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Preface > Why Astronomy Hacks?

Why Astronomy Hacks?

The term hacking has a bad reputation in the press. They use it to refer to people who break into systems or wreak havoc with computers as their weapons. Among people who write code, though, the term hack refers to a "quick-and-dirty" solution to a problem, or a clever way to get something done. And the term hacker is taken very much as a compliment, referring to someone as being creative, having the technical chops to get things done. The Hacks series is an attempt to reclaim the word, document the good ways people are hacking, and pass the hacker ethic of creative participation on to the uninitiated. Seeing how others approach systems and problems is often the quickest way to learn about a technology.

When we were growing up in the 1960s, kids didn't sit around playing video games, listening to CDs, or watching DVDs. We did things. We ground our own telescope mirrors with blanks and grit purchased from Edmund Scientific (which is now, alas, a very pale shadow of what it once was), and built our scopes from Sonotube and pipe fittings. We built ham radio rigs from mostly scrounged components, and assembled rockets from salvaged conduit and army-surplus gyros (and concocted our own fuels). We tapped our girlfriends' telephone lines, learned how to pick locks, and built darkrooms in the basement. We forged drivers licenses, tore down and rebuilt car engines, repaired our relatives' televisions and appliances, constructed silencers for our .22 squirrel rifles, and made general nuisances of ourselves. In other words, we spent most of our free time hacking, although the term had not yet been invented.

Nowadays, most of what we did would quickly land us in a federal penitentiary. Back then, adults smiled, shook their heads, and told themselves that "boys will be boys" (even though some of us were girls). Most of those hacking opportunities are gone now, more's the pity. Hams buy most of their gear now rather than building it, and "rocket kits" and "chemistry sets" have been gutted to the point of worthlessness by companies fearful of litigation. Cops no longer have a sense of humor about teenagers' antics, and tearing down your car's engine will probably earn you a visit from EPA agents in black helicopters. What's a would-be hacker to do?

Well, there's still astronomy, which is one of the few remaining technical hobbies where hacking is not the exception, but the norm. Hacking is a time-honored practice among amateur astronomers, although most would not call it by that name. Many amateur astronomers still build their own telescopes—two of our contributors did—but even if that's a bit beyond your abilities, there are many other opportunities to hack.

But hacking doesn't just mean doing things; it means having a deep understanding of those things. At one level, it's possible to enjoy amateur astronomy without understanding any of the technical details. At its simplest, amateur astronomy requires nothing more than the night sky and your Mark I eyeball. Ultimately, though, you'll probably want to see more than is visible with your naked eye and to know more about what you're seeing.

That's where Astronomy Hacks comes in. Over the years, we've helped a lot of newbies over the hump, so we know the issues that beginning astronomers (and even more experienced ones) trip over. Astronomy Hacks is a collection of hard-won knowledge—everything from advice on choosing, using, and maintaining equipment to observing tips and tricks to short essays that explain the essential concepts you need to understand to more fully enjoy the hobby. Astronomy Hacks will help you get up to speed quickly, spend your money wisely, and bypass many of the frustrations beginners usually encounter. We tried to make this book the next best thing to having an experienced astronomer looking over your shoulder and offering advice as you learn the hobby.

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