“The foundations of modern astronomy were laid largely by amateurs” (Ferris, Seeing in the Dark, p. 33). Most of the men whose work in astronomy is found throughout the history books saw it merely as a pastime not something that could pay the rent, including Copernicus, Kepler, and Halley. For one to study the skies he usually needed to have a large bank account and not until the twentieth century did astronomy become a career. Yet, “even in the twentieth century, while they were being eclipsed by the burgeoning professional class, amateurs continued to make valuable contributions to astronomical research” (Ferris, Seeing in the Dark, p. 35). The amateurs lagged behind the wealth and technology afforded to the professionals until the 1980s when, specifically, the Dobsonian telescope, developed by an American Buddhist monk, much cheaper CCD light-sensing devices, and the Internet. The Dobsonian allowed amateurs to view nebulae and galaxies that otherwise before would have only been accessible to the wealthy and the professionals, and at merely a few dollars cost combined with much labor, should one be so inclined. The affordability of charge-coupled devices, which can absorb light much more feint than is possible with photographic plates, and their ability to digitally store images of the universe allowed for much more exchange of information. Combine CCDs with the Internet, along hundreds of millions of people instantaneous access to information and images, and the age of the amateur had returned. The Internet also enabled much more collaboration between amateurs and professionals than ever before. Although, “the amateur approach had its limitations. Amateurs insufficiently tutored in the scientific literature sometimes acquired accurate data but did not know how to make sense of it. Those who sought to overcome their lack of expertise by collaborating with professionals sometimes complained that they wound up doing most of the work while their more prestigious partners got most of the credit… But many amateurs enjoyed fruitful collaborations, and all were brought close to the stars” (Ferris, Seeing in the Dark, p. 41).
“Professional astronomy has been propelled for more than a century now by the advent of ever larger telescopes, but big telescopes have their limitations. Typically they can image only small portions of the sky at a time: All other things equal, larger aperture means longer focal length, which means a more constrained field of view” (Ferris, Seeing in the Dark, p. 50). So since the professionals have the stronger, deeper, telescopes they can get much more detailed images of the universe, but for that same reason they miss out on most of what else is happening in the rest of the sky. The number of amateurs of course well outweighs the number of professionals - I doubt there would be enough funding for it to be the opposite or even anywhere near close – so it just makes sense that with all the amateurs out there more of the universe is apt to be charted and discovered. More and more connections are being made between amateurs and professionals as the gap between the two shrinks. Databases shared, conferences attended, papers authored. “When it comes to doing real science, what the amateurs to offer includes their numbers – there are perhaps ten times as many experience amateurs as professional astronomers – and their time “ (Ferris, Seeing in the Dark, p. 56).
It will likely be an amateur who one day in future will save the entire race of humanity from extinction. How will he be the one to do so when the professionals have such better fit equipment? Because he is out searching ever night for those great traveling rocks of the sky, meteoroids. Most meteors are asteroids, which can range in size anywhere from the size of a small state down to a small insect. Most of them get burned up in the atmosphere or bounce of before entering but the ones that do make down to the ground are quite dangerous. “An asteroid one hundred meters in diameter can flatten a city; a kilometer-class one could wind back the clock of human civilization to the time of Vlad the Impaler; and a ten-kilometer comet would exterminate most terrestrial life” (Ferris, Seeing in the Dark, p. 162). So by these amateurs policing the galaxy for these potential world-killers than in the future when we may be faced against one, we will be prepared. Knowing the orbit of a particular comet or asteroid of catastrophic size would allow us to intercept it and alter its course well before it reaches the Earth (i.e. Armageddon) – we hope.
In 1993 Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker and David Levy, at Palomar, discovered a comet that had been captured inside of Jupiter’s gravitational field around 64 years prior. The tidal pull of Jupiter had finally begun pulling the comet apart, breaking it up into much smaller pieces. However some of the largest remaining wholes were well over five kilometers in diameter. The pieces followed each other in a line orbiting the planet. “Starting on the night of July 16, 1994, the comet fragments trundled in, one after another like trucks skidding into a pileup on an icy highway. The exploded in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere in extravagant, rising fireballs that left the giant planet’s salmon- and sand-colored atmospheric bands scarred by a chain of lurid black splotches that endured for weeks” (Ferris, Seeing in the Dark, p. 168-9). This event really showed what potential these vermin of the skies truly holds. Jupiter, 300 times as massive as Earth, and 1300 times larger than the Earth, was greatly affected by such a miniscule meteoroid on the Jupiter scale. Had the comet been flung into the inner solar system by Jupiter, as sometimes happens, we could have experienced great catastrophy throughout the world.
Some day an asteroid or comet will approach the Earth intent on utter annihilation and should it have been charted, most likely by an amateur astronomer, we will have him or her to thank for our survival after it has been rerouted or destroyed, because without knowledge of these bodies whereabouts and practices we would be doomed.
This article originally written April 22, 2008 for OU HSCI 1133 - Science and Popular Culture.