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Just What Is An Amateur Astronomer?
by Thomas R. Williams

One might hope to simply pick up a book and review the history of astronomy to understand the contributions of amateurs. However, amateur astronomers are less visible than they should be in the literature of astronomy. Significant contributions by amateur astronomers are generally recognized, but the identification of the individual contributor as an amateur is frequently unclear. As a consequence, amateur astronomers today have little sense of what the contributions of amateurs have been in a historical sense. In part, this problem stems from current usage of the word "amateurish" as a pejorative, representing something not well done or lacking in quality. This unfortunate usage has distorted the historical meaning of the word amateur, broadly someone who works for the love of the work being done. Therefore, it is appropriate to first clarify what is meant by "amateur astronomer".

There is a fairly simple ground rule which may be applied to identify an amateur astronomer. Such an individual must first be an astronomer. If that determination can be made, then it should be a simple matter to determine whether or not the astronomer is an amateur or a professional. The crucial decision is whether or not an individual is working at the science of astronomy. Using a few simple criteria to test this point will help us distinguish an astronomer from others who may, from time to time, look at the night sky. Here are some criteria to assist that identification:

  1. First the individual must display a serious intent to contribute to the advancement of astronomy. He demonstrates this intent by performing work that will provide information to other astronomers. The intent is to answer some question of importance to astronomy, or to develop information that would not otherwise be available to astronomers.
  2. There must be a regular effort to produce results over an extended period of time by gathering data through routine observations, or through discovery or search work which can be either theoretical or observational.
  3. The work should be conducted using acceptable methods or techniques for the era, considering the application of the data.
  4. The program and its results should be communicated to other astronomers who may have need for the information to further their contributions to astronomy. Such communication includes liaison with other astronomers with common interests, sharing the results through publication in a journal or by submitting the results for collation with efforts of others for eventual publication.

When these characteristics are present, one can feel comfortable in classifying an individual as an astronomer. All that is necessary then is to decide whether this individual is a professional or an amateur astronomer.

We can now approach the decision of further classifying an astronomer as either a professional or an amateur astronomer. Again, we may adopt a fairly simple criterion, the pay/no pay test. Accordingly a professional astronomer is a person who practices the science of astronomy for his livelihood. An amateur astronomer does astronomy for pleasure rather than for money, and is likely to derive his income from other means than astronomy.

Some historians have noted that the definition of an amateur astronomer outlined above may rely on the existence of a body of professional astronomers. Prior to the nineteenth century there were substantial numbers of telescopes in the hands of gentlemen scientists, many of whom made serious efforts to contribute to astronomy. At that time however, there were relatively few astronomers actually being paid to practice astronomy. Accordingly, the year 1800 has been chosen as a nominal earliest point at which it is appropriate to reflect the existence of a difference between amateurs and professionals in astronomy.

There are some other classes of astronomers that it is convenient to recognize for historical purposes, in addition to amateur and professional astronomers. First, in addition to amateurs as described above, there have been a few individuals who, because of their education, could have qualified as professional astronomers in their era, but never occupied a paid position as an astronomer. Noteworthy in this regard are a few English women who made good contributions to astronomy. I identify these individuals as "Professionally Qualified Amateurs". A modern example might be Clint Ford, who received the ASP award as Amateur Astronomer of the Year for 1987. The historian may still find some other individuals difficult to classify, even when clear distinctions can be made between professional and amateur astronomers. For example, it is important to recognize that many individuals made very significant contributions as amateur astronomers, and were offered employment as professional astronomers as a consequence of those contributions. The list includes S. W. Burnham, E. E. Barnard, Robert Jonckheere and David Gill, all good examples in this category. I classify such individuals as "Amateur Turned Professional".

And finally, there still remains that largest group of all those who look at the night sky, the "Recreational Sky Observers". These individuals share the astronomer's appreciation for the esthetic beauties of the night sky and the multitude of discrete objects it contains, but are not further motivated to use their time under the stars to contribute to science. The skills exhibited by recreational sky observers, for example in locating and identifying faint or difficult objects, may be very significant. From time to time a recreational sky observer accidentally discovers a comet or a nova. But when this occurs it is a clear exception to the normal recreational routine. It is not my intent to demean in any way from the sincere interest and appreciation that all these individuals exhibit for astronomy. However, it does confuse the issue to classify them as astronomers, in the same category as those individuals who are equally sincere in their intent to contribute to the science of astronomy.

In summary, effort is needed to understand and appropriately classify astronomers as amateurs or professionals, and to distinguish this group from others who enjoy observing the night sky or reading about astronomy for recreational purposes. The key to this problem is the recognition that doing astronomy is work, that certain features of this work fit a recognizable pattern that constitutes the practice of the science of astronomy, and that individuals who do not work within these recognizable patterns should not be considered astronomers, amateur or otherwise.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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