My grandmother used to tell long-winded stories, and we kids would listen in disbelief: "And then I met the waitress. Her name was Linda. Well, it could have been Lucy. No, wait, I'm sure it was Linda. She wore a red dress but no necklace. She probably left it home that day. Or maybe she lost it. Anyway..." And I'd yell, "Jeez, Grandma! Get to the point!" Her friends spoke that way, too. Tectonic plates shifted during their stories.
Times have changed. Old flicks like Casablanca show actors reciting dialogue for a full minute at a time; that's gone for keeps. Today's average movie cut is four seconds. Camera shots change 15 times per minute: Count 'em. Zip-zip. Meanwhile, the busy urban population grows. The pace keeps speeding up.
Many are still into leisurely pastimes like reading, yoga, chess and astronomy. But enticing new and especially younger people often requires finesse. That's why SLOOH, the amazing online observatory with which I'm involved, now has its telescopes change targets every five minutes instead of ten: It's that attention-span business.
What a contrast from a subzero winter night in Chichester 35 years ago, when I stared at Saturn for three hours straight, ice totally covering my beard. At minus-20 degrees it might seem crazy, but the air was so steady and sharp that exquisite detail emerged now and then, beyond what any photograph could ever reveal. That was the traditional way to observe planets. But it was not for anyone edgy or twitchy.
Since most astrophysicists don't know the night sky, the backyard astronomer is the go-to person when folks are curious about the heavens. Television science specials are nice, but "hands-on" still has no equal - plus it is, in a delusory sense, free.
It's true that magazine photos are sharp and colorful, while telescope views are either muted or colorless. Nonetheless, there's something about seeing the craters of the Moon or Saturn's rings live in person that takes the breath away.
My point is simple: If you have a telescope gathering dust, take it out and introduce people to the heavens. The next ten days will be moonless, the air is no longer icy and the sky will be nice and dark: perfect for nebulae and star clusters. Or else wait for the Moon's return: It will be optimal through small backyard telescopes from May 19 to May 25. And you don't need to know jack about the night sky to find it. The Moon is a knockout through even the most modest instruments - just as long as the tripod is sturdy so that the image doesn't vibrate. For the same reason, don't ever use a telescope on a wooden deck.
So bring out that old 'scope, and Zeus - the classical god of the sky and noted ADD sufferer - will bless you when he's not distracted. You'll earn a wreath, for you've converted friends, family - maybe even your teenage geeklets - to the perfect antidote to our fast-paced culture.