What's the point?

A couple or so months back there was a letter published in Astronomy Now that more or less asked the question, in relation to observing the night sky, "What's the point?" The main thrust of the letter was that when you've got all these fancy images from the likes of Hubble and given the problems of light pollution, what's the point of ever venturing outside and actually doing any observing?

On the surface there's a good point here: for the vast majority of hobbyist observers there's little to no chance that you're actually going to do any "real science" or actually discover anything and it doesn't really matter just how good your personal setup is you're never really going to see anything or capture anything that comes close to the sorts of images we see in astronomy magazines each and every month.

For me though, once I start to think about why I'm interested in astronomy, the point fades away. Last night's observing session was a good example of why the point quickly fades away. I spent an hour or so trying as hard as I could to tease some detail out of Mars. I didn't get to see anything nearly as impressive as your average observer capturing images with a webcam, let alone anything as impressive as the images you get from various probes that we've sent to Mars. Was I despondent or disillusioned? No, not in the least.

The motive for me heading out into my garden last night wasn't to try and produce images that approach or rival those acquired by other people, it was to try and see what I could personally see with the equipment available to me. It was about conducting my own little experiments with my telescope, eyepieces and filters to see which combination would deliver the best view. I went out knowing full well that I wasn't going to see anything that came close to what I can see online, in books or in magazines. I went out full of curiosity and with a desire to see what results I could personally produce.

And, just as importantly, I had a lot of fun doing it.

File Under: Observational Astronomy, Mars.


Megan said...

I remember that letter well. After reading it on the train one morning, I wrote a response as soon as I got to work. It was perfectly timed as, in the very same issue as his letter appeared, there was a news item on supernova 2005cs in M51 which was discovered by a German amateur astronomer. Amateurs can make valuable contribution to real science but, like you say, for many there doesn't need to be a point. It's fun, that's what counts :-)

Stuart said...

Astronomy is fun and awe inspiring and to me that is a big reason to do it.

As to a point, I agree with Megan that amateur astronomers contribute quite a lot to new discoveries in astronomy. As well as supernovae, amateurs monitor variable stars, look for comets and asteroids and make beautiful images of the entire sky with small telescopes. These things don't need a space telescope (although it would be nice), just time - that is something that the professional astronomers don't have much of.

Aaron, in the latest Slacker Astronomy podcast, talks about the contributions that anyone can make towards astronomy.

Dave Pearson said...

Megan, Stuart, thanks for your comments.

I was a little worried when I wrote the line about the chances of an amateur ever contributing or discovering anything (and did consider qualifying it) because some people often bristle (not that either of you seemed to have) at the suggestion that the chances are low and start to cite a few examples.

I wasn't suggesting (and didn't say) that the chances were zero, I was simply trying to flesh out some of the more reasonable and understandable aspects of the "what's the point" mindset. One of those aspects is the honest appreciation of the fact that your average interested observer, in his back garden, with his sub-£200 reflector, and who doesn't have that much free time due to other commitments (arguably a reasonable example of a lot of people who observe in the UK) probably isn't going to make a major (or even minor) discovery. That doesn't say it won't happen, that just appreciates the fact that it's not going to be a motivating factor.

Like Megan said -- it's the fun that counts. The problem for some people seems to be finding the source of the fun. I was trying to give one personal example of where the fun can be found.