Contribution to research by amateur astronomers
Steve Torchinsky interviewed by CTV at University of Calgary

On August 13, 2002, I was interviewed by the Canadian Television Network (CTV) for the Sudbury news programme. Here are my prepared answers.

1. How important are amateur astronomers in the field of astronomy?

Amateur astronomers play a significant role in research in astronomy. Many of the astronomy hobbyists are in regular contact with professional astronomers. The observations made by amateurs often form part of scientific research and are published in Astronomy research journals.

2. Why is their contribution important?

Any contribution towards the understanding of our environment is an important contribution. In the case of astronomy, we're trying to understand the origins of the solar system, how stars formed in the first place, and even how the Universe itself evolved in such a way that we now have people here on Earth asking these questions.

3. What are the benefits of having 'lay' people look up at the sky?

When anyone looks up at the sky, they see a beautiful sight, and that's a major benefit to them!

In terms of research in astronomy, the amateur astronomy community is an enormous resource. Millions of eyes are observing the sky, and providing data to astrophysicists! But it's not just the looking that's important. Amateur Astronomers, for example, members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, are highly knowledgeable people. They are very familiar with the sky. They know right away when a new object has appeared, or when an object has become brighter or dimmer. They know how to spot the difference between a comet, a planet, a star, or even an artificial satellite. They also know how to make accurate, scientific measurements, such as brightness magnitudes and positions. This is essential if we are going to use the contributions from amateurs in research in astrophysics.

4. What are they doing that professional astronomers don't or can't do?

There are two main types of observations that amateurs do to help our research. In both cases, we are making use of the enormous patience, and passion of our amateur astronomy community. I don't just mean the patience of spending a whole night looking up at the stars. I'm talking about spending years of evenings in the back garden and keeping an accurate record of observations.

Amateur astronomers are keeping a constant eye on the skies, looking for new discoveries such as supernovae or comets.

Amateur astronomers also monitor the evolution of objects, such as variable stars, and binary star systems. The information gathered over the very long term is essential to our understanding of stars, how they live and die, and how they interact with neighbouring stars.

The major telescope facilities in the world are in very high demand. It's not possible for professional astronomers to spend huge amounts of time observing a single object, for a particular project. That's why data from amateur astronomers is so important. They are continuously observing, giving us data over a long period of time.

5. What do you think about the impact of amateur astronomers?

I think very highly of it! In some cases the impact is dramatic. For example, in 1987, a supernova went off in the Magellanic Cloud. This was the nearest supernova explosion ever observed in modern times. An amateur astronomer named Albert Jones noticed the supernova, and recognized it's importance. He contacted Astronomers, and Ian Shelton of the University of Toronto was the first person to observe the supernova with a major telescope.

The Star that exploded lived for 100's of millions of years, but the explosion occurred over the period of only a few minutes! The earlier we get observations of such an event, the better we can understand the processes going on inside a star that eventually explodes!

6. What areas in astronomy do you find amateurs a benefit?

Some specific areas that amateurs contribute to research are:

last update 2007 May 02, 12:13 UTC by Steve Torchinsky. See changelog.