Editorial: Professional "Observers"

Jack Kramer

There are major differences between career astronomers and amateur astronomers. One of those differences became obvious in a December 2000 radio show on station WGN that was devoted to the latest findings on the nature of the cosmos. The guests were cosmologists Rocky Kolb and Michael Turner of the University of Chicago. During the call-in portion of the show, a listener e-mailed an off-topic question, wondering what was the bright object in the western sky on a recent clear evening. Neither of the professionals knew what it was. In fact, Dr. Kolb mentioned that he had never even looked through an astronomical telescope. (The bright object was Venus - something almost any amateur would have known.) An amateur astronomer friend once mentioned that he had helped out on public nights at an observatory in Canada, and he discovered that it was a matter of pride among the professionals that they knew nothing about the sky. And about ten years ago, a member of LCAS (Mark Hammergren) decided to make a major career change and enrolled at the University of Washington to get a doctorate in astronomy. One night he was helping a member of the astronomy faculty on an observing run at their observatory. The astronomer became frustrated with the telescope because the Go-To system had apparently failed. Modern observatory telescopes all employ Go-To because you just don't star-hop with so large an instrument. The astronomer wanted to image an area in Cygnus, but Mark had to point out to him that Cygnus was not due to rise for another two hours!

Patrick Moore tells a story of a professional (whom he refuses to name) who saw a bright light in the sky, where he was sure none should be. He checked his star charts and, sure enough, no star was in that location. He excitedly telegrammed the IAU to report his discovery of a supernova, only to be told that he had made a completely independent discovery of the planet Saturn!

Within the professional community there is an increasing specialization between the observational astronomers and those who do the more "glamorous" theoretical work. But I wonder why something so basic as a minimal knowledge of the sky is not a required skill even for the pros. It's nice to know that we amateurs possess a skill unique to ourselves. Now that modest sized telescopes are widely available to amateurs with the Go-To feature, I hope that those new to astronomy will continue to invest some time to learn the sky...and not follow in the footsteps of the pros.