The valuable contributions of amateur astonomers

How amateur astonomers have contributed to astronomy

Man looking at the stars with telescope beside him. Credit: iStock
Published: December 22, 2008 at 12:00 pm

There was a time not so long ago when astronomy was regarded as a subject divorced from everyday activities. The picture of a typical astronomer conjured up an old man with a long white beard, spending his time in a lonely observatory.


That picture was never accurate and today it could not be further from the truth – professional astronomers spend relatively little time inside observatories and almost never look directly through a telescope.

It is only amateurs who carry out old-fashioned observations.

A valuable contribution

Yet the contributions made by amateurs are as important now as they ever were and are widely welcomed.

This is a state of affairs probably not found in any other branch of science.

Amateurs hunt for comets and exploding stars; they monitor variable stars, which are so numerous that the professional teams would be unable to cope with them all; they make routine observations of the surfaces of the planets; they obtain records of meteor showers and aurorae, and much more.

Amateurs of today use equipment that enables them to match the results obtainable in major observatories at the time when I first became interested.

Elaborate, expensive equipment is quite unnecessary for some branches of research and anybody who wants to take a real interest needs nothing apart from enthusiasm and adequate eyesight.

For example, the late George Alcock, an old friend of mine, was by profession a teacher at a boys’ school in the Midlands.

He achieved a world reputation as an astronomer and discovered six comets and several novae as well as making many thousands of observations of variable stars.

Yet never in his life did he own a telescope.

All his work was carried out from his garden with a pair of powerful binoculars.

Quite apart from this, there are many folk who are anxious to take more than a passing interest in the skies, but who have absolutely no desire to do anything in the nature of scientific work.

After all, who can fail to be fascinated by what is happening ‘up there’?

Also, astronomy can take as much, or as little time as required.

In this new magazine we aim to cater for people of all ages and all interests.

We hope that we can be useful both to the research astronomer, the student and the beginner.

My own experience here depends largely upon the Sky at Night television programme, which is now approaching its 50th anniversary.

This is a record for an unbroken run, as the Guinness Book of Records will confirm. (Incidentally, I once held a second record, as the sender of the slowest telegram in history.

This took seven months to travel from Selsey to Sidlesham – a total distance of three-and-a-half miles.)

The next step

You may ask why a qualified researcher would ever consider consulting a general magazine.

The answer is that the subject is now so vast that magazines are useful in keeping readers up to date.

A professional who is busy studying external galaxies need not know much about the atmosphere of Mars, but may be asked questions about it!

So let me begin with a brief discussion about two inquiries often put to me:

1) If I want to start taking a really serious interest in astronomy, how do I go about it?

2) If I want to become a professional astronomer, what qualifications do I need?

I can answer the first question with authority, because I have been down that road.

First I did some reading and made myself familiar with basic facts.

This is easier now than it was then: in my boyhood there were few popular books around.

Next, I obtained an outline star map and learned my way around the night sky, which is not nearly so difficult as it might seem, because the stars do not change position relative to each other.

I used to go out after dark, when the sky was clear, and made a pious resolve to learn one new constellation every night.

Within months I had an adequate working knowledge and the stars become much more interesting when you know which is which.

Only the planets wander around and each has its distinguishing characteristics: Venus and Jupiter are brilliant and Mars is red, while you are unlikely to see Mercury unless you are deliberately looking for it.

Only Saturn, and Mars at its faintest, can cause confusion.

Then my advice is to join a society.

Most towns have excellent societies and there is also the national Society for Popular Astronomy.

No qualifications are needed for membership and the benefits are enormous (find a full list of societies in the annual Yearbook of Astronomy).

By this time you will be able to decide whether you want to continue.

If so, you can now buy a useful telescope for less than the cost of a rail ticket between, say, London and Edinburgh.

You will also have found out what interests you particularly; in my case it happened to be the Moon.

No doubt you will have different ideas, but in any case, your astronomical hobby will have been well and truly launched.

I am less qualified to answer the second question, as I am purely an amateur.

But an official degree is absolutely essential for professional astronomy.

There is no short cut.

If enough people write in, I promise we will deal fully with their letters in a future issue.

So welcome to BBC Sky at Night magazine. Much lies ahead!


This column first appeared in issue 1 of Sky at Night Magazine, June 2005


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