Studying the stars

'Seeing in the Dark' probes world of amateur skygazers

Sunday, April 20, 2003

When was the last time you looked -- really looked -- at the stars?

It's easy to be content with knowing the stars are in the sky. A quick glance on a clear winter night is usually enough confirmation the constellations and planets are still up there.

Every so often, usually during a much-hyped eclipse or meteor shower, we make time to look up. And it's hard to find people who aren't impressed with what they see.

Berkeley professor and science writer Timothy Ferris' newest book, "Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril," showcases people who study the stars. It's not just scientists who make a difference in astronomy today. Anyone with a decent telescope (or a good pair of binoculars) who lives in a dark area can contribute almost as much to science as the "real" scientists can.

The dichotomy between amateurs and professionals is the underlying theme of the book. When tracking comets and meteors, amateur astronomers often have the time and, although somewhat limited, resources to devote to these phenomena. Professional astronomers, concentrating on research with multibillion dollar instruments, are often too busy and perhaps too jaded to watch a comet streak across the sky.

The relationship between professional and amateur astronomers is a tenuous one. Professionals use data gathered by the amateurs in research, yet are quick to look down their noses at the uneducated riff-raff trying to get in the game. Amateurs volunteer their information to advance the science of astronomy but often feel inadequate when compared to scientists with advanced degrees.

Ferris contends that the two groups can be mutually beneficial. Occasionally, it's easier for thousands of amateurs across the world to point their telescopes toward a celestial object than it is to reposition one of the great space telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. The data collected by both groups will help everyone better understand the galaxy and how it works.

Distance from the stars

Science aside, the gap between the two groups may be larger than we think. Ferris himself straddles the line between amateur and professional. A college professor in several disciplines, he has seen both sides of the spectrum. In the end, he leans toward the amateurs as the "keepers" of the astronomical scientific tradition.

In a chapter titled "Blue Line: A Visit with John Henry's Ghost," a reference to the folk character who railed against machines, Ferris describes the feeling of being disconnected from the skies when taking advantage of modern technology.

"I used to hunt for super novae visually -- still do, sometimes -- but now I was letting the telescope do the hunting," he writes. "Humming, chirping, and burbling to itself, its gleaming black tube with the blinking red lamp of its CCD camera reared heroically against the night sky, it automatically took an image of a galaxy every few minutes, stored it in a computer, then slewed with a purposeful whine to the next galaxy on its list and repeated the process.

"So why was I uncomfortable about it? Perhaps because it distanced me from the stars."

Professional astronomers, using the kind of equipment that Ferris refers to, rarely know the constellations we learn as children. Many professionals now set the computers on their telescopes and go home for a good night's sleep. The next morning, they pick up a pile of photographs from the printer tray and start to work.

Amateur astronomers are far more connected to their craft, Ferris says. After setting up their telescopes in the cool night air, these people are apt to stay up well into the early hours of the morning, photographing stars and planets, and doing research of their own before they are off for a full day of work at their regular job.

So who stands to gain the greater reward?

For a professional, peer approval and the acceptance of the scientific community are usually important. To get there, one usually must learn to use the equipment and talk the talk of the upper scientific echelons, which usually includes months of writing grant proposals and searching for the perfect research project. It seems like a lonely world.

The "everyday" backyard astronomers in "Seeing in the Dark" care less about prestige and fame. Ferris portrays them as a down-to-earth (no pun intended) folks who live for those early morning stargazing sessions, when they discover a comet or cluster of stars that is new to them. This form of astronomy is more about adventure and the excitement of exploration. How many amateur chemists or physicists do you know who find the same level of excitement puttering away in a basement laboratory?

Astronomy 101

Ferris' love of exploration is evident. Growing up in Florida during the 1950s and 1960s, Ferris watched rockets launch from Cape Canaveral in the early stages of the nation's space program. With a friend, he recorded star and planet positions in a notebook, as seen with a small telescope from the roof of his house. Today, from his personal observatory on California's Sonoma Mountain, Ferris still takes time to go outside and stare up at the stars.

And, Ferris says, you too can get the same enjoyment from the heavens. Preaching the gospel of accessibility, he includes star charts in addition to a glossary and bibliography in the book's appendices. All one needs is an unobstructed view in a dark place, far from the light-polluted city atmosphere, and a red-glowing flashlight to keep "night vision" sharp. (Ferris thoughtfully provides the instructions for constructing the flashlight in Appendix A.)

Overall, "Seeing in the Dark" is a book for anyone interested in learning about the subject -- it's Astronomy 101 in 300 pages. For those already involved in astronomy, the commentary on the relationship between professionals and amateurs will probably be of more interest than the explanation of basic astronomical concepts. The reference guide, including the star charts, is handy for those who don't know what they're doing but could prove to be cumbersome when hauled out for an evening of stargazing.

Be ready to grab a blanket, the book and your brand-new, red-glowing flashlight and take a trip out to the country. Above all, expect to be amazed at what you can see with your sharpened sense of adventure and exploration. The sheer beauty of the stars can remind us of the world's natural wonders we often forget to look for.

And be prepared. The wonders are still out there.

-- Sarah Hill is a Kansas University journalism student.