Citizen Scientists

Posted By Pamela on Aug 10, 2007 | 5 comments

My Astronomy Cast co-host Fraser Cain wrote an amazingly illustrated piece on amateur astronomers and their observing rigs for Wired online. My first reaction was, “Wow, that telescope as itty bitty wheels,” (seriously, take a look at the scope on the right. It has itty-bitty tiny wheels and looks heavier than my Jeep!) My second reaction was, “Wow, most small colleges don’t have equipment that nice!” The citizen scientists in Fraser’s piece don’t have PhD’s in Astronomy or related fields, but they have the capabilities of obtaining the same high quality images that I was trained to take in graduate school. (And they weren’t forced to take 4 semesters of calculus!)

Astronomy historically has been a career only open to the independently wealthy and those beloved by the independently wealthy. These men (and it was always men) could buy their telescopes and set up their home observatories to observe the heavens while they lived on the family money or the family money of others. In some cases they were learned academics, but sometimes the names of our catalogues and in our books – Messier, Caldwell, Herschel, Levy – are the names of people who learned do be astronomers but doing astronomy. Didn’t get into Harvard? That’s ok, you can still be a world famous astronomer!

But not every door will be open to you.

There are certain areas of astronomy that require skills that are more art than academic. Producing catalogues, imaging deep sky objects, searching for nearby supernova, discovering asteroids and comets, imaging variable stars – these are all tasks that anyone can learn to do, but some people have what I can only describe as a Zen ability to master.

There are other areas of astronomy that require classroom skills that take years of math and physics and even chemistry. Measuring chemical abundances, converting gravitational lenses into mass distributions, modeling mass transfer in cataclysmic variables – these are all tasks reserved for those who have suffered advanced classes.

There are also areas of astronomy that aren’t open for public participation because your backyard astronomer simply can’t obtain the required instruments. For instance, the mass distribution of gas in galaxy clusters is best observed by looking for the X-ray light coming out of the gas and dust. X-Ray’s can only be observed from space, and while we have orbiting observatories that technically anyone can apply for time on, obtaining time is a highly competitive project and the people giving time are going to consider where someone works when granting time. No academic job? Sorry, you aren’t likely to get time on Chandra.

But, as more and more universities get rid of their small observatories because they don’t have funding to maintain them, the back yard astronomers, the citizen scientists, are be called upon more and more often to partner with the academics welding satellite scopes. The citizen astronomers can watch for transient events and queue the satellite observers. The citizen astronomers can do long term monitoring of the events discovered with the big scopes or the dedicated science scopes. The academic astronomers can no longer fully function without the volunteer observers.

When the work comes from a network of people, each contributing a necessary part for publication, it is no longer a question of who is pro and who is am. We are all doing science. Now it is a matter of day job. I am an academic astronomer, living in and being paid by a university. The folks who obtain the data use, folks with personal scopes observing through the AAVSO, are volunteer citizen astronomers, living on money earned through non-astronomy means. Working together, we are all just astronomers.


  1. “Citizen Scientists.”

    That brings to mind two thoughts…

    1. Are we then the “militia” while the professionals are the “official scientists?”

    2. A thought about that (stupid) movie Starship Troopers. “Service guarantees citizenship.”

  2. I recently visited the Muskegon Astronomical Society’s observatory at their open house. The club has an 18″ dob in a roll-off roof, and (i forget exactly, but i think it was) a 13″ SCT in a dome. A nearby university has a 15″ SCT in a dome on the property. Club members have access to the 15″. This can only be good for the equipment. More eyes to spot leaks and other issues early.

    The MAS didn’t get their equipment by spending huge amounts of money. Their 18″ dob was club built. (I don’t know if they ground the mirror…). The stunning bit is how few members put it together. They only have 25… And yet their equipment rivals that of much larger clubs.

    My club seems to be a magnet for unwanted equipment. And, we have a good track record for getting it into the hands of people who will use it.

  3. My club is in a unique position vis a vis the University of Virginia. We have access to McCormick Observatory and the 26″ Clark refractor by providing man & woman power during group nights (the 2nd & 4th Friday nights of each month) where school groups or Boy/Girl Scouts come up and get a dose of stellar photons.

    As “citizen scientists” we can help out at the group nights twice a month, and at the UVa Fan Mountain Open House events at Fan Mountain Observatory twice a year as well. Then again we also assist the NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory, whose headquarters is at the foot of the hill) once a year with their open house as well by setting up solar scopes and showing cool solar stuff (not easy at solar minimum!) to the visitors.

    We’re trying to set up an occultation timing team in association with UVa as well and assisting with a restoration effort to restore the f4.5 10″ Cooke triplet astrograph at Fan Mountain. This is the one that Alexander Vyssotsky used to produce one of the first catalogues of nearby M dwarf stars. We won’t be able to procure glass plates like were used in the “old days” but we’ll see how this lens works with CCDs.

    All amateur astronomers who can should contact their local university to see how they can help. Even pulling weeds or tearing out ivy on the walls (ivy’s hard on the moartar) is a help! In these days of shrinking budgets your help is important!
    Richard B. Drumm
    VP, CAS

  4. Don’t mind the wheels on John’s scope…they aren’t there any more. He’s mounted that beast permanently (or at least semi so) in a dome out back of the club observatory (we have more than enough room — there’s four domes out back, and another roll-off shed out front, all with various members’ and community scopes).
    And we’re trying to figger out just where to pour a pier for the dome for another LX200…decisions, decisions, decisions…

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