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 â€šÃ„Ã¬ 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 â€šÃ„Ã¬ 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 â€šÃ„Ã¬ 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.