Martin Nicholson's legacy pages - 20 years as an amateur astronomer.

Binary Star Work - Variable Star Work - Peer Reviewed Publications

How can I possibly sum up 20 years and thousands of hours in just a few pages? One thing is beyond dispute. I stayed in the hobby two or three years too long - well beyond the time when the negative aspects outweighed the positives -and that is a mistake I have made before, both in my professional career and in my leisure activities.

In my time as an amateur astronomer I interacted with large numbers of amateur and professional astronomers and many of them were co-operative, friendly and knowledgeable in their particular specialism. Just a few, mainly from the USA, showed few of these virtues and it is sad that their destructive influence seems to be out of all proportion to their numbers. Over the last few years I found myself becoming less and less tolerant of astronomical colleagues who simply ignore any incoming correspondence that raises issues of concern or that makes any suggestions for improvement or modification to current practice.

Are some pro-am collaborations something of a confidence trick?

My advice before getting involved in pro-am collaboration is to ignore all the pre-launch and immediate post-launch hype. Always read the small print and ask yourself what new skills are you going to learn and are the professionals actively going to help you acquire these skills? Are you going to get any recognition or thanks for your work and time? It can be useful to come back to the project a few weeks or months after the launch. Have the web pages been kept up to date and is the newsgroup or forum full of postings from (disgruntled) amateurs but empty of replies from the professionals? Above all compare what was promised with what was delivered.

Back in 2009 I wrote, "Both Gänsicke and Shears correctly stress the importance of feedback to the amateur astronomer but I would expand this principle by suggesting that the professionals should actively solicit constructive feedback from their amateur partners. Without mutual feedback and regular communication a parasitic rather than a symbiotic relationship is the almost inevitable result. The professional astronomer should make certain that all the amateur collaborators get full recognition within any published article. Sometimes the amateurs are just grouped together as “members of the AAVSO” or “members of the BAA” with no attempt made to identify individuals. Similarly the professional astronomer should make certain that a copy of the published article is sent to each of the collaborators. It is not uncommon for articles to appear in “subscription only” journals to which the amateur doesn’t have access."

In my experience short term, small scale projects usually work fine but you tend not to learn many new skills by carrying them out. Larger scale or longer term projects have more potential for amateurs to gain useful experience but, sadly, some professionals are still far too casual about thanking the amateur data collectors when the time comes for peer-reviewed publication.

The late Hannah Varley

Recently I was emailed by an amateur astronomer with a particular interest in double stars. Nothing unusual there except that he wanted to buy a copy of the double star software I wrote with the late Hannah Varley. To cut a very long story short. Hannah was in her early 30’s when she got cancer. Treatment was unsuccessful and she went into a hospice to die, but then against all medical expectations she partially recovered and started doing odd pieces of work with me to improve the software. With no warning our almost daily email exchanges stopped and a few days later I was told she had died. The software is like a little piece of Hannah that lives on and the thought of it being used by somebody who didn't know her or her sad end is just something I cannot cope with. So I turned them down.

Hannah always felt that there a number of people in the hobby who took themselves and the work they were doing far too seriously. Hannah was convinced that in some cases healthy enthusiasm had become an unhealthy obsession. One UK observer has made over 250,000 visual observations of variable stars - at a very conservative estimate of 1 minute per observation for finding the target, making the estimate and subsequently reporting the result - this is equal to 40 hours per week for 2 years.

If all amateur astronomers were as easy to work with as Hannah the hobby would be in a much stronger state. May she rest in peace.

Martin Piers Nicholson - Shropshire, United Kingdom.

This page was last updated on June 8th 2013.