Seeing in the Dark and amateur astronomy

I just finished reading Timothy Ferris’s Seeing in the Dark, a book about amateur contributions to astronomy. This is something I’ve been struck by the more I get into astronomy: it not only accepts amateur contributions, it relies on them. While professional astronomers compete for limited time on research telescopes, the sheer number of amateurs looking skyward allows them to do things that professionals simply can’t (because there are fewer of them looking through fewer telescopes). Such as long-term observations of single objects (like variable stars), and searching for asteroids, comets and supernovae. (The subsequent PBS documentary did not emphasize this point to the same extent.)

I’m struck by this partly because it’s not the same with herpetology, or at least the wildlife conservation part of it, where amateurs are frequently seen as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution — with the notable and important exception of frog monitoring. (On the other hand, you can’t poach a comet.)

But Ferris points out that amateur astronomy is a relatively recent phenomenon, a result of larger apertures and digital cameras passing into amateur hands; a half-century ago, amateurs were limited to long-focal-length, small-aperture refractors and reflectors, and planetary observations. A lot has happened to empower amateur astronomers since then. In the meantime, amateur herpetologists have been facing increasing regulations and sharp professionalization, both of which restrict the lay enthusiast from doing meaningful work in the wild, and send many of us to our basements to focus on exotics.

Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris
Seeing in the Dark (DVD)