PaulBoltwood-Amateur-Professional Relations, Toronto Version

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An Amateur Astronomer's Experiences With Amateur-Professional Relations

© Copyright 2000 Paul Boltwood


This is a history of one amateur's ten years of experiences in dealing with professional astronomers. The relevant aspects of the author's background and personality are disclosed, the amateur-professional relations he experienced are chronicled, and the lessons he learned are explained.

1. Introduction

This is not an astronomical scientific paper, nor does it properly cover the sociology of the topic. Rather it is a history of one amateur's ten years of experience in dealing with professional astronomers. It is being presented here in the hope that some of these experiences and the lessons learned might help other amateurs and professionals in developing their relationships.

The paper starts with a description of my personality and background because these are an important component of the relationships that I participated in. Next is a chronologically ordered description of the relationships that occurred - the early ones were not so good (but I learned!), the later ones were much better. Then I conclude with what I have learned from these experiences, and offer some advice.

My observatory and observing programs are useful background to this paper. They are detailed in the poster paper "Boltwood Observatory", also at this symposium.

2. This Amateur

I have been an amateur astronomer since I was in high school (I am 55 years old now). When young I was primarily interested in the technology, and I made the optics for, constructed and used several telescopes. Two broken mirrors and too much portable observing hassle made me into an armchair astronomer from 1970 until 1988.

Then I felt that I was getting old and if I were to get back into observing, I had better start soon. I built an observatory equipped with an Astrophysics 7" Starfire refractor. The telescope was intended to be used for the visual observing of objects at high magnification such as planets and globular clusters. Any contribution to science was just a vague thought, but rejoining the RASC plus discovering CCD cameras changed all that.

My education and working life had an important effect on the astronomy I did later. I was a so-so university student and obtained a B.Sc. in math in 1966. My career is in computer software and systems design with a lot of work in signal and image processing. Electronics was a hobby, and I was just starting to earn money from it in 1988. Like many technical types, my social skills did not match my other expertise and strengths.

3. My Amateur-Professional Contact Events

This section is roughly chronological:

3.1 28 SGR/Saturn Occultation

Before it happened, this event was written up in a popular astronomical magazine by two authors: a professional planetary rings specialist, and a member of IOTA. This article asked amateurs to record the event and submit the results.

Our team of amateurs videotaped the event with professional video equipment using a video camera and a 24" telescope. We spent two to three man months of labour to develop software and hardware to reduce the data to a light curve of Saturn's rings, and to do a write up.

IOTA told us that we had the best reduction method and the earliest reduced data, and that there were about 60 tapes that needed reduction. This would have given 60 slices through the rings allowing measurements along the rings as well as across them. We were encouraged to set up a reduction facility.

We were unsuccessful in getting support for the reduction facility because we were amateurs and Canadians. Even worse, the rings specialist author refused to contact me. Eventually I learned third hand that this author did not open any of the data that was requested in the magazine article. Apparently, a lot of work by a lot of people was ignored.

Another rings specialist said that he would never use amateur data - he couldn't trust us. One reason given was that we might have let the dome partially block the aperture of the telescope. Even if we had done that, it would not have mattered with the differential photometry we used.

In the end neither the reduction method, nor the data were used to benefit science.

The lessons learned:

  • do not put in substantial work on a project that depends upon professional cooperation unless you have had personal contact and agreement before hand,
  • be sure that you are doing what is expected of you. Initially we were the only ones who reduced the data - the rest just sent in video tapes. I thought that reducing the data was the "professional" thing to do and everyone else would have reduced their data too,
  • do not try to create a project that needs financing (the 60 tapes) unless you have a professional of your nationality who works in the field fully behind you,
  • be prepared for unreasoned bias against amateurs from some professionals.


After I built my CCD camera, I needed help to get started in doing CCD photometry and so I joined the AAVSO. I had unreasonable expectations of how AAVSO could help me technically, and I did not understand how the AAVSO works. I had to learn the lesson that my developing abilities, desires, and equipment were not compatible with this organization's operations, at least at that time.

3.3 Comet Swift Tuttle

On a visit to an observatory, a professional suggested that I take images of this comet for the use of another professional. Nervously not wanting to bother the second professional before I had done something useful, I contacted him only after the work was done. Now because I had been "asked" to collect this data, I thought that I was doing this astronomer a favour. Later I found out that he thought that he was doing me a favour by looking at my data. Neither of us thought that we were partners.

He did not really need my data, and even though my data was in a standard astronomical format, he could not read it. And then one day when I called him at work I was told he was not in - he was at home and here is his number. Well I got him out of bed after a night of observing. A little bit of thought, and asking the obvious question when I was given his home number, might have avoided this interpersonal disaster. Being sure that he wanted my data, and knowing the acceptable formats, would have avoided the other problems.

3.4 OJ-94 Project

The OJ-94 collaboration consisted of about 40 professional astronomers gathered to study the expected 1994 outburst of the blazar OJ287. This study then expanded to other blazars and more years. OJ287 had been studied for decades by the Finnish astronomers who set up the collaboration, and started a series of conferences.

Rolf Meier discovered the OJ-94 project from an Internet newsgroup and passed it on to me. I was almost ready to try a little photometry so I sent an email to Finland. Three years and a few conferences later, I had been mentored by these people, and I had done thousands of photometric observations and reductions. My observations formed the majority of their optical data base for 1993 to 1996.

For me this was a very successful collaboration. I am very grateful for the way I was treated, and for all of the help I was given. From the beginning I was treated as though I would be valuable to the project. I now have many international contacts for when I need another project to try.

3.5 Blazar Chaos Project

This current work is a follow on from the OJ-94 project. I collaborate with Dr. Sadun where I supply and reduce most of the data, and he does the science.

4. What Was Learned, Opinions, And Advice

The opinions and advice below might not apply to amateurs that work in groups such as the AAVSO, or work at discovering things such as comets or supernovae.

4.1 What Should Amateurs Try To Do

Find a professional partner. You are more likely to produce useful publishable science if you work with a professional who knows the field and the sociological environment.

Pick projects, and your portion of the project where:

  • you have special skills or situations that matter,
  • the professionals do not have an easy source for the same things that you would produce,
  • there is useful science to be done.

Don't try to compete with professionals on their own turf. I do not do astrophysics - that requires a great deal of study, intellect, and keeping current which I cannot do, and even if I could, I would not have the time to do.

In general, amateurs have the following strengths:

  • provide free labour,
  • come with telescopes and instruments,
  • can observe when professionals can't, and much more often,
  • 24 hour time coverage. Many observing programs badly need observers located half way around the Earth from the main participants,
  • have strong observational skills,
  • may have important engineering or computer skills.

Note that a professional usually cannot compete with an amateur on data quantity and time coverage, but his multi-meter telescope will probably provide higher quality data. On many projects, the combination is valuable.

4.2 How Should Amateurs Behave?

4.2.1 Contacting Professionals

Making a "cold" contact with a professional can be very difficult. I am told that most contacts made by amateurs turn out to waste the professional's time, and because of this, many professionals do not encourage contacts. This happens because the amateurs are not well enough prepared:

  • to know how they might usefully contribute at the leading edge of research,
  • to know what is needed in the professional's field,
  • with sufficient skills and/or equipment,
  • especially to know how much work and dedication is required to do anything useful. In many cases you need to think in terms of years and most of your spare time. And often the night after night observing work is boring.

The non-specialist amateur societies such as the RASC could help in this initial contact process by:

  • publishing a general booklet on what is involved, what is required of the amateur, and what the professional should expect from amateurs,
  • providing some form of qualification mechanism. Its purpose would be to avoid wasting professional's time by ensuring that the amateur has a general understanding of what is involved, is sufficiently dedicated, and is reasonably likely to be capable of doing what is needed,
  • setting up a clearing house that puts professionals and qualified amateurs together (relatively easy today with the Internet).

I found European professionals to be more helpful, and more likely to assume that I knew what I was doing, than North Americans. I was treated with full respect upon my first approach to the OJ-94 team. I had large amounts of email correspondence with the individuals as they helped train me. As I fed them good data, they put in a lot of work helping me.

I wonder if European amateur societies do a better job of preparing their members for their first professional approach, and that affected the Europeans I dealt with. My colleague Dr. Sadun in the poster paper "A Few Observations about Professional-Amateur Collaborations" at this symposium, gives a different reason for Europeans being helpful.

4.2.2 How To Work With A Professional

Do your part of the work competently. Develop trust by proving that you are competent, and by being very careful. Early on, you might not be allowed a mistake. Competence will win respect.

Unless you are expert at it, do not do astrophysics. Only do what you are good at. One consequence of this is that the root idea behind the research will probably come from the professional, not the amateur. I have found that I do help out, however, with lesser ideas, or by asking questions based on my computer systems training in logical thinking.

If you are used to a business environment as I am, note that you may make a mistake in your partnership if you assume that your professional partner is your "boss". My experience is that I was treated either as an outsider, or as an equal. In the latter case it was up to me to see to my own problems, decide on my techniques and research program, and chart my astronomical "career". This does not mean I did not get help when I asked for it - just that I was responsible, not my partner.

4.2.3 Honesty And Data Quality

I believe that an important factor in my being accepted on the OJ-94 team was that I was scrupulously honest. I admitted my mistakes immediately. I went overboard in cross-checking my data and techniques, and I reported every problem that remained in the data. I did statistical analyses to calibrate estimated errors vs. true errors, and I investigated every outlier and improved my techniques until almost all of them disappeared. I wrote papers on how I did my observations, and how I reduced my data.

4.2.4 Science Vs. Commerce

Some amateurs try to earn a little money from commercial offshoots from their hobby in order to pay part of the expenses.

To my surprise I have never had a complaint about my lazy blanket copyrighting of every one of my images instead of just the astrophotos.

But when I did my comet Hyakutake nucleus video for profit, and then offered the data free for purely scientific purposes - wham! I had a demand that the video be given free of charge for classroom use, and recipients of the data showed a great reluctance to sign agreements that would protect the commercial use of the data. Also I was forced by lack of equipment and money to distribute the scientific data through my commercial contacts. They charged the end user for the copying, and sadly, few scientific data sets were distributed.

Next time I do a commercial astronomy project, I will not offer the data for scientific use. If a scientist approaches me and asks for it, I will happily negotiate an agreement.

4.3 Where Does An Amateur Fit Into The Professional World?

Some of the professionals I have met have had a hard time categorizing me, or appreciating the limitations that I must live with. For them, the easily understood categories are graduate student and full colleague but I, and most amateurs, do not fit into either. I did not have the education, brains or background of an astrophysicist, but on the other hand I had useful technical capabilities not normally available in either category.

Also I have less time to do research (I have to earn a living), yet I have to do everything involved from building and maintaining my observatory, to sweeping the floor. I have no support staff and I have no time to "keep up with the field", nor do much of anything else other than make observations.

Everyone should do what he or she is fitted to do - I produce good quality data. But I disappointed some professionals when I did not produce Ph.D. level papers on astrophysics, or fully understand some of the papers that I co-authored.

4.4 Where Does An Amateur Fit In Financially?

When the professionals I dealt with wanted to help me financially, they often couldn't. There were bureaucratic slots for graduate students and colleagues, but not for amateurs. At times I would be the only participant at an activity that had to pay his own way. Once I was told "If you would only register for a masters degree somewhere ...".

Without thinking, some professionals would assume that I had the same supports they did: handy access to journals, scientific libraries ($.34 per page, $10 per book for 2 weeks for me), search services ($400 per search for me), free computer media ($50 per tape for me), and conference fees and travel costs paid for (average of $2500 for me). Another expensive barrier was that they used computer "workstations" and ran IRAF software. This is not as serious today, but compatibility with amateur PC's is still a problem. I have never had to pay journal "page charges" but this also is a possible problem.

In the early days I could not get a free Internet account even though it was vital to my work. A large effort was mounted by my professional colleagues on this one. They were as unhappy about it as I was, but in the end the bureaucrats won. I ended up using Freenet in a forbidden way for years.

It was very frustrating not only to work long hours on research work in a joint pro/am project, but also to have to pay to support it. I did get help at times through some form of special dispensation from both professionals and amateurs, but I still went through thousands of dollars per year, excluding equipment costs.

Equipment is another problem. I had hoped that I would be able to "borrow" equipment that was no longer needed by professionals. At least an old vacuum pump. In Ottawa at least, this type of help seems to have been stopped by the bureaucracy, and I had to pay for every piece of equipment I use. I have gone through at least $60,000 by now.

The professionals need to find some solutions to these problems if they wish to have extensive help from amateurs. There need to be funding categories for amateurs, to help hold the bureaucrats at bay. Most amateurs can't or won't spend the thousands of dollars per year I did.

Note: All the dollars above are Canadian dollars (1 CDN $ = $0.67 U.S. Dollar as of July 1999).

4.5 Publication And Credit

If an amateur makes a critical or major contribution to a paper (such as supplying much of the data), he or she should be a co-author. Otherwise an acknowledgement should be given inside the paper.

Amateurs need to recognize that having authorship of a paper (especially first authorship) is a critical part of a professional's career. I have usually received the credit I expected, but I can see where it might not happen. If this bothers you, once you have a track record, negotiate authorship ahead of doing the work. One disadvantage in working with a professional is that he/she usually should be, and will be the first author. This means that your name will be in the "et al" when the paper is referenced.

Professionals are somewhat constrained from using amateur data by the "system" - often amateur data is not trusted. Much of my effort went into proving my data correct. I went well beyond the point where my collaborators were convinced. On one project the team leaders and I had a meeting about how to get referees to accept papers largely based upon the data from a 7" amateur telescope. The conclusion was to minimize the exposure of this fact (potentially another lack of credit situation), and to publish papers showing how good the data was.

I did not always get proper professional handling. One time occurred because my professional partners were concerned as to whether they could get a proposal funded if it were known that the majority of the data would come from an amateur working for free. The professionals were embarrassed and apologetic about this. I said OK.

Another showed up when one researcher using my data complained about a few outliers, but I could not find these outliers in the copy of the data I had with me at the conference. It turned out that the project data base person had not updated my preliminary data because it was already "good enough"! I wonder whether he would have done that if I had been a well known professional.

A more minor point is a problem in getting copies of papers of which I am a co-author, or in which my data was used. Unlike the other authors, I do not have direct access to the journals. Usually I receive a draft to comment on, but not always. This is not too unreasonable because my only contribution is a part of the data that the paper is based upon.

4.6 Everyone Supports Science, Don't They?

I was schooled to think that science was a noble pursuit; that if you have a good idea, professional scientists will make sure that it is followed up. Also, if you have scientific skills and are willing to put in your time, professionals will help you.

Well maybe it was true once upon a time, but it isn't true today. There are more things to study than funds for them, and there are more people wanting to do science than the funds to pay them. I have been told that 95% of recent astrophysics Ph.D.'s (after low-paying post-doc jobs) end up elsewhere. Now if the professor who gave me that statistic found some research funds, would he provide them to an amateur, or to one of his fully trained Ph.D.'s who currently drives a taxi cab?

So as an amateur, you must keep the above in mind when you go to a professional with a project. If it isn't already his project (for which he has funding), you probably will have to find your own funding. Good luck. Many years ago an amateur team-mate of mine asked for help, and at least he got an honest answer - "you want a computer for your project that is better than the one that is on my desk?!".

Many professionals would really like to help, and do help. However the professional cannot afford to spend substantial time and resources on your project unless it also advances his career.

4.7 International Considerations

Science is international and because the Internet makes world-wide collaboration quite feasible, amateurs can work with professionals from far away. Unfortunately not everyone thinks internationally. By chance, I ended up as the only Canadian in a collaboration of 40 astronomers.

Some astronomers, at least, expect a colleague's government to take care of his or her needs. When I requested funding assistance to go to an overseas conference, I was asked "why don't you get it from the Canadian government?" To them, it was my country's responsibility (perhaps via an institution such as a university) to provide for me. If you can, pick a field of endeavor that has many of your own nationality in it, and get a mentor from the group.

Occasionally you really have to talk by phone, rather than the Internet. International phone charges are high, and I had to pay them.

4.8 Equipment And Software Considerations

Most affordable amateur equipment is designed for entertainment and taking nice looking pictures. Unfortunately these goals may compromise the scientific integrity of your data. You must investigate and be sure that you do not have a problem with this. These problems are one of the reasons why I built my own equipment and wrote my own software.

5. Conclusion

Not withstanding the problems above, I am very glad that I did what I did in the last 10 years. I now I have many professional acquaintances and friends, and perhaps I have made a minor contribution to astrophysics.

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