The Value of Amateur Participation in Astronomy

PSci 21 Elementary Astronomy: Please read carefully

A great resource for beginning (and advanced) astronomers is the local amateur astronomy club. Sadly, the word "amateur" has a bad connotation in our society, tending to mean cheap and shoddy. There is nothing cheap and shoddy about what many amateurs do: indeed, some are barely distinguishable from professional astronomers, save the degree and the job. The word amateur is derived from the Latin verb amare, meaning to love. Amateur astronomers practice astronomy because they love it: they don't do it for a living, as professionals do.

However, there is no such thing as an amateur brain surgeon. Amateur archaeologists, if poorly trained, can wreck archaeological sites. Why, then, is amateur participation so important in astronomy? There are several reasons:

1) The sky is open to anyone. To paraphrase what Robert Burnham wrote in his famous Celestial Handbook, 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 has a cabinet displaying a complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton. In contrast, amateur astronomers have access to the original objects of their study; the masterworks of the heavens belong to them 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.

2) There are over 30 times more amateur astronomers than there are professional astronomers. This means they can observe many more objects. There are only about 10,000 professional astronomers in the whole world. On any given night, only a small fraction of them have telescope time. There are over 50,000 known variable stars. On any given night, therefore, almost all of them go unobserved.

The circulation of Astronomy magazine, primarily for amateurs, is 300,000. If only a small fraction of amateur astronomers would take to observing variable stars, and recording and reporting their observations in a careful, organized manner, think of the science that could come of it!

3) Amateurs don't have to make a living at astronomy. They therefore don't need quick, flashy results to show off to get their grants renewed, so they can collect their paychecks, this year. This frees amateurs to carry out steady, measured campaigns, such as searching for new comets, and long-term monitoring of stars that vary in brightness.

4) The strength in numbers also helps with another vital function of astronomy: public outreach. The public likes astronomy - the only other science that comes close to its popular appeal is paleontology. Also, like it or not, nearly all astronomical research has for a long time been funded by the federal government. This includes NASA, Hubble Space Telescope, and most ground-based astronomy. Professional astronomers are getting better all the time with bringing results to the public - Carl Sagan was not the only one - but there just aren't enough of us, and it's unlikely there will ever be. We really need good amateur help!

[By the way, I will consider these reasons why amateurs are important in astronomy as prime exam material. I said to read this carefully!]

I therefore recommend the organization we have, The Central Valley Astronomers. I'll announce in class when meetings will be held.

Something valuable that public outreach will do for you is to have you practice your public speaking. Communications skills, including speaking and writing, are vital in so many professions!

Some amateurs, such as the Center for Backyard Astrophysics or vsnet, do scientific observations that are so good, they're used extensively and indeed, are depended on by professional astronomers. While commendable, it's not necessary to be this sophisticated to enjoy astronomy. Some amateur astronomers enjoy making telescopes, which often are superior to commercially available models. Some enjoy astrophotography, not for scientific reasons, but to make "pretty pictures.'' Some chase eclipses, for real-life Indiana Jones thrills. By far the most amateur astronomers enjoy astronomy purely as a hobby, mainly just for the pleasure of observing the heavens, with their own eyes.

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Last updated 2005 July 20. Web page by Dr. Ringwald
Department of Physics, California State University, Fresno