Astronomer or not?

Forums General Discussion Astronomer or not?

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    Dr Andrew Smith

    I was looking at the latest I & I News No new series 29 and was rather surprised by the comment at the start by the director Bob Marriott

    “Sir Richard van der Riet Woolley, a former Astronomer Royal, used to say that no-one could call himself an astronomer who had not seen the light of dawn after a hard night’s observing. He was also wary of electronics in his telescope domes, since it distanced an observer from direct contact with the cosmos. This was more than fifty years ago, when some professional telescopes were still being used visually as well as photographically. Nevertheless, with the current popularity of imaging and the preponderance of remotely operated instruments used by amateurs, Woolley’s comments remain valid.”

    Do these comments still remain valid as asserted by Bob? Am I disqualified by being interested in automation and letting the equipment get on with the work while I do other things including sleep. 

    Regards Andrew 

    Andrew Robertson

    Well his comments are certainly my take on amateur astronomy. I enjoy being under the stars and actually enjoy looking at the stars wether naked eye or through the telescope (I know that’s a rare thing in these days of imaging everything). And yes I hardly ever pack up observing whilst it’s stll dark and clear, would consider myself a lightweight otherwise – have to make the best of any clear window in this country.

    Andrew Robertson

    Dr Andrew Smith

    Clearly you are an astronomer the question is am I disqualified? I don’t image either I do spectroscopy and have never looked through my current telescope. I do also like being out under the night sky but I don’t have either good eyesight or dark skies.

    I have discovered candidate new Be stars doing automated spectroscopy with a home built telescope and commercial spectrograph and camera – is that not enough to be am astronomer?

    Regards Andrew

    Gary Poyner

    The OED says…”An expert in or student of astronomy”, so that makes you an astronomer.  I’m from the same mould as Andrew – I love looking through my telescope (not much of a view from Birmingham, but it’s all I have), but I also use remote telescopes with CCD’s to compliment my data.  The reduction is pretty boring though!  My point is that you have a love for astronomy as a science and a desire to make a contribution to it. Regardless of how you do either, you are an astronomer!

    Whether Woolleys comments are valid today is debatable


    Nick James


    They do not remain valid and they probably were not valid even when Wooley made them. I enjoy being under a dark sky and observing from dusk to dawn but where I live the sky is yellow and so I prefer to observe from indoors with a remote telescope (either my own one down the end of the garden) or one on a different continent. To claim that someone who spends a night under the stars is any more or less of an astronomer than someone who has set up and uses an automated telescope system is plainly rubbish. I would extend that to people who use remote telescopes and process and analyze their results.

    Life moves on. We all have our own preferences as to how we do our astronomy and all are equally valid. We are amateurs after all so we can decide what we want to do.


    Andrew Robertson

    Hi Nick,

    I did try and reply to Gary’s comment (but we had a thunderstorm and my internet went down) to say, ‘agree with Gary and of course what Andrew does is Astronomy and in fact making pretty good use of his skies as you yourself do Nick. I just thought Woolley’s comments was a good take on my pretty much minority pursuit these days. And of course you are a lot more productive than me. I fully accept I’m the dinosaur here.



    Grant Privett

    There is a great feeling of satisfaction when closing down for the night as the dawn starts to brighten the sky. Though its often accompanied by thoughts like  “Arrgh. I’ve got to be at work in 4 hours.”.

    Peter Carson

    Hi All,
    20 years ago I would have said astronomers were not genuine unless they got frozen at their telescopes and had light going into their eyes that had travelled across space for millions of years. Today I still call myself an astronomer even though like Nick and Andrew S my telescope can do its own thing while I’m doing something else. Sometimes the camera never comes off the scope for months at a times.
    However I’m best satisfied when I’m out under a really dark sky with my binoculars and and a sun lounger. Perhaps all this technology is really a substitute for a good honest non light polluted night sky.

    David Swan

    Nothing is better than ‘space-walk’ viewing of globulars, open clusters and bright nebulae through a long focal length, wide AFOV, eyepiece. I think both the ease of acquiring images nowadays (cost, expertise required) and also of sharing them has led to the perception that visual observing and freezing to death at the telescope is over. I don’t think that is the case, in terms of absolute numbers of people. I just think there are many more different types of activity going on – and it’s all good as far as I am concerned! I do a lot of visual observing, and keep a log, but I don’t broadcast it. (My sketches are terrible; Paul Abel’s are amazing.) David

    Peter Mulligan

    Hi all

    Yes like David said its good to see people doing different things in Astronomy.  As for how long to stay outside observing, well that’s up to the individual.  After all it is something to be enjoyed and when you’ve had enough you come in! It doesn’t make anyone less of an Astronomer even if they only spend an hour or two observing/imaging or what ever. I believe that anyone who really loves Astronomy is thrilled when they are out under the stars.  I myself feel as one with the universe out under the firmament even here in light polluted Sheffield! 

    David Arditti

    Anybody who studies or pursues astronomy in any dedicated way can call themselves an astronomer. I have met plenty of people who have ‘astronomer’ as their official job description who have not often, or ever, been in the circumstance described by Woolley. There is there a hint there of the kind of ‘macho suffering-cult’ that you often get in people’s definitions of their professions or hobbies in order to make them more exclusive: ‘You can’t call yourself an x unless you’ve done y extreme or uncomfortable thing’. Anyone with any sense rejects this stuff. There are a thousand ways to do amateur astronomy today, some of which involve extended physical contact with telescopes at night, but many of which don’t (solar observing, for example!), and in the BAA we value and encourage all of them.

    Tony Rodda

    I tend to agree with Andrew(S) and Nick.  I behave like Peter(C).  I’m jealous of what Gary can do with regard to visual variable observations.  And, I aspire to Grant and Andrew(R) – but family life usually intervenes.

    I must confess however that I occasionally get lost (with a pair of binoculars) in the way that David(S) and Peter(M) describe.

    And yes, David(A), I definitely don’t do “suffering”.  One day I threaten to post a picture of me in my full Parka outfit (with water bottle strapped to my chest!).

    From my perspective, the ‘scope, etc are “a means to an end” I’m afraid. The equipment is there to gather data with which to further my understanding and perhaps make a small contribution to the science that is astronomy.

    But I think this post shows the richness of, and variation in, an astronomical community, and for me that’s been a great delight too.



    Richard Miles

    Unfortunately another of his remarks adapted from Wikipedia says:

    On appointment as Astronomer Royal, Woolley reiterated his long-held view that “space travel is utter bilge”. Speaking to Time magazine in 1956, Woolley noted:

    “It’s utter bilge. I don’t think anybody will ever put up enough money to do such a thing . . . What good would it do us? If we spent the same amount of money on preparing first-class astronomical equipment we would learn much more about the universe . . . It is all rather rot”.

    Woolley’s protestations came just one year prior to the launch of Sputnik 1.

    So the proverbial pinch of salt needs to be invoked when it comes to taking certain of his comments seriously.

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