Open Mind

For the Love of it!

November 10th, 2006 · No Comments

The Astronomical League has presented the “Leslie Peltier Award” to Elizabeth Waagen of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). The award is given for service above and beyond the call of duty, to the cause of amateur-professional collaboration in astronomy.

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Astronomy is one of the sciences in which amateurs make a tremendous contribution to active research. There simply aren’t enough professional observatories to monitor all the objects in the universe we’d like to keep tabs on. But there is an army of amateurs, with their own telescopes, sometimes their own CCD cameras and photometry software, who are not only willing to monitor celestial objects — you can’t get ‘em to stop! In fact, I’d guess that astronomy benefits from amateur research more than any other science (maybe birdwatching — I’m just guessing). And they don’t do it for financial reward, or for fame and glory. They do it for the love of it. In fact, the very word “amateur” derives from the Latin “amato,” meaning “to love.”

I worked at AAVSO (with Elizabeth) for nearly a decade. Elizabeth is the assistant director of the AAVSO, and for quite some time (during the illness of AAVSO’s last director) she served as acting director. She has a tremendous knowledge of variable stars, and of the observers and their quirks. More than once I asked Elizabeth about my concerns over a particular observer’s data, only to have her reply (without checking her notes) something along the lines of, “Oh, yes. He tends to be fainter than normal on very red stars.” She has an easy, friendly way of dealing with all kinds of people (including difficult ones!). She exhibits a level of professionalism and dedication you’re not likely to encounter very often. AAVSO is lucky to have her. And I’m lucky to know her.

I’m fortunate enough to have published a number of scientific papers in top-flight scientific journals, and most of them are based on data collected by amateur observers. The effort and dedication required to acquire the data is enormous. In fact, I’ve often thought that although the scientists who publish research get the vast majority of the credit, it’s the observers who have done the vast majority of the work. This kind of observation requires skill and practice, as well as time and effort (but it only requires a modicum of equipment).

Amateurs have made some very impressive contributions. For example, there’s a network of amateur astronomers who monitor the light from distant stars in search of signs of planets outside our solar system: exoplanet search. Another network scans the skies for visible signs from some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe, called “gamma-ray bursts.” Some of the most interesting variable stars are the cataclysmic variables (CVs), which will experience sudden brightenings (outbursts). There’s a world-wide network of amateurs studying CVs called the Center for Backyard Astrophysics (CBA). But historically, this is no surprise; amateurs have been a major contributor to astronomy for centuries. In fact, Sir William Herschel, considered by many to be the greatest observational astronomer of all time, began as an amateur observer.

AAVSO is the world’s largest amateur variable-star organization, but there are many other prominent contributors, including the AFOEV in France, the VSOLJ in Japan, the BAAVSS in Britain, RASNZ in New Zealand, and many more (my apologies to any I’ve omitted).

So if you think science is just for academics in billion-dollar laboratories, think again. With nothing more than a pair of eyes, you too can contribute to the advance of science. Although many amateur observers invest heavily in equipment, with large telescopes and sophisticated instruments, the naked eye can make useful contributions, and binoculars turn out to be one of the most practical instruments. And if you want to equip yourself to the teeth, you’ll find that fellow amateur astronomers can offer lots of guidance and assistance. But beware: I’m told by observers that it can be very addictive! More than one observer has informed me that he devised equipment to alert him to occuring events, so he could spend less time at the eyepiece and more time with family.

If you’re at all interested, search the web for an astronomy club near you. Check out the website of AAVSO, AFOEV, VSOLJ, etc. If you do decide to get more involved in astronomy, be prepared that there are lots of opportunities to make a real contribution to scientific knowledge. And be prepared to have fun!

To Elizabeth: Congratulations!

Categories: astronomy

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