Self-doubt is powerful, but it’s no match for the stars — as long as you keep heading outside after dark and looking up.

Milky Way over Agavi palm tree silhouettes
Trees reach toward the Milky Way.
S&T Online Photo Gallery / Filippo Galati

My first telescope was a holiday present when I was 13 or 14 years old. It was already assembled and standing next to a new set of World Book Encyclopedias — basically the best Christmas morning ever for this nerd girl. My parents knew how much I dreamed of the stars.

The telescope was one of those department-store refractors, promising everything but fuzzy on the details. I had never used a telescope before. I knew nothing about eyepieces. There was no finder scope, and the tripod wasn’t especially solid. I had real trouble using the scope as I tried to get it to focus through the spare room’s window glass. Whenever I could find a celestial object, it looked like a fractured blob.

I assumed the fault was my own. It was my secret shame that I wasn’t clever enough to use a small, simple telescope. Self-doubt is a vicious thing. I put my stargazing dreams on the shelf, shoved to a back corner where they gathered dust. It was decades before I tried again.

I was 41 and working on a star party article for The Oregonian when I first heard the term “hobby killer” from a member of the Rose City Astronomers club. It was a revelation when John DeLacy sat across from me at Starbucks and described how too many people give up on astronomy almost before they get started, because of those enticing, inexpensive hobby killer scopes.

Like the one I’d had.

Not long after, I learned that binoculars are great for stargazing — a life-changing discovery, especially when I pointed my 10×50s up at the Pleiades for the first time. But there remained that nagging insecurity that I should have figured all of this out much earlier.

The term “amateur astronomer” seems aspirational, something I haven’t earned. But I delight in calling myself a stargazer, with its primal memories of ancestral storytellers weaving starbound tales around community fires. Stepping into that image is also a stretch, but it’s one I’m willing to reach for.

Doubt is powerful, but it’s no match for the stars — as long as I keep heading outside after dark. I often have no idea what I’m looking at through my small telescope or binoculars, but I keep showing up to reap these wonders and to bathe in starlight.

In daylight, however, I feel myself wavering again.

A dear friend texts me about his backyard astronomy quests, complete with NGC numbers and how many arcseconds in which direction one object lies from another. I mean, in theory I understand what he’s talking about, but it’s only in applying his directions that I realize he’s describing the Lagoon Nebula — a gorgeous interstellar cloud I’ve yet to find on my own.

A year ago, I worried I wasn’t qualified to write this column. Impostor syndrome nearly kept me from trying. There’s no home-built telescope in my garage. There’s no degree in astronomy or physics from a fancy university on my wall. Part of me feels like a grade-schooler playing dress-up, only with lunar filters and red-dot finders instead of my Dad’s Army fatigues or my aunts’ old prom dresses.

The stars burn whether I have a doctorate in astrophysics or just downloaded my first stargazing app. I may never memorize the Messier catalog or master an equatorial mount. I don’t have decades of experience with the typical tools in an amateur astronomer’s arsenal, but I do have a lifetime of yearning for the stars.

Rather than making me feel small, insignificant, or unworthy, the night sky reassures me about my place in the universe. Those voices insisting that I don’t belong are drowned out by the singing frogs. I find myself again in that dark stillness. I am made of stardust, and I belong right where I am. I will not postpone joy. None of us has to earn our place or prove our passion.

There’s so very much I have to learn. It’s easy to feel intimidated and out of my depth. Rather than be daunted, I try to remind myself to embrace the excitement of my greenness — to remember that exponential awe is waiting for me. I am still at the beginning of my journey of discovery.


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Comments


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tom-dasilva

September 6, 2022 at 2:32 pm

perfect words about the value of amateur astronomy. Great writing!

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Ludovicus

September 9, 2022 at 4:50 pm

Jennifer! Exceptional article! And worthy of reposting regularly! Nothing is more criminal IMO, for this wonderful adventure above, than the propagation of those "hobby-killers"!

Everyone starting out should USE and learn to use a good pair of quality binoculars before doing anything else! When I mentor our new RASC club members, even if they chomp at the bit to use their new (75% time have those H-Ks or a very old poorly cared-for scope requiring a lot of upgrading to work well) scopes, I urge them strongly to get and use a pair first!

I was more fortunate than you, in that my first "real" instrument was a decent pair of binos. I then graduated to a scope, and over the years, though, the binoculars ALWAYS come with and get used, even when I am mainly doing planetary that evening.

Nearly 1/2 century in the game, I am still learning! And, I feel "reborn" in a way everytime one of my students gets that "Ah-ha!" moment - it is like reliving my own so many years ago. And the childlike wonder and passion stays lit and in full effect when you sometimes just turn it all off (GoTo/tablet, etc.) and just gaze - at nothing in particular - a random area of the sky.

Just taking that in is enough some evenings to remind me why I personally enjoy this endeavor! It is a lifetime journey.

Thanks again for your great story - it is so true - and countless thousands of enjoyable sky-gazing hours have been lost. But now maybe many can again find them, knowing that they are not alone in feeling what you went through!

Clear skies and all the best,
DH,
RASC Winnipeg

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Jen Willis

September 13, 2022 at 4:37 pm

Thanks, DH.

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Jen Willis

September 13, 2022 at 4:36 pm

Thanks, Tom.

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Lou

September 7, 2022 at 3:17 am

It was in a blog by Emily Lakdawalla that I first read about imposter syndrome, but it took a few years, while dealing with mental-health issues within my family, that I learned about Co-dependency Disorder - the formal/clinical definition of imposter syndrome. In short, it's caused by bad parenting (they failed to develop a healthy sense of self within you; it's the suppressed true-self that is the source of self-doubt). The good news is that it is 100% treatable, and I use the inspiration of the cosmos as a way of maintaining gratitude and grounding each and every day. No longer do I doubt myself - I just ask 'how do I feel?' and 'what do I want?' and then act up on those feelings without pausing to think about things too deeply.

The journey to self-discovery is best summed-up by Lisa A. Romano: "Each of us is suffering the consequences of centuries of energies of collective narcissism. These are egocentric energies that are fueled by ignorance, fear, and the quest for power, control, vengeance, and self-righteousness. Each of us is bathing in accumulated energies of the past, and it is up to us if we consider ourselves seekers of truth, to do what we can to rebuke these old paradigms and become part of the Oneness Revolution. What our ancestors' fu**ed up, perhaps we can help heal."

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Jen Willis

September 13, 2022 at 4:38 pm

Thanks, Lou.

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Rod

September 7, 2022 at 7:59 am

"...how too many people give up on astronomy almost before they get started, because of those enticing, inexpensive hobby killer scopes."

A very interesting article here. My experience with telescopes started in 1990 using my 90-mm refractor telescope with TeleVue eyepieces and 1.25-inch focuser with a Telrad. I still use that telescope on an alt-azimuth tripod using tube rings and dovetail plate to secure with slow motion cable controls (another feature I needed to learn about). I also use a 10-inch Newtonian on dob mount, manual control using guide knob, along with annual cleaning and collimation. The Newtonian requires more care and feeding. I use Telrads on both telescopes for quick location and viewing. So, now more than 30 years working with my telescopes and Newtonian since 2018, families I know and run into over the years will not spend large amounts of money for young children or teens other than starter scopes - often with disappointing results. Newtonians require more work to keep in good shape than my refractor telescope does (cleaning that big, primary mirror is some work along with collimation and watch out if you need to work on the smaller, secondary mirror). If you really want to enjoy using a telescope you need at least a 1.25-inch focuser and larger eyepieces (not the smaller 0.965 or 0.96 sizes). My 10-inch uses 2-inch focuser along with 1.25-inch adapter, newer models now use 2.5-inch focusers I see advertised. Those large eyepieces are expensive but can provide excellent viewing. The difficulty in locating objects in the sky and seeing them in the eyepiece is another problem I see with youngsters and families. The end result - various folks I know with younger children will not invest money and time in a hobby like this or drive long distances to see some night sky not visible in their locations for only a few hours in the evening.

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Jen Willis

September 13, 2022 at 4:39 pm

Thanks, Rod.

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Rod

September 7, 2022 at 8:13 am

One more note about what can be a hobby killer when it comes to telescopes. Those larger mirrors like my 10-inch Newtonian with Dob mount, weigh some 56 lbs. when assembled in use. Larger eyepieces are heavier too. I know a science teacher who does a planetarium show for the local school system. Their 8-inch SCT on equatorial mount with counterweight is heavy. So larger telescopes, larger eyepieces can provide some great stargazing views but come with more weight too when transporting out into fields and pastures like I do when stargazing in my area.

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Lucinda

September 7, 2022 at 11:40 am

What beautiful writing, and this expresses a little of the way I feel when I refer to myself as a "very casual amateur astronomer." I didn't start looking up until after I retired and hold no fancy science degree, just some reference books and an old Meade ETX-125 that I found for a good price on Ebay. I've learned to be patient with myself, and once in awhile I manage to find something in the night sky that takes my breath away.

I want to mention that, on the few occasions when I've mixed with "real" astronomers at a local club, including some folks with very impressive credentials, they have been nothing but kind, supportive and respectful of my efforts. Never once have I felt belittled or condescended to. It's been well worth the effort.

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Jen Willis

September 13, 2022 at 4:40 pm

Thanks, Lucinda. Patience is so important. I've also had wonderful experiences with my local astronomy club, at star parties, and in online forums.

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Jim Case

September 7, 2022 at 1:56 pm

It is a delight to think about being a stargazer as read this wonderful article. I fondly remember gazing at the Northern Lights one August as a teenager on the south shore of Lake Erie, and continue to be in awe as I capture images today decades later, only recently rediscovering the pure joy of the mystery of the universe when captured with the amazing technology now available to a stargazer. I keep reminding myself that this is not a competition and that I am so lucky and appreciative of all those who share their advice and insights.

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Jen Willis

September 13, 2022 at 4:42 pm

Thanks, Jim. I haven't yet seen the Northern Lights myself. Maybe one day soon.

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Kevan Hubbard

September 7, 2022 at 8:36 pm

What a fine article.Our best, and cheapest, telescopes are our own eyes but I do like dabbling with small optics to see what I can see and my current favorites are 2x40 Helios wide field binoculars and a 5x10 Zeiss Mini Quick monocular.I was in a Bortle 3 area about 2 weeks ago camping out and I was very impressed with getting M33 in the 5x10 monocular and can add it to my tiny optics Messier list!

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Jen Willis

September 13, 2022 at 4:43 pm

Thanks, Kevan.

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brentski

September 9, 2022 at 5:43 pm

Well that certainly hit close to home for me!

I was taken by the sky when my great uncle showed me Saturn through a 60mm scope when I was 5. Got my first scope that Christmas and have been nuts about astronomy since.

I've always felt I was pretty lousy on the observational side. I'd get under the night sky and I'd know about 15% of the constellations and a few star names. Find the galaxies in Ursa Major? Nope. Star-hopping? Uh, not really happening.

But hey, I could find many of the 'showpiece' objects, and the planets and the moon always wowed me (and any guests).

I'm in my mid-50's now and have more time to spend redressing the gaps in my observational knowledge. It is really satisfying to feel that I coming to the end of a long apprenticeship and might soon class myself a journeyman stargazer.

But over all that time the sheer wonder of the night sky has always been with me. No matter how lost I felt navigating the stars, the scale of what I was looking at was always awed me. And all things considered, there are many worse places to be lost than in the night sky.

So yeah, I will embrace the term 'stargazer'. And along with it 'moongazer' (or perhaps lunatic?) - as the moon through any scope holds special wonder for me.

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Jen Willis

September 13, 2022 at 4:44 pm

Thanks, brentski. I love the idea of aspiring to be a "journeyman stargazer"!

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Kurtrr

September 11, 2022 at 9:33 am

Jennifer, glad you now get to discover the sky. I feel for your department store telescope experience. If only you and people with the same experience could have found an astronomy club like I had. The wealth of knowledge and encouragement I got from the Princeton Astronomical Association was wonderful to a young man.
On-line interactions don't seem to cut it, in my experience. Too many know-it-alls ready to put down the less experienced/educated individuals.
BTW My experience with my first telescope fortunately went better. My grandmother bought a slightly better model and I was able to use it outdoors. I did later purchase a small "Galilean" telescope with my own money. If this had been my first experience it would have ended as yours.
Have great skies!

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Jen Willis

September 13, 2022 at 4:47 pm

Thanks, Kurtrr. In those early days without the internet, I'd never even heard of an astronomy club, though I know now there was certainly one nearby. I agree it could have made a world a difference.

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