Friday, May 14, 2010

Texas Star Party & Amateur Science

I wanted to be an astronomer from about age 11 through 17. I was seriously obsessed with space. I went to space camp and two astronomy camps and delivered newspapers for 17 months in order to buy a 10 inch Newtonian telescope, at which point I dragged my dad 12 hours south to Texas for a star party during spring break. I got involved in astronomy research as soon as possible and did that for three years. So how did I end up an economist?

It turns out there is a huge gulf between professional and amateur astronomy that I couldn't get past. It is so thoroughly disheartening to work with people who have spent their lives studying galaxies but can't point out constellations or find their favorite spiral in a telescope without a computer doing all the work. It completely baffles me that someone could meander their way into a lifelong devotion to astronomy without that passion having its origins in the beauty of the sky. How is it possible that nowhere along the line they asked, hmm I wonder where I can find this globular cluster in the sky and what it looks like without a 10 hour exposure and lots of post-processing?

The other thing is that science research is very tedious. I don't mind tedium so much; I'm still another kind of scientist and have enough of an OCD inclination to spend hours or days figuring out some tiny detail or bug, but there are different kinds of tedium. In astronomy, the details you fight with are fairly meaningless and technical and not relevant to anything else in your life. In economics, they are very intuitive and very relevant and have many wide-ranging implications, and thinking about them turns into a delightful 24-7 obsession. Subtracting dark frames and signal processing is not something that keeps me up at night and makes me debate with myself while walking down the street complete with hand gestures; subtleties of human behavior that I encounter daily and use in research do.

You might think that amateur astronomy sacrifices some of the scientific know-how that the professionals have, but that is broadly speaking not true at all. It's true that most amateurs probably can't do the mathematical calculations necessary to re-derive major results, but they definitely understand the principles behind them. That's really as much as professionals know anyway, unless they are purely theoretical or talking about their own tiny specialty. If you start taking part in stargazing, it's obvious how the science and the observation have to go hand-in-hand: after you've exhausted the brightest objects in the sky, frankly everything looks like a fuzzy grey blob, and then the draw comes from a combination of the thrill of finding it at all and the knowledge of what it is. If you find something intriguing to look at, you are driven to find out what it is and how it works, and conversely if you learn about some stunning astronomical process, you want to go look for an example. It's a mutually reinforcing process.

So I'm quite happy to call myself an amateur astronomy and professional economist. In fact I feel that there is a point of pride in the 'amateur' modifier; I would much rather strike up a conversation about science with an amateur astronomer any day. They are invariably extremely friendly and enthusiastic about the same things as me and definitely won't start complaining about their job or their floundering observing run proposal or their broken computer code with the cynical air of a day laborer. The people at star parties are doing what they've been looking forward to for months and are of course very fun to be around as a result.

I also enjoy learning about science from the perspective of an amateur, as I've been strongly reminded this week. A couple days ago I went to a talk on 'superthin' galaxies that they had to accompany one of the official observing lists of 25 superthin galaxies. At first I figured that they were simply spiral galaxies viewed exactly edge-on, but it turns out they're really a distinct class of galaxy that are underdeveloped, have a small or no central bulge, have low star formation, and high gas-to-dust ratio. The talk went through the science of explaining how they form, where they are usually found, why they have the features that they do, etc, but also discussed each aspect in terms of how it affects what we see:

The central bulge is the most notable feature that you can usually see through an amateur-sized telescope, and in superthin galaxies they can appear round or peanut shaped, depending on whether you are seeing the beginnings of a barred spiral from the end of the bar or the side. If from the side, the matter that is ejected above the plane of the galaxy where the arm turns into a spiral forms a peanut shaped bulge. From the end, of course you only see one bump. As for their high gas-to-dust ratios, viewed face on they would be transparent, hence their invariant superthin appearance. As for their underveloped nature with low star formation, this is because they formed in isolation in gas-poor regions between galaxy clusters, so we mostly see them individually.

Isn't that vastly more exciting that just hearing that certain galaxies form in a certain way? With this visually-oriented description, I can take my telescope out and readily verify these details myself (well, if I had a slightly bigger telescope; with a 10-inch only a few on the list are bright enough for me.)

(If I start talking about how I also love sitting in the cold in the middle of the night spending an hour drawing a single open cluster with a tiny red flashlight between my teeth and eyepatch over one eye, and how I love hopping from one star to another very very precisely until I finally find the tiny fuzzy blob that I can only see with averted vision and only intermittently, and how I love staring at sky maps, and love switching between 27 combinations of eyepieces and barlow lenses trying to get the best view of something, and love lists of objects to observe and log, and love making tiny adjustments to finder scopes and telrads and mirrors until they are perfectly collimated and aligned, you might start to think I'm a little crazy, so I'll stop now.)

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