Are You a Serious Observer?
By Bill Pellerin
There is a lot written and said about amateur astronomy, but one thing I hear often is that someone is a 'serious observer' (not to be confused with a Sirius observer, which would be easy). Are you a serious observer? Am I?
I've heard it said that it's a requirement to be called a 'serious observer' that you own a large telescope.
Astronomy magazine's podcast (by Michael Bakich) offers observing objects for various sized telescopes. Early on, Michael referred to large telescope owners as serious observers. After receiving feedback from listeners with smaller telescopes, he doesn't make this association any more.
Phil Harrington, whose latest book is Cosmic Challenge said in an interview in our Houston Astronomical Society's GuideStar newsletter (in an interview written by Reflector contributor Clayton Jeter) "I believe in 'go big or go home'". By this, Phil means that you should have big goals, and you should try big things, but doing so doesn't necessarily require big telescopes. In fact, you can take a deep a dive into many observing programs with a good pair of binoculars. Phil responded to an email with, "In my mind, veteran observers should put themselves and their equipment to the test by trying to see targets that are at the edge of visibility for their instrumentation." Objects may be on the edge of visibility because they are dim, because they are small, because they are close to bright objects, or because they are difficult to identify in a crowded star field.
Barnard's Star is an example. It's a magnitude 9.5 star in Ophiuchus, but it is a bit of a challenge to find in a crowded star field. The star moves over 10 arc-seconds per year, so you have to know exactly where to look for it.
So, what are the characteristics of a serious observer? I exclude the requirement that a 'serious observer' only observes very dim objects with very large telescopes. So, if the quality of seriousness is not associated with equipment inventory, what is it?
Someone who is a solar observer and regularly (every clear day, for example) observes the Sun and records those observations with the intention of developing an in-depth understanding of solar phenomena is a serious observer. The Sun is the brightest object in the sky, so if someone can be a serious solar observer, then clearly any object, or set of objects observed in a serious manner can make an amateur astronomer serious.
There are plenty of observers of the Moon. While the moon has been observed, mapped by satellites, and visited by humans, not everything there is to know is now known. The work on lunar observing is not complete. My fellow Houstonian, Brian Cudnik has written a book, Lunar Meteoroid Impacts and How to Observe Them. Brian observed a meteor impact on the Moon visually in 1999 and discusses in his book opportunities for amateurs to participate in serious lunar observation.
Various observing organizations such as ALPO (Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers) coordinate efforts of observers of solar system objects, IOTA (International Occultation and Timing Association) works on lunar and other occultations, the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers) collects data from amateurs on variable star brightness over time to provide data to professional astronomers who are trying to understand stellar evolution.
Another friend of mine concentrated on seeing the earliest possible new moons (and latest possible old moons). He'd travel hundreds of miles to be in the best place to make the observations. Sounds serious to me.
The common characteristic of these organizations, and these observers, is the depth of effort and the depth of knowledge required to make the observation. These observers are not content to casually observe objects in the sky, they want to study the objects, they want to understand what they are observing and how the object fits into the universe.
How do you get to be a serious observer? You get there the same way you get to Carnegie Hall… practice, practice, practice (and effort). I read an article in the Scientific American ("The Expert Mind" July, 2006), and it said that the way you become proficient at something is by purposeful effort. Half-hearted effort won't get you there; your observing program must have a goal and a purpose and effort in the pursuit of that goal is required.
My observing purpose is to provide data on a regular basis to the AAVSO on variable stars with a goal of providing information that advances the understanding stellar evolution. I'm working on improving my data gathering and analysis processes and being able to provide more and better results.
The Astronomical League observing programs have introduced many an observer to object categories he or she would not have otherwise observed. These programs can lead to a passion for any of these objects and represent a valuable service to the astronomical community. Check out the observing clubs on this web site and see if any look interesting to you. Years ago, I completed the double-star club, and I've been a double star observer ever since.
If you can't decide on one, do the Universe Sampler club by Amelia Goldberg. You'll get introduced to many objects in the sky in the process of completing this one program.
You will be able to tell when you have become a serious observer; you'll be observing with a purpose and having more fun, too.