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Size9Hex

Observation Or Imagination Of Subtle Details?

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I'd really welcome some thoughts/perspectives on the subject of observing extremely subtle details please.

I recently observed comet Catalina in the dawn sky, and was determined to see one or both of the tails. Despite a lot of persistence, averted vision, scope jogging, looking away, looking back, etc, I would swear the tails simply did not exist. Knowing it had two tails, I changed my approached and asked myself where they were. My answer was immediate and confident, and I later confirmed it to be correct.

Similarly, with the Crab Nebula, I hoped to see some indication of the tattered structure. I could see the nebula with direct vision, and with averted vision I consciously detected something of the overall shape. I didn't consciously detect any tattered structure. Yet when I asked myself if it was just another elliptical galaxy, my response was "Don't be silly, it's much too tattered".

It has all left my head in a bit of a spin. What did I really see? Which aspects were just my imagination influenced by previously seen photos?

What are others folks experiences? Any good anecdotes, or helpful tips? How do you seize the unconsciously seen and push it into your consciousness, if such a thing is possible? How do you distinguish what's really there from what you have projected onto it?

As always, many thanks for any/all replies :-)

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I think we are spoiled, because almost all of us have seen a Hubble quality shot of the object we are looking at, before we ever take our first look through an eyepiece. Cataloging astronomers only saw this detail with massive apertures. I think having an idea of what your object really looks like certainly influences your viewing.

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I think we should be fair with our telescopes. :)

Each one has a class of targets where it works well.

The ability to see some details on M1 requires dark skies and aperture.

Seeing a lovely landscape with a low full moon, coming up from the trees and a gentle layer of clouds is really suggestive with a wide field telescope.

Small telescope can be use to spot targets requiring more aperture up to a certain extent of course. This can improve one's observing skills. However those targets will mainly look like grey smudges!

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Thank you chaps. Interesting comments. Knowing what to expect certainly helps and/or biases you.

Interesting comparison viewing a faint planetary last night NGC 2371 at mag 11.2 in Gemini. I'd never heard of it, and had no idea what to expect. With averted vision, I sensed rather than saw that I was viewing something shaped like a figure 8 or a monkey nut. Subtle details again, but this time matching the description that I looked up later.

What struck me about the comet was that although I didn't see the tails, I could have "guessed" the tails were anywhere, but I actually got it correct. I certainly knew from photos what the comet looked like, but I had no idea which orientation in the sky the photos, or my own viewing were at (until I checked later).

On the Crab Neb, my guide suggests you might get a faint streaky note from 4", and some good fine structure from 16", so I guess my 10" at just under half the collecting area of a 16" (and utterly smashing the 4") is in the range of plausibly allowing something to be detected in terms of the texture of the target?

I guess it's a fine line between seeing/imagining (particularly when you've got and advance knowledge of the target), but also a fine line between registering/missing something that you've unconsciously seen?

Definitely interested in everyone's perspective on this. It has me intrigued :-)

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when I first bagged M1 like many on here I was a bit shall we say disappointed...having seen photo's of this object make the first viewing a big let down. Then a couple of sessions I kept going to it to "learn the sky"..still with no improvement so I left it well alone for at least a year. Then one night at south wales star party (held in October) I swung the the scope to it just to see the disappointment again!...how wrong I was, it was beautiful...the amount of detail was incredible with filament structure dancing all over the ep. I know I was using 18" of mirror but the sky was dark,no moon at all, cold temp, seeing was steady and the transparency was brilliant...this is the key not the app..the sky.

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Very interesting post, especially as I was going through the exact same process as yourself last night. Eventually I thought I could see a hint of the double tail but was not 100% convinced. I decided to try a quick sketch. In fact the very fact I was sketching convinced me I was actually seeing faint tails and like yourself I later confirmed that they were in the right position, even in my crude sketch.

Edited by laudropb
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I try my very best to guard against wrongly claiming I see things, I have to be absolutely sure I see things. One night I was sure I could see the double star of Procyon, this was with a 7.5inch scope, I was sure it was there but in fact a scope more than 4 time the size is required even to glimpse it under good conditions :iamwithstupid::happy8: , so I was clearly wrong.

With details on planets of course moments of excellent seeing play a part when you think you see that tiny bit more, maybe you really do, and then when it fails to repeat itself you start to doubt if you did. I spent about 30 plus scope hours trying to find the star in M57 with my 12 inch Meade, and I am sure I did in the end, reported so to, but after many attempts with the same scope to repeat this it has not been seen, which leads me to wonder if I ever did. 

Some people can see more than others and I never would call anyone a liar over an observation but I feel it is difficult to stop the averted imagination running wild but I am sure we all report what we really feel we saw and really no one can ask any more.

I am sure if you know what an object looks like it helps the observation, help tease out that bit extra but no matter how many times I look at the pictures of  the Horse's Head nebula I still have not seen it, I am wondering if it is even there :icon_biggrin: .

Alan

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Thanks for the latest replies.

Glad you had some clear sky laudropb. Fascinating to hear your experience too.

Alan, interesting comment on repetition. I guess this is a common technique. I've found the more subtle the detail, or the more difficult the observation, the more repetition I need to see before I can convince myself. 30 hours on one target is dedication :-)

I wonder if what I'm thinking about is subliminal perception of some sort. The deep sky sights we enjoy stimulate the eyeball and brain very weakly - too weak to register in direct vision for example, but often not so weak that averted vision misses them. I wonder if some are weaker still, and yet we still register them subconsciously at some level?

Back in the day, I'm sure I heard of an experiment in which participants were shown an image on a screen extremely briefly. When asked, they stated they had seen nothing, but when asked a question like "If there had have been something, what colour would it have been?", they answered fairly accurately.

Hopefully that doesn't sound like a load of old cobblers...

So there's no doubt, I've got a growing list of stuff I can confidently say I didn't see :-)

Cough. Horsehead. Cough...

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Size9, I've done exactly the same with a previous comet. Not convinced I could see the tail, but correctly guessed the direction. I think there is definitely something in this type of observation. Often it is just tiny hints or glimpses which show you things are there.

I still think my best observation was of the supernova in M82. It was relatively easy under a dark sky or with a bit of aperture, but I got it in a 4" within a few miles of Heathrow. That was tough but very rewarding!

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Yeah caught that one with my telementor Stu...

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Everyone is different, but I find that it helps a little to see more when relaxed, composed and with good posture whilst seated. Perhaps waiting patiently for that fleeting glimpse of something a bit more visually challenging.  Hadn't seen the tail(s) in the comet, though I wasn't anticipating this.

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Interesting topic,  Size9Hex!

To a large degree we see what we expect to see, especially at the threshold of the observable. The canals on Mars were widely reported and confirmed when we expected to see them.

Lowell_Mars_channels.jpgLowell

Now nobody sees them any more. It's a miracle!

(the image is from wikipedia)

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I think you will observe more detail when the eye is relaxed, not squinting or staring . Averted vision helps in moving your focus around. Keeping both eyes open helps the brain deal with what's coming in.

Other things to try are defocussing, tapping the ep or swinging the scope away and coming back.

I observe a lot of really close binaries, time after time when I've shown others they don't see them until I tell them where !

Dark adaptation really is a wonderful aid , even a useful red light will affect your vision.

Dark deep skies are just a gift. Never thought I'd see such detail to M1,M33 and M97. I'm very much against expectations !

Otherwise , it's just patience , practice and a great deal of enjoyment,

Nick.

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Last night from Bushy Park I clocked up, with my ST80:

  • The Flame Nebula
  • The Horsehead Nebula
  • Omega Centauri
  • Surface detail on Betelgeuse

Then I woke up.

I did once spend a good 10 minutes trying to work out if what I'd seen was the Flame Nebula before concluding it that rationally it wasn't because you can't even see if with a massive great Dob from London, let alone my little one. That was pure imagination and possibly lack of sleep.

A bit closer to what you describe is my impression of my first view of M51 with the Dob from Cornwall. I recall exquisite detail of the galaxies, hints of spiral structure and the bridge between M51 and its companion all there. The second time I viewed it (Also from super-dark parts of Cornwall) I saw... two fuzzy blobs. I can't for the life of me work out if it was collimation, transparency or imagination that had lead to the superlative views the previous year. I had the same experience with the Owl Nebula's eyes. It's why I want to take up sketching, so I have a record of what I actually saw through the eyepiece. Certainly the more practise you get, the better your eyes become at discerning detail.

Paul

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Yeah caught that one with my telementor Stu...

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Last night from Bushy Park I clocked up, with my ST80:

  • The Flame Nebula
  • The Horsehead Nebula
  • Omega Centauri
  • Surface detail on Betelgeuse
Then I woke up.

I did once spend a good 10 minutes trying to work out if what I'd seen was the Flame Nebula before concluding it that rationally it wasn't because you can't even see if with a massive great Dob from London, let alone my little one. That was pure imagination and possibly lack of sleep.

A bit closer to what you describe is my impression of my first view of M51 with the Dob from Cornwall. I recall exquisite detail of the galaxies, hints of spiral structure and the bridge between M51 and its companion all there. The second time I viewed it (Also from super-dark parts of Cornwall) I saw... two fuzzy blobs. I can't for the life of me work out if it was collimation, transparency or imagination that had lead to the superlative views the previous year. I had the same experience with the Owl Nebula's eyes. It's why I want to take up sketching, so I have a record of what I actually saw through the eyepiece. Certainly the more practise you get, the better your eyes become at discerning detail.

Paul

I think transparency plays a major role in this. It's not always obvious looking at the skies, but subtle detail sometimes jumps out at you when it is particularly clear. I think I recall that one of the nights at SGLX was significantly better than the others in terms of transparency, and then much more detail was visible in M101 and M51

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I'd really welcome some thoughts/perspectives on the subject of observing extremely subtle details please.

I recently observed comet Catalina in the dawn sky, and was determined to see one or both of the tails. Despite a lot of persistence, averted vision, scope jogging, looking away, looking back, etc, I would swear the tails simply did not exist. Knowing it had two tails, I changed my approached and asked myself where they were. My answer was immediate and confident, and I later confirmed it to be correct.

Similarly, with the Crab Nebula, I hoped to see some indication of the tattered structure. I could see the nebula with direct vision, and with averted vision I consciously detected something of the overall shape. I didn't consciously detect any tattered structure. Yet when I asked myself if it was just another elliptical galaxy, my response was "Don't be silly, it's much too tattered".

It has all left my head in a bit of a spin. What did I really see? Which aspects were just my imagination influenced by previously seen photos?

What are others folks experiences? Any good anecdotes, or helpful tips? How do you seize the unconsciously seen and push it into your consciousness, if such a thing is possible? How do you distinguish what's really there from what you have projected onto it?

As always, many thanks for any/all replies :-)

I love this question. Averted vision and all that included (or excluded), how much of what we observe is actually with the eye(s) and how much is from memory of images. The human brain has a great way of filling in the blanks and what we think we see isnt actually what we see.

TBH........i think what you observe is an equal balance in the brain of what you are actually looking at and what you have seen images of beforehand, or expect to see (that wil be the brain filling in the gaps). 

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Very interesting thread!!

I too have wondered the same, and have often doubted if I'm really seeing the detail, or if it is somewhat projected imagination. For example, my first few goes on the Cat's Eye were like that - hints that yes I could see ~2 intersecting ovals ... then a look at a real dark site confirmed it. Every night is so different due to conditions, but on those rare nights (very rare round these here parts) it's such a thrill when you confirm to yourself - that yes indeed I truly am seeing the detail clearly.

It's reassuring to hear that others experience similar thoughts & doubts at times :)

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Very interesting thread!!

I too have wondered the same, and have often doubted if I'm really seeing the detail, or if it is somewhat projected imagination. For example, my first few goes on the Cat's Eye were like that - hints that yes I could see ~2 intersecting ovals ... then a look at a real dark site confirmed it. Every night is so different due to conditions, but on those rare nights (very rare round these here parts) it's such a thrill when you confirm to yourself - that yes indeed I truly am seeing the detail clearly.

It's reassuring to hear that others experience similar thoughts & doubts at times :)

It really is. How much are we actually seeing with our eyes, and how much is our brain filling in from images we see online or in books.

Edited by LukeSkywatcher
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To use an old saying: "Nature abhors a vacuum." Such is true - if you sit and stare at a white wall for awhile, you will start to see patterns and/or images as your imagination starts "connecting the dots." Another example of this principle at work, who hasn't seen things in the big, puffy-white cumulus clouds? Knights on horseback? Maybe a dragon or two?

There was another thread around the other day discussing the "canals on Mars" first reported by Giovanni Schiaparelli, and then championed by Percival Lowell - and others. We can take a similar phenomena and apply it simply by saying: "Don't think about a horse's white tail." You don't need a phony fortune-teller to figure out what you just thought about. Fun, isn't it?

Don't think about putting a fish in an electric-blender,

Dave

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Thanks for the latest replies everyone. Food for thought. Some good practical tips, and some nice possible further explanations for what happens during marginal observations.

An idea is forming. As a beginner, there are loads of decent targets I've never even heard of. I'm considering picking some random NGC or Caldwell or Messier numbers (avoiding any with giveaway names in English) and seeing how accurate I can be when I let my imagination run riot and make notes on gut feel rather than just strict certainty. I use Sky Safari as my map, and I can set it to show me where the objects are, but not show photos, outline shapes, magnitudes, or the type of object (so I won't even know in advance whether it's a planetary/galaxy/glob). Hopefully the only bias will be that I'll know the target will be something "spacey" and not a teapot, snowman or fire engine...

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Really great thread, thanks Paul for starting it off and all those who have contributed to an interesting discussion. 

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yes my magic weekend in elan last april was so windy during the day then it just stopped the sky was mega..look at that sky!http://stargazerslounge.com/topic/242301-elan-finally-delivers/?hl=%2Belan+%2Bfinally+%2Bdelivers

There were some fantastic skies last April, but horrific amounts of wind around the Lizard where I was!

Paul

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Yes Paul there was but it ended up being the best weekend of stargazing of my life!!!

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