TCS Daily

Amateur Night

By Kenneth Silber - September 18, 2002 12:00 AM

Amateur astronomy may be the oldest hobby, in that people have been observing the night sky for many thousands of years. Amateurs played a central role in astronomy's development as a science from the 16th through 19th centuries. In much of the 20th century, however, amateurs were eclipsed by the professionals, whose large and sophisticated telescopes were worlds apart from the capabilities of backyard stargazers.

But the past few decades have seen an amateur astronomical renaissance, with non-professionals not only observing the sky in growing numbers but also making valuable contributions to astronomy's progress as a science. Adeptly charting this revival, and likely to spur it further, is a notable new book, Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril by science writer and amateur astronomer Timothy Ferris (published by Simon & Schuster).

Amateur astronomy was revivified by three technological innovations, as Ferris recounts. One was the Dobsonian, an inexpensive type of reflecting telescope invented by astronomy proselytizer and former monk John Dobson. Another was the CCD, or charge-coupled device, a light-sensitive chip that facilitated recording of faint starlight. The third was the Internet, which gave amateurs new ability to communicate among themselves and with professionals, and to draw upon computerized databases and other expert tools.

Amateurs were the first, or among the first, to detect phenomena such as the vast storm on Saturn in 1991, Comet Shoemaker-Levy (which crashed into Jupiter in 1994), and the great supernova of 1987 (which is when its light got to the Earth; the event happened 168,000 years earlier). An amateur observed "spokes" on Saturn's rings, features doubted by the pros but subsequently confirmed by images from the Voyager spacecraft. An amateur was the first to get a naked-eye view of the returning Halley's Comet in 1986.

The capabilities of the amateurs and the pros are, to a large degree, complementary. Amateurs have sheer numbers and time. There are some 5,000 professional astronomers in North America and perhaps ten times as many experienced amateurs (plus many more with a casual interest in astronomy). The big professional telescopes often peer deeply into space but only cover a small swatch of the sky. The amateurs' telescopes ensure broad coverage and make it likely that someone will notice transient or unexpected phenomena. The pros get limited time on expensive instruments to focus on objects of compelling scientific interest. Amateurs can look for long periods at whatever they want.

Seeing in the Dark interweaves profiles of amateur astronomers with broader discussion of the amateur community and vignettes of Ferris's own experiences as a stargazer. Ferris also provides considerable information of the celestial objects that are out there to be seen, and in an appendix offers tips on observational instruments and techniques. The book depicts the appealing subculture that has arisen around amateur astronomy, which includes telescopic gatherings called "star parties" and astronomy-oriented inns.

Moreover, as the book's subtitle suggests, amateur astronomers, besides having fun and contributing to science, also help protect Earth against the possibility of a cataclysmic collision with an asteroid or comet. Amateurs play a key role in detecting and tracking the smaller bodies in the solar system, and have been among the discoverers of several potentially dangerous objects. If and when a deadly object is found to be on a collision course with Earth, early detection and tracking would be crucial to allowing an effective response (such as diverting the object). It would not be entirely surprising if, somewhere in a backyard right now, there is a 12-year-old who is about to save the world.



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