be highly portable. Martin Maritz' scope features an elegant saddle fashioned from a standard pipe fitting (the potential of which was well spotted) and a nice brass eyepiece holder. Bruce Dickson displayed an effective small refractor on an alt-az tripod mount, all built entirely from salvaged junk - this epitomises the ATM ethos.
The main purpose of the awards is of course to encourage the ATM community to strive for greater heights, so we cannot consider instruments that have previously garnered awards (unless of course they feature some significant innovation that has beed effected in the interim). Nevertheless we would have liked to have presented every exhibitor with something, as we truly appreciate their taking the trouble to put their equipment on show. We recognise that schlepping stuff around the world is inconvenient, and answering interminable questions from the public can take its toll, not to mention the fact that there is some risk to the equipment involved. For this reason we also have a "lucky draw" open to all amateur exhibitors who registered. A number of additional lesser prizes are thereby randomly distributed to those exhibitors who did not win one of the main awards. We hope this is seen as an equitable way of distributing the limited number of small items available, giving everyone at least a chance to walk away with a token of our appreciation.
We the judges of the ATM awards are naturally attuned to the nuances on display, and are always very happy to see the ingenuity and craftsmanship. It feels good to reward people for their achievements. Yet the real point of the display is of course for everyone in the ATM community to cross-pollinate their ideas, get an opportunity to talk to one another, establish new contacts and friendships and generally have a good time interacting with like-minded individuals. I believe this goal was well achieved, as I observed much mingling and discussion going on. Another goal is to educate the public, and yet another is to attract new members to our community; these objectives too were achieved. I would like to thank all of the exhibitors for their participation, with a particular nod towards the team manning the Telescope Making stand - their heroic stamina in the face of hordes of interested visitors did not go unnoticed. I wonder how many bystanders realise how strenuous a time they had, particularly in demonstrating the manual grinding of Vince's 14-inch!
You will understand that this narrative has thus far been heavily biased towards the ATM proceedings, by virtue of my role in the event. Yet even though there may be a distinct emphasis on telescopes, ScopeX must perforce be multifaceted if it is to succeed; there are many aspects to the enjoyment of astronomy besides instrumentation. I shall leave it to others to deal more thoroughly with those areas but would like to offer some small further observations.
For those either uninterested in the art of telescope making or who for whatever other reason would prefer to purchase an instrument to pursue observation, the variety of commercial products on display must surely have sated (if not bewildered!) them. The selection of Astronomy books on display was also better than I have ever before seen in one place (though telescope making was under-supported in my humble albeit biased opinion). Experilab relocated to a tent this year, following last year's unfortunate problem with smoke detectors. This seemed to work well, as many people were attracted that may otherwise have missd it. The tent was packed beyond capacity much of the time, even (especially?) when loud bangs and billows of smoke were in evidence. This educational but entertaining show must surely have turned some youngsters on to Science. Our rocketry counterparts similarly had a provocative display not at all out of keeping with the military hardware littering the lawns. Astrophotography is an extremely challenging field - technically difficult and even physically demanding, certainly not for the faint of heart or those without patience and dedication. Entries in the Astrophotography competition were once again of a rather high standard, and again the variety of subject matter and techniques made adjudication tough. Fortunately that task fell to a world leader in this domain; Prof. David Malin's remarks prefacing the prize giving were telling.
Some people passed by briefly to say their hellos at an early stage of the proceeding, then disappeared into the darkness of the auditorium for the rest of the day. Not surprising, as the lectures continue to be top-notch. One is constantly torn between all the displays, activites, events and people; it is pretty much impossible to see and do everything, but I do know that some people tried. We are very fortunate to have attracted such excellent speakers from as far afield as Bloemfontein, Cape Town and Australia. Were it not for the fact that we had to limit numbers, I believe the auditorium would have burst its walls for the keynote address by Prof. David Malin. This was the only lecture I managed to attend, and feedback received afterwards mirrored my own experience. We were truly priviledged to receive David's humorous yet highly informative talk, replete with stunning images, that was a smash hit with the audience. The storm broke just as this lecture started, but even those with telescopes outside remained riveted. (A big thanks to those unknown heroes outside the lecture who kindly relocated our equipment for us, to protect it from the rain.) Afterwards, we emerged to almost clear skies and the star party commenced. Many members of the public stayed on to enjoy views of the Moon, Saturn (ah, wow...) and Jupiter, as well as several deep-sky objects. Walking around in the dark I heard many exclamations of wonderment, not to mention incredulous amazement that home-made instruments could deliver such stunning views.
An event like this does not happen by itself. There is a long and torturous run-up, with many hurdles to be overcome. The organisational and logistical challenges are formidable. We are grateful to our sponsors for their support, without which it would have been impossible to achieve the scope and quality desired, to advertise successfully and in particular to bring in an overseas speaker of stature. On the day, there is a huge behind-the-scenes burden borne by a relatively small team. I would like to extend my personal thanks to all involved... organisers, amateur exhibitors, commercial participants, sponsors, speakers and visitors, invited guests and not least our hosts the Military History Museum (the venue is perfect). Each of you played a part in making this, the 5th successive annual ScopeX, yet another resounding success. Seeing how much people enjoyed themselves, and having the opportunity to meet people from near and far who share the passion made it all worthwhile.
I wish you all the best for the coming year, and hope to see you all back again for the 6th ScopeX.