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Christmas Gift Ideas

Back in 2010 I wrote a post for this blog which was my most popular – well, most controversial! – ever. Called “Two things NOT to buy for Christmas” it explained to readers why I thought they shouldn’t buy either a star or a telescope as a Christmas gift for someone. The advice about not buying a telescope led to many people posting comments telling me I was being too negative, and that I was wrong to try and put people off astronomy. I still don’t agree I was doing that at all, because back then there honestly just weren’t many good “absolute beginners” telescopes available, and I was trying to point out the perils of buying someone a telescope that would be too advanced or them.

However, I thought it was time to update the post because things have changed…

No, I haven’t changed my mind about the whole “star naming” thing. I still think that is a cruel rip-off. But my advice about not buying a telescope is now badly out of date, because since I wrote that original post several respected and reliable telescope manufacturers have produced very good beginners telescopes suitable for adults or children wanting to “get into” stargazing.  I also thought it would be useful to actually suggest some ideas for smaller, less expensive gifts too, instead of just being all negative and Grinchy!

So, here we are then, some personal thoughts on things you can – and definitely should not – buy as gifts this Christmas for your friend or relative who is into this amazing spacey stuff. I hope some of you find it useful!

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So, Christmas Day is now less that TWO WEEKS AWAY!!!!! So, that means three things. Firstly, you can’t move in the shops without tripping over Christmas displays (and again, well done that charity shop in Morecambe which began selling  Christmas cards in JULY, you nutters…). Secondly, it’s now impossible to turn on the TV without seeing a Christmassy ad for John Lewis, Sainsburys or Argos. And, lastly, I’m getting frantic emails and phone calls from people wanting last minute advice on “spacey” presents to buy their loved ones for Christmas. That often means telling them things they are not expecting, or wanting, to hear, because if they buy them they’re wasting their money, for various reasons. But there are other things they most definitely can buy. So let’s look at some gift ideas…

First of all, do not, Do Not, DO NOT “buy” your son/daughter/wife/husband/mother/father a star, or pay to have a star “named” after them.

Why?

Because all you’ll be paying for is a piece of paper.

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There are now LOTS of companies that offer to give a star in the sky the name of your choosing – for a price, of course. Google “Name a star” or “star naming” and you’ll find that there are a gazillion of them online, and you can even buy “gift packs” from Argos, Boots and other shops. If you don’t know how they work, for your money you get to name the star, a certificate, a chart showing the location of your star and – well, that’s it basically. The impression they give, these companies, is that you then exclusively “own” the star, and that it will be known by that name forever.

This is not correct.

Why?

If you “buy a star”, the only place, the only place the star will bear your chosen name is in that company’s register, on its database. No astronomers will ever refer to it by that name. No astronomy magazine’s or book’s star charts will ever give it that name. No observatory anywhere in the world will ever recognise or use that name.

I should make it absolutely clear here that it’s not illegal, or a “con” in the legal sense of the word. The companies themselves actually admit that it’s not “official”. If you take a look at the FAQ on the website of one of the most popular star naming companies you’ll see they’re quite open about it: ( http://www.starregistry.com/faq.cfm ) But the general marketing of the product does give the impression that for your £15 or £20 or whatever you’re paying, you are naming a star in the sky and that star will bear that name for ever, and future generations will call it by that name, thus immortalising your son/daughter/dog/goldfish. That’s just not true.

How popular is this? Well, every year many people unwittingly fall for it, because a) most people are very ignorant about the night sky and the world of astronomy, b) the packages are very glossy and the advertising blurb very convincing, and c) on the face of it it seems like a great idea, a lovely gesture, to name a star after a loved one. I mean, what could be more romantic or sentimental, than to name a twinkling star after your wife, husband, mother, father, sweetheart or newborn child?

Well, the problem – apart from the fact that these companies don’t actually have any right to name stars!! – is that most of the stars up for naming are all too faint to be seen with the naked eye, so would need a telescope to see them, and they can be in the opposite celestial hemisphere to the purchaser’s home. So, if you “buy” a star you could very well end up with a star that you’d have to travel to the other side of the world to see, and would need a telescope to see it with once you got there…

Again, it has to be said that many of the companies actually admit all this. But the people to whom these star names are “sold” aren’t going to be looking at or for small print or FAQs; they’re looking, often, for a way to cherish and preserve the memory of a loved one, dead or alive, and, like most consumers, believe what they’re told in the big bold colourful lettering, not in the small print. And that is why I don’t like this.

People have told me “It’s just a bit of fun, stop taking it so seriously!” and okay, yes, maybe that’s true, and if you hand over your money totally, 100% aware that your gift is not a physical thing, if you’re making a gesture, if you know that it’s basically “a nice thought” and nothing more then that’s fine, it is a lovely idea. But the problem comes when people DON’T buy these products for the right reasons, when they buy them genuinely believing they are paying to have a star named after a loved one, and that it will be known by – and called – that name in the years and centuries to come. I’m afraid that’s utter, utter rubbish.

And if you are sitting there reading this with a sneer on your face, or rolling your eyes, thinking “Oh lighten up, it’s just a bit of fun! Stop being such a grump!” well, you haven’t seen the look on a person’s face when they’ve learned that the star they thought they’d named after a deceased loved one or a beloved fiance or wife isn’t actually called that after all. I’m often asked by people at observing events if I could show them “their star”, or the star they bought for someone, and I have to tell them – kindly, gently, I’m not a monster! – that I can’t because they didn’t actually buy anything. I could lie to them, but that would be unfair, and cruel, I think. They deserve to know the truth, and the truth is they’ve been taken advantage of by people who are out to make money out of their grief or their love, and that’s wrong, I think.

In theory, “star naming” is harmless, and yes, in some cases it might lead to some people following up their purchase and getting more seriously into real astronomy, but these are the exceptions. I think the whole star naming thing is wrong, I just do. I feel very strongly about, I don’t mind admitting. I refuse to give any kind of support to this practice, and will do anything and everything I can suggest the people I come into contact with – at my astronomical society’s star parties, at the Outreach talks I give, and at other events – shouldn’t buy a star.

And again, if you’re reading this thinking “Oh stop over-reacting!” then the way out is at the top of the screen on the right there, that red box with an “X” in it. This is my blog, and this is how I feel.

Someone once suggested to me that I should actually try and show people the star they have “bought”, in the hope of opening their eyes to the real beauty of the heavens. Hmmm. Let me think…  Should I take the star chart off them, swing my humble 4.5″ reflector around to find their star (if it’s even in the northern hemisphere), centre it and then turn to the star buyers and say: “Look into this eyepiece… see that star? That’s the one you paid £20 for but DON’T own and ISN’T named after your mother… cool huh?”

I don’t think so. Wound… salt… you know? (and by the way I wouldn’t ever dream of saying those words to them anyway, that would be cruel, and they’ve been hurt enough already. I always let people down slowly and gently.)

So, no. I don’t – and won’t – show people “their star”, for two reasons. Firstly, I’d be collaborating with the star-naming companies, giving them tacit support for their ‘product’. By focussing my ‘scope on that star I’d be saying, effectively, “Here you go, this is the star you bought…”. Secondly, I don’t need to show those people “their” star to get them interested in real astronomy. If they’ve hung around after being told – kindly, and gently, but truthfully – that they’be been conned, I’ll show them Saturn’s rings shining like glowing hoops around the planet and tell them that they used to be a moon before it was shattered in a cataclysmic collision… I’ll show them the lavendar and grey whirls and whorls of the Orion Nebula and tell them there are stars being born in there… I’ll show them the breath-on-glass fog of M31 and tell them that they’re looking at a haze of stars 2 million light years away… I’ll show them the salt and pepper stars of M15 and tell them that if they lived on a world whipping around one of those suns their night sky would be ablaze with beacons of light… and I’ll tell them to look up, at the sky above them, and tell them that each of the stars twinkling there is a sun, a distant sun, and that if there are aliens “out there” then our sun is just a star twinkling in their sky after their own sun has set.

Don’t get me wrong, I would never ridicule or make the victims of star-naming scams feel bad. I don’t jump up and down, pointing at them and laughing “haha! suckers!!” in the middle of a busy star party when they tell me what’s happened. I go to great lengths to explain to them that although what they did was a wonderful, loving gesture, it wasn’t what they were thinking, or indeed paid for. They’re victims of clever salespeople, that’s all.

Let’s look at this from a different angle. If someone came up to you in the street this afternoon and offered to sell you a brick in the Great Wall of China, or a rivet in the Golden Gate Bridge, or one of the eyes, nostrils or ears of one of the faces carved into Mount Rushmore, would you be tempted? No. You’d tell them to take a hike – or use a rather more to-the-point bit of Anglo-Saxon language! Now, would you be tempted to buy one of those things for a friend or relation or loved one, thinking they might then develop an interest in Oriental history, civil engineering or sculpting? No, of course you wouldn’t! The whole star naming thing is no different. It’s a rip-off, aimed at people with good hearts, often aching hearts, who don’t know better, and are easy prey.

When I tell people the truth about star naming, sure, some are angry at me for “lying”, or shattering their illusion. Some tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about because, after all, they have a Certificate to prove the star is theirs. But most of them are very grateful that I’ve been honest with them, because it means they won’t go on to recommend the idea to others. So although I don’t ridicule them, I won’t lie to them through silence, because if I didn’t say something then they could tell one of their friends about their “gift” and ker-ching, that’s another $50 or £25 in the bank account of a businessman somewhere.

Let me make it perfectly clear – the people who work for these companies aren’t monsters, or crooks, or bad people, I’m sure. They’re just making a living, and we all have to eat, right? And selling star names isn’t illegal. Anyone reading this blog could set up their own company to do exactly the same thing. Go ahead, try it. Each to their own. But the product is a non-product. They’re essentially selling fresh air. They are taking money for a service that doesn’t exist, for an end product that doesn’t exist, and leading people to believe they’ve Done A Good Thing. You must decide if you want to support that – or tolerate it – or not. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal choice.

So, if you were thinking about “Buying a star” for someone this Christmas, it’s entirely up to you. It’s your money, and if it’s something you want to do to make someone feel good, or if you think it will help them through a bad time, it’s entirely up to you. On the face of it, “buying” someone a star is a lovely gesture, it really is. All I’m saying here is just be aware of the actual truth of the situation, ok? My personal recommendation would be – don’t do it. Don’t fall for the slick packaging, the fancy words or the romantic imagery. Buy a huge bunch of flowers instead, or a nice photograph.

But hey, if you’re determined to make a grand romantic gesture, then send me £30 and I’ll happily name one of the grains of sand on Arnside beach anything you want. Or one of the bricks in the Great Wall of China. Or one of the blades of grass up at Kendal Castle, or one of the blocks in the Great Pyramid. Because that would be just as official as buying a star name… 🙂

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Ok, I’m done! 🙂

Now, what about telescopes?

Every year in the run-up to Christmas I get phone calls, letters and emails from people wanting advice about buying a telescope. Some of them I happily recommend telescopes to, because they tell me they are already “sky-watchers” and are wanting to take the next step in the fascinating hobby of amateur astronomy. But very often I am contacted by people who are wanting to jump in at the deep end of stargazing by buying a telescope before they have even learned the constellations, or swept across the Milky Way with binoculars. Maybe they’ve been inspired by a TV program, or a lecture they’ve attended, or maybe they’ve looked up on a gloriously clear night and noticed the beauty of the night sky for the first time. But they have suddenly decided they want to buy a telescope with no prior observing experience whatsoever, so they contact me asking for advice. And, as is the case with the whole star-naming thing, I have to lay my cards out on the table and be honest with them.

I’ll be honest – my views on this have changed. When I wrote the original post back in 2010 I recommended against buying a telescope, ANY telescope, because of a) my own personal experiences and b) what was available to buy at the time. Back then there were very few telescopes suitable for absolute beginners to buy, and my concern was that buying someone a telescope that was too advanced, too powerful and too complicated to set up and use would actually put them off astronomy for life rather than introduce them to a hobby that would enrich their life. Now, though, there are lots of good “beginners” telescopes out there, so I am happy to recommend them as gifts for your starry eyed friend or the budding astronomer in your family.

The key to buying a telescope as a Christmas gift is KEEP IT SIMPLE. The adverts online and in magazines can give the impression that bigger is better, that complicated is better, that the more twiddly and fiddly bits a telescope has the better it is. Rubbish. The best telescope you can buy someone as a present is one they will actually be able to use, and for an absolute beginner that means buying a telescope that can be set up quickly and easily and can be aimed at things in the sky quickly, simple as that. More advanced telescopes are essentially computers you look through, and they are far, far beyond the needs of an absolute beginner. All they need is a telescope that will let them see amazing things “up there” that they can’t see with their naked eye, such as the mountains and craters of the Moon, the rings of Saturn, Venus as a crescent, and some of the beautiful “deep sky” objects such as galaxies, star clusters and nebulae. And thankfully there are now plenty of beginners telescopes available that will let them do just that.

Having said that you must be careful to go too far the other way and buy a telescope that’s too simple, i.e too cheap, because it will be of such poor optical quality that it would be next to useless. Get someone (or treat yourself to!) the wrong telescope – a telescope that’s too cheap or too advanced – and you’d be wasting your money, to be brutally honest, because this is what would happen. Christmas Day would come, your loved one/friend/whoever would unwrap the telescope and – if the sky was clear that night – they’d manage, possibly after a lot of struggling, to get the telescope aimed at the Moon, and maybe a bright planet. That in itself could be disappointing because cheap telescopes usually have such poor optics that the image would be blurry and distorted, and also because cheap telescopes come with such unstable tripods that they shudder and shake too much to provide a steady view.

I know, I know, it’s a minefield! With so many telescopes available, how do you know which is the right one to buy? Easy. You need is a checklist, and here’s one for you…

A good absolute beginner’s telescope to buy someone (or yourself) as a gift needs to have the following:

  • A very steady tripod
  • Good quality lenses or mirror
  • A good quality finder-scope

Something that looks like this…

55e4b588082ae8d5245b3403_Celestron-21061-AstroMaster-70AZ-Refractor-Telescope  BEVX-skywatcher-76-telescope-web

Now, this might surprise some readers, but I would urge people VERY strongly NOT to buy a “GoTo” computerised telescope, not for a first telescope anyway. Why? Don’t they make finding things in the sky easier? Don’t you just tap a few letters or numbers into a keypad ad it does everything for you? Well, yes, but only once they have been aligned with some stars in the sky, so you have to know the names and positions of the brightest naked eye stars in the sky before you can even get such a telescope up and running. Once the telescope is aligned off you can go, roaming around the wonders of the night sky to your heart’s content, but to align it you will have to be able to point it, manually, towards two or maybe three bright stars in the sky selected from its computer database, and if you don’t know the names and locations of those stars – in other words if you don’t know your way around the sky with your naked eye – you’re (technical term) stuffed.

So what you want is a good quality “alt-azimuth” telescope, that’s one that has no motor drives, no setting circles, no fancy computer; you basically just swing the telescope tube around, and tilt it up and down, until it’s pointing at what you want to look at, and you do that by centering your target in the middle of the small “finder scope” on the top of the main telescope.

I’ll say again: there are LOTS of good beginners telescopes like this available now, far too many for me to try and list even a few, so instead I’m going to point you towards two dealers I know and trust personally, having had dealings with them before.

TRING ASTRONOMY CENTRE

GROVERS OPTICS

Both of those companies have great beginners telescopes for sale, and will be delighted to answer your questions.

Of course, for some people getting a telescope will be premature. Telescopes make tiny, faint objects in the sky appear bigger and brighter. That’s their job. However, if you don’t know where those things are in the sky in the first place, a telescope will be pretty useless. All you’ll be able to do with your new telescope is point it randomly at the sky, or swing it to and fro, hoping something interesting appears in the eyepiece. So what should you do?

Simple. Get a pair of binoculars instead! 🙂

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If you think about it, a pair of binocs is really just two small telescopes joined together, so they will show your son, and all of you, things in the sky you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. But there are other reasons why binoculars are so good…

* They’re cheap – £30/£40 for a good pair.

* They can be used for non-astronomy things (unlike many “beginner” telescopes, which turn things upside down so are utterly useless for sports, bird-watching, plane-spotting, etc)

* They are easy to use – just point them at something and look! Telescopes need setting up, aligning, collimating, etc etc.

* They are light and easy to hold – telescopes are heavy, cumbersome.

* They are great fun for kids to use.

A good pair of binoculars will show you the following (after, of course, you’ve learned where to find these things in the sky by checking in magazines, books, websites, etc):

* Features on and the phases of the Moon

* Jupiter’s 4 largest moons

* Venus as a crescent

* Countless star clusters+, galaxies+ and nebulae+.

+ … and if you don’t know what any of those things are, that shows you have to learn a lot about astronomy before buying a telescope… 🙂

As for which pair of binoculars you should buy, it’s all about the numbers. The best binoculars for stargazing are models like “10×50” or “7 x 35”. The first number is the magnifying power of the binoculars, the second is the aperture of their lenses in millimetres. Browsing online or in an actual shop you’ll be faced with a bewildering variety of models. Don’t panic. When you look at what’s on offer, just look at those two numbers and do a quick sum with them: as long as the second number can be divided by the first number five times or more, that pair will be fine for stargazing. Just be careful you don’t buy a pair of binoculars that are too heavy to hold steady. You can always buy a tripod to support them, of course, but then you’re looking at adaptors and more expense. Just stick with a pair of 10x50s and you really can’t go wrong.

Lastly, you might see some gorgeous-looking binoculars on offer on market stalls or in discount shops, with very fancy-looking orange, green or yellow lenses. Don’t buy them. You want your binoculars to have good, old fashioned blue-purple lenses, which mean they have coatings to give superior views. Orange, green and yellow lenses are pretty rubbish for stargazing.

So, to summarise, my advice would be:

* If you want to buy a telescope as a Christmas gift there are now lots of great beginners telescopes available. Just be careful not to get something too complicated.

* If you’re not sure in any way about buying a telescope, consider getting a pair of binoculars instead.

* Buy a good “beginners guide to astronomy” book, or borrow one from the library. I can recommend one.

* Start buying a monthly BRITISH astronomy magazine (British best because all the times are in GMT or BST, not the confusing US time zones, although some US features do give UK times too)

* Start learning the naked eye sky – it will take a while, so you’ll have to be patient. 🙂

If you follow that advice, trust me, you’ll avoid a lot of trouble, disappointment and heartache. This is the advice I’ve given to many people before, and the ones who took it have thanked me. The ones who ignored it told me later they wished they’d listened.

I really hope this advice helps. I’m not trying to burst any bubbles, but the quickest way to destroy  someone’s blossoming interest in science and astronomy would be to buy them something they find they can’t use.

What about other gifts for the “spacey” person in your life? Well, how about buying them a meteorite, a REAL piece of space? A quick Google search will point you towards a meteorite retailer in your part of the world.

Books are always a good idea, too. If you scroll back down through this blog you’ll see I have reviewed some books that would make great presents, I think…

Or how about a magazine subscription?

Ok, that’s it. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and lots of clear skies in the year ahead!

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