Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Where Amateurs Still Make Discoveries

Well into the 19th century, scientific inquiry didn't require a degree, a graduate degree, and an expensive laboratory supported by grants. Much scientific work was observational or taxonomic or could be done with comparatively simple and inexpensive equipment. Even in the 20th century, Sir Ernest Rutherford performed immensely important physics experiments with equipment that fit on a tabletop.
Astronomy is one field where amateurs still make significant contributions. There are a few reasons for this.
  • There's more sky than the pros can watch.
  • There are thousands of people who like spending their nights looking up.
  • The equipment isn't expensive. Well, while it's not exactly cheap, you can put together a nice rig for quite a bit less than the cost of a new car. A smallish telescope, a camera and mount, dark skies, and Bob's your uncle.
That's why an Australian named Anthony Wesley is on the front page of the NY Times today. He discovered a new feature on Jupiter the other day, and immediately notified NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA pointed a big telescope at Jupiter and confirmed that he'd found something new.

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