Record-Keeping and Me: an Uneasy Alliance

Alert - database users, prepare to cringe!

After years of dubious record-keeping, I recently took the time to reorganize the spreadsheet that lists my observations. It was a cryptic listing of ngc, ic, minor planets, comets and a few other items of interest such as aurorae and noctilucent clouds. I had modified it over time to show membership in observing programs and the like but never added many details, and some rather basic information was absent - it's more like a checklist than a record of observations. Still worse, it quickly became clear to me that it had been sorted improperly, leaving some columns out of sync with others. My mental powers are far from awesome, but I can be sure that when a summer globular is seen in midwinter and described as a 'nice galaxy', something has gone wrong with my notes! Fortunately, I found an earlier version of my listing and straightened out that problem with the data.

The next step appeared formidable but was aided greatly by a computer program. I wanted to add a few vitals to my sheets: magnitude, size, and maybe specifics about the objects. For NGC objects, the program NGP 2.5 was the perfect solution. I copied my column of observed objects to a file, modified it slightly, and saved it as a text file. I then ran NGP and used the numbered-list option to bring up data on only those objects. I printed out the basic report, which is a list of details without extra text or note-taking space, to another text file. I pasted this file to a spreadsheet, parsed it into multiple columns, deleted some data, then pasted it to the right of my observing records. Finally, I arranged the data so the NGP records lined up with my notes for each object. This takes some extra work because sometimes multiple objects receive the same NGC number. NGP (and other listings!) includes extra objects associated with many NGC's, appending lettters to the NGC number. The lettered designations on ngc objects are often IC objects: for example, NGC169A is also IC1559, which I saw at the 1997 OSP. I shifted that data to its proper place. In other cases, the 'A' or 'B' object is a magnitude 15.5 galaxy overlapping the main one; these I deleted without fear. While it sounds complicated, compared to hand-entry it was nearly painless!

An additional step was needed to fill in data on my IC objects. Here my salvation came in the form of Roger W. Sinnott's "NGC 2000.0", a small but dense book containing all NGC and IC objects, their vital statistics and Dreyer notations. I don't have all that many IC's on my list, so adding that small amount of data by hand isn't too painful.

One last step, and one I had feared for some time. I needed to compare my notes to the real universe to ensure that they were consistent. One simple step was comparing my listing and NGP for constellation names; I had one wrong but the object was near the boundary, so that wasn't a bad observation, just poor recording. Another quick check was for magnitudes; supposedly I had seen two 14th-magnitude galaxies with my 10-inch scope, an unreasonable possibility for 1989 when I was pretty new at this game. My ngc numbers were off by 100 - I saw two galaxies near gamma Leonis (3226/7), but had written them down wrong. Back to NGP for the two right records, and all was well again. Another reference that did not hold up well was a note for NGC6933; the NGP listing of 'Non' implies non-existence. While my seeing non-existent objects would shock very few people who know me, I find it suspicious in this case! MegaStar refers me to a blank space immediately adjacent to 6934, a bright globular in Delphinus; I will therefore change the reference, mark it in italics, and plan to observe 6934 ASAP to set things right.

The last reality check was great fun, even though in the end I had to reject an observation. Way back in April 1989, Chuck Dethloff and I visited a gravel-pit on US26 toward the coast, a great site that was barricaded shortly after our visit. We toured the sky from dark until 4:30AM with his 16-inch and my 10-inch. Only a week after my first Messier Marathon, it was my first organized tour of the Virgo galaxies, so my observing list probably doubled in size that night! (It was also the night I mis-reported the two galaxies in Leo; Chuck's 16" showed several more that I couldn't quite reach in the smaller scope.) Looking back later on my notes, I noticed that one of my ngc finds, NGC4406, corresponded to M86; had I written the wrong number again, or was it a duplicate observation? My detective-work led me to MegaStar, where I printed out a big-field view of the Coma/Virgo area and all galaxies past 13th magnitude. I then checked all the observations from the night at the gravel-pit, tinting red the ones that I had seen. This showed me that my view stopped around 12th magnitude, so my missing object should be no fainter than that. I could not find any appropriate object within one bad digit of the reported number, so I reluctantly deleted that line from my records. Somehow I missed two 11th-magnitude galaxies near M86, but I could not just replace the bad report with a wishful one; therefore I must return and pick up a few more bright ngc's soon. Of course, my aperture and observing skills have improved since 1988, so my next visit may reveal another dozen or more objects.. perhaps my observing list will double in size again, just like it did in '89!

At last the file was in shape, a bit larger but far more informative. It has several more fields to sort now, so I expanded the primitive sorting-macro to take in more columns and more possibilities. I also have separate pages that reference the main list to show my status on the two Herschel lists and how many of the top 150 minor planets I have seen. It still doesn't have much personal narration, but that was not the intention of this list; I have a text file with my general impressions from observing, and that's good enough for me. My spreadsheet is in much better condition now, thanks to NGP, MegaStar, and a half-day's work.

But wait - it gets worse! [is that possible? yes!] Acting on a bad dream, I checked my Uranometria books and found that I had done even worse record keeping. On several pages I had circled objects, or placed check-marks by them, or just filled in the hollow oval of dim galaxies. In some cases I had some cross-validating notes, but far too many were merely noted instead of recorded. Were these worth seeing again? Could I claim them for an Astronomical Leage program? Certainly not. I need to keep such embarrassing things in mind when I'm under the stars and about to repeat my mistakes.

I must do better!!