When it was published in the 1960's, Robert Burnham, Jr.'s Celestial Handbook became the observing Bible of this teenage newcomer to astronomy. I vividly remember unwrapping the package from Sky Publishing and reading this lengthy passage from the Introduction called “Amateur Astronomy – A Personal View” to my mother, so much did it impress me (and mystify her):

If astronomy is the oldest of the sciences, then surely amateur astronomy may rightfully claim to be the oldest of the scientific hobbies. No one can date that remote epoch when astronomy “began” – we can say only that the fascination of the heavens is as old as man’s ability to think; as ancient as his capacity to wonder and to dream. And in company with most of the special enchantments of human life, the unique appeal of astronomy is incommunicable, easily understood through direct experience, but not to be precisely defined or explained. Nor should any explanation be thought necessary. The appeal of astronomy is both intellectual and aesthetic; it combines the thrill of exploration and discovery, the fun of sight-seeing, and the sheer pleasure of firsthand acquaintance with incredibly wonderful and beautiful things. But it also offers the privilege, not to be taken lightly, of adding something to the knowledge and understanding of man.

There is one other factor which I think deserves comment. An amateur, in the true and original meaning of the word, is one who pursues a study or interest for sheer love of the subject; and in this respect the division between professionals and amateurs is indeed indefinite. We are all impelled by the same wonder and curiosity, we are all exploring the same Universe, and we all have the enviable opportunity of contributing something to the store of human knowledge.

Now I should like to phrase one of these considerations in a somewhat less conventional manner, at the risk of being accused of undue whimsicality by the sternly serous minded. Considered as a collector of rare and precious things, the amateur astronomer has a great advantage over amateurs in all other fields, who must usually content themselves with second and third-rate specimens. For example, only a few of the world’s mineralogists could hope to own such a specimen as the Hope diamond, and I have yet to meet the amateur fossil collector who displays a complete tyrannosaurus skeleton in his cabinet. In contrast, the amateur astronomer has access at all times to the original objects of his study; the masterworks of the heavens belong to him as much as to the great observatories of the world. And there is no privilege like that of being allowed to stand in the presence of the original.

Yet it sometimes happens, perhaps because of the very real aesthetic appeal of astronomy and the almost incomprehensible vastness of the Universe, that the more solidly practical and duller mentalities tend to see the study as an “escape from reality” – surely one of the most thoroughly lop-sided views ever propounded. The knowledge obtained from astronomy has always been, and will continue to be, of the greatest practical value. But, this apart, only the most myopic minds could identify “reality” solely with the doings of man on this planet. Contemporary civilization, whatever its advantages and achievements, is characterized by many features which are, to put it very mildly, disquieting; to turn from this increasingly artificial and strangely alien world is to escape from unreality; to return to the timeless world of the mountains, the sea, the forest and the stars is to return to sanity and truth.