The importance of the amateur scientist

Public outreach is really enjoyable, but it can be time consuming. If you’ve got a supportive workplace where these efforts are valued then great, but a lot of places don’t value outreach, and it won’t help you land a job, as I’ve discussed before.

Professional astronomers are very lucky when it comes to outreach, perhaps luckier than we realise. There are a small, but devoted and passionate band of enthusiasts out there spreading the word about the wonders of the night sky. Amateur astronomers run open nights, write astronomy blogs and in general tell people about the fantastic things out there in the Universe. I know of one society who has started running astronomy nights for students in conjunction with their local hardware store .

People get into astronomy for different reasons, some as a hobby, some as a passion. Amateur astronomy societies are filled with both. It certainly makes giving presentations to them lots of fun – and provides a challenge to get the balance between pretty pictures and the technical detail that some are definitely interested in.

We call them amateur astronomers, but these days many of them are effectively semi-professional. There are more amateur-operated 20- to 40-inch telescopes* than professionally-operated ones out there, and many of them are operated remotely.

Amateur astronomers are a vital – and possibly under-utilised – resource for public outreach and education, and they are also making significant contributions to science. There are plenty of “citizen scientists” out there now, of course, but they mostly work exclusively with professionally made observations (check out the Zooniverse, for example). I’m talking about those out there who get their hands dirty, so-to-speak.

My favourite example is Bob Evans, a retired clergyman, received an Order of Australia for his work on supernovae. As far as I know, he still holds the record for the most supernovae discovered by an individual. (As an aside he came out of retirement to preside over the wedding of my boss, a professional supernova hunter.)

Of course there are others. One of the longest running and largest amateur astronomy societies is the American Association of Variable Star Observers or AAVSO. This is a loose-knit group of people observing the night sky looking for changes: stars that change brightness periodically, explosively, or sometimes randomly. They make a huge contribution to our understanding of transient phenomena in the Universe.

After my last visit to an amateur astronomical society (Hi to the folk at Macarthur Astronomical Society in south-western Sydney!) I started wondering about other areas of science. Astronomy is the area I’m most familiar with, but we don’t need a lab, and equipment is getting cheaper, so perhaps we have an advantage. Are there other “fieldwork” sciences that have amateur scientists?

After a little bit of digging, it turns out that amateur paleontology is also pretty popular (yes, that pun was terrible, but hey, I’m a new dad). In the US, there’s a society of amateur geologists and paleontologists  called the Dry Dredgers. Their aims are “to stimulate interest in geology, to encourage the collection and identification of fossils, and to participate in field trips and exhibitions.”

They’ve been hunting fossils for 70 years, and have found some doozies. Ron Fine, a member of Dry Dredgers, discovered a “monster” fossil earlier this year in Kentucky, measuring about 2 metres long. Professionals have never seen anything like it.

There are also private companies doing fossil digs, such as the Black Hills Institute, who encourage amateurs to get involved through projects such as Unearthing T-Rex. People have always loved digging down into the dirt, and there are also huge numbers of amateur archaeologists to go with the paleontologists. My mum is one, for example. A lot of field archaeology would never be done if it wasn’t for amateur archaeologists.

And just to show that you can do amateur science with a lab, I was recently pointed in the direction of DIYbio, a group whose mission is to make “biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists and biological engineers who value openness and safety.” Given the often exorbitant cost of lab equipment, they have a page dedicated to hardware developed by their community.

I’m sure that there are more out there and would be interested in hearing about them. If you’re an amateur scientist or know someone who is, please drop me an email!

Amateur scientists always have been and always will be around. I think that’s because people love science: they love discovering new things, they’re enthusiastic and want to take part. Curiosity about the Universe around us is part of the human condition.

*Astronomers still refer to the diameter of small telescope mirrors in inches, in part because many of the telescopes are made in the United States.
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About iwouldntnormallycall

I'm an astronomer and science communicator, these are my adventures. Views posted are my own.
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7 Responses to The importance of the amateur scientist

  1. John Rombi says:

    An excellent summation of the current (very healthy state) of amateur astronomy..Amateur societies are definitely the bridge between the Prof and public. A strong bond between the two will certainly help promote astronomy & science, to the media & populace at large.

    • I think that more amateur societies could take a leaf out of MAS’s book and line up a professional astronomer as a patron. I’m not sure how many others (if any) do this kind of thing?

      • John Rombi says:

        The Sutherland Society has Fred Watson as their patron. A few Pro astronomers are members of amateur societies, but don’t hold the position of patron. You would make an excellent patron for any society..Your enthusiasm toward astronomy as a hobby, educational tool etc, would greatly benefit any club…..Unfortunately, many pro astronomers did not start out as followers of amateur astronomy, they came to it through the study of astrophysics at Uni. So many have never “LOOKED” through an eyepiece before…We of course (MAS) are happy to remedy that, anytime!

  2. Roger Powell says:

    All of us need to work very hard at this because alternative world-views of how the Universe works are easily spread and entrenched by ignorance and obstinance.

    We are not on a recruitment drive. We don’t want to convert everyone to become an astronomer – but we do, all of us, have an obligation to convey an understanding of the Universe to those who will listen.

    Have a look at the US, where representatives of one of the two main political parties are openly advocating an anti-science stance. It’s not only astronomy but other sciences too that are being targeted and we must not let it get like that here. I’ve said many times that if we don’t trust scientists, if we don’t heed what they tell us, then civilisation will be on the downward spiral.

    We must respect all scientists, of all disciplines. We cannot endorse the sciences and scientists that we like and blindly ridicule those that we do not.

    • If there was a Like function in WordPress, then I would Like this post 🙂

      What you say is completely correct. In this time when science is under attack, it is even more important to forge links between professional and amateur scientists. If only a larger fraction of professionals thought this! Alas, in this age of funding restrictions and freezes, most are worried about their own future.

      • Roger Powell says:

        Your efforts to encourage more scientists to engage with the community are admirable. After all, what is the point in publicly funding scientific endeavours, if the information gained is retained in “science-speak” and not PRO-ACTIVELY promoted to the public in plain English?

  3. jaksichja says:

    Your post was an interesting read–yes an educated public is what is needed. Thanks

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