Thank you for raising this Andrey, as I believe it certainly is worthy of discussion and has many factors involved. The point you made near the end of your thoughts struck home to me, namely “Contrary to these predictions the used EPs market is as hot as ever. $300 EPs get snatched in hours, however there is a common sentiment which I share that most of these fancy EPs get looked at but not through them.” I agree that there is a fast and furious used EP market, so someone somewhere is doing something with them. New models are always being brought out by the main and secondary labels, so again, there certainly is a market for them. Why is that the case in a world where AP seems to be the dominant factor in the hobby? As you mentioned it could be simply the work of collectors. We all know someone who has a drawer full of EPs simply because they can and want to. Their intent may be good in that they feel they will all get used, but for most, that never truly happens. However, I think that is a small group within the hobby. I still think most buy them in order to evaluate, compare and use, which speaks to a larger, hidden pool of visual observers.
I do think there are far more visual observers than we know about, though sadly a lot fewer than we used to have. I simply believe that many do not make themselves known for reasons of their own. If you look at our reports forum, and thinking back to that at the old site, the majority of reporting was done by a relatively small number of people. Yet, those reports were read by many, many people. Also, I believe the majority of amateur astronomers do not belong to clubs, either because there are none near them or they simply do not wish to engage. I can say that we have a local club and there are several within my general region, but I belong to none. I have never been a club-type person, who wanted to go to meetings or star parties. I suspect there are a substantial number that simply are not participatory, including those that only read posts on this and/or other sites yet never comment.
I see this being the case with the challenges and award programs that we and various groups offer. I myself have never been an awards person, and have never participated in programs like those offered by the Astronomical League. I have participated in the awards and challenges on the previous site and this one, but that was done solely in hopes of encouraging others who are just starting out to set goals and engage more within the sites in order to learn and grow. In reality that is why I file observing reports as well. If I can encourage one person to get out under the sky and push their limits beyond what they might otherwise set for themselves, then I feel I am successful.
Gabrielle mentions an interesting aspect with regard to regional differences. The high cost of going into AP in a truly serious and effective manner would preclude many in various parts of the world from taking that path. That factor alone may mean that most will remain visual observers for their lifetime, or at least until their interest in the hobby wanes. So in some areas, the ratio of visual to AP may be skewed more to the former.
As mentioned there is the social and coolness aspect of AP. You have something tangible (hopefully) that you can display, show-off and/or share with friends in the hobby. It is a learning and supportive group which help one another through critique and advice. However, I also know there are many more people engaged in AP than post images. Again, I suspect a shyness factor at play for some. For still others they simply don’t feel the need to engage.
We live in a technological world as never before. The ability to churn out images rivaling professional results have become commonplace as APers hone their craft. People are swept up in the current technology and gain the rudimentary skills at an early age. It simply becomes a matter of something igniting an interest in astronomy thereby shifting their focus to applying their skills within that realm.
Then we come to the matter of our shrinking dark skies within a reasonable proximity to the population. Many people simply do not wish to travel to darker skies in order to see something. In some cases the logistical hurdles are simply too prohibitive. They want the comfort of being able to relax at home and casually observe the beauty of the universe from their backyard. But as Michael said, people start to run out of things to see because of the slow creep of sky glow, which only in very rare circumstances gets addressed and lessened. For the overwhelming majority that gradual creep continues unabated.
My observing from home is next to non-existent, gradually waning after we got established at our second house under dark skies. With my ability to go over there for multiple nights if desired, I can get my fix of serious observing with serious aperture and find the environment at home to be depressing comparatively. However, most don’t have the luxury of a permanent dark site that can be utilized. Therefore, they struggle to find enjoyment under the LP in their area, as well as being subjected to the glare of streetlights or neighbor’s porch lights. So they either labor on with what they have, turn to AP where they can accomplish more or simply leave the hobby altogether.
You also mentioned “many could not even point constellations in the sky.” That sadly is becoming an all too typical scenario for some that rely heavily on automated systems, whether they be go-to or push-to. With huge databases in the handsets, one doesn’t have to know the sky like those of us who do everything manually. While they have to learn a few bright stars in order to do alignments, they have not driving need to learn the sky beyond that point. That is not to say that everyone who uses some sort of electronic locating assist never learns the sky. I have known folks using go-to that routinely turn off their systems to do star hopping, and their intent is not to become too reliant upon automated systems to find their way. As they tell me, what are they to do if they are at a remote site and their power source depletes? They want to have the satisfaction of being self reliant should the need arise. Unfortunately there are some who don't see that skill as important, and should their power source fail, then they simply pack up and go home.
I have had similar conversations with Bryan on more than one occasion, whereby he related the same lament from his outings with his local club. During outreach events, one of his club colleagues that used a go-to system could not identify a bright star when asked about it by one of the guests. Bryan of course could help out with that because he learned the sky as part of his entry and growth within the hobby. I lamented to Bryan my concern over the proliferation of what I call “experienced beginners”, those of our number who simply choose not to grow beyond a certain rudimentary level of knowledge despite having being in the hobby for years. Obviously everyone is free to pursue the hobby as they see fit, but I find it sad that some simply do not wish to learn and grow within a hobby that offers so much.
In the end, like you, I plan to remain a dedicated visual only observer, unless some drastic life changing event changes that direction for me. I have nothing more in the field than my scope, eyepieces, charts and a red light. Over the decades I have learned a great deal of the sky like the proverbial back of my hand and can find many objects without a chart. But every time out I still learn more and see things that I’ve never seen. Whether that be a dim and distant dust mote of a galaxy, or a curious star pattern. All those things serve to encourage my sense of discovery. I simply love to cruise the night sky in order to take in its wonders. I don’t have to have a lot of showy detail in every object I observe. While they are nice and aesthetically pleasing, I can enjoy and relish the smallest and faintest little pip of light reaching my eye from a very distant galaxy. The wonder of that light traversing time and distance to tickle my senses and feed my sense of awe is my reward for time and energy spent to learn the sky and delve into its infinite riches.
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"Astronomers, we look into the past to see our future." (me)
"What we know is a drop, what we don't know is an ocean." (Sir Isaac Newton)
"The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me...." (Blaise Pascal)