FORUM

What's so special about astronomical discovery?

I well recollect a lecture delivered to the BAA Lunar Section in 1988 by Harry Ford, then curator of Southend Planetarium, about the CCD revolution. Harry made great play of how amateurs at the cutting edge were only a short step behind their professional counterparts. What he was really saying was that we should look to the professionals to take our lead.

In the mid'80's the BAA & TA jointly hosted a "Pro-Am" conference. Apart from the wry amusement gained at Peter Foley's expense, from the astro-geologist who delivered the ultimate put down to the BAA Lunar Section's obsession with TLP's, I felt the entire event was not only tragically misdirected, it was unwittingly subversive. The underlying message was that the role of the amateur lay in astronomical discovery, supplying confirmed observations via an outfit like TA to outfits like the MIT Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams.

What a sad epitaph. Nothing about data collection (stereotypically denigrated as 'stamp collecting') or observing for the enjoyment of it. No, we should aspire to emulate the likes of the late George Alcock and make discoveries. The fact that George Alcock would not actually commend anyone to follow his example seemed beside the point. The name of the game of course is Kudos. Only, like the king's suit of clothes, you're not supposed to notice.

The difficulty in going down this road is that it is guaranteed to take all the enjoyment out of your observing. Rather than being the pleasure it was at the outset, it is corrupted into a routine chore, and usually at a time you would prefer to be in bed. But, remember that old maxim, "You can't discover comets from your bed." So you stoichly soldier on comforted in that smug self-congratulatory glow only the self-satisfied can know, secure in the knowledge that you're making a worthwhile contribution to astronomical science and hopefully adding your modest contribution to the sum total of human understanding.

Bullshit - just take a long hard look at what you're really doing. Why are you really searching for supernovae/asteroids/comets? Because you desire the kudos that goes with it - go on admit it to yourself - its all part of the healing process. Never mind about those celibate astro-junkies like Robert McNaught - they're well beyond redemption, but it may not be too late for you.

Why pursue an observing program that, whilst promising a Lottery style jackpot, in reality delivers so little. Isn't the truth of it that you are devoting hour after hour after hour of telescope time to not observing what you're interested in? If it takes a thousand hours of search time to discover a supernova, just how long out of that thousand hours was actually spent looking at it? And have you stopped to ask yourself why the anonymous professional who later takes a spectrogram of your discovery is actually the scientist who adds his analysis of the dying star's light to the burgeoning data bank?

Ah, but eventually you may receive a gong in recognition for all your efforts - but who from? Not from the RAS, the IAU or the Royal Society you won't. It will be from the same crew who convinced you that's the be all and end all of amateur astronomy in the first place! An incestuous clacque awarding one another medals, paid for out of the bequests of failed professionals who died in the attempt. What price hubris ?

So instead of beating yourself to death on the CCD~ discovery~ aping the professional kick - get a life. Learn to be your own master. The BAA & TA aren't the be all and end all of English amateur astronomy, they just think they are.

An SPA colleague of mine, David Fletcher, still observes for the love of it from his south facing balcony in Ealing. His favourite telescope "Albert" is an old Astro-Systems 6"f/4 alt-az Newtonian. I admire Dave, he's clearly never lost that first flush of enthusiasm. He hasn't had the poetry ground out of his soul. Shortly after that infamous "Pro-Am" conference he asked me how it went. He stood transfixed as I unburdened my pent up anger, about TA, the BAA, and what they were doing in the name of amateur astronomy. And then came the knowing refrain that marketh the man; "Ah, the BAA, probably the only society in the world dedicated to making astronomy boring ."

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