Rant Re Amateur Role in WD 1145+017 Photometric Monitoring
B. L. Gary, Last updated 2016.02.08 UT
We Amateurs "Don't Get No Respect"  

I'm going to try to be as honest and fair as possible in the following, while refraining from being critical. Indeed, I'm going to try to give the "benefit of doubt" to the professional astronomers associated with the WD1145+017 investigation.

Astronomers, as in most scientific disciplines, can be divided into two major groups: observationalists and theoreticians. But there's another way to categorize this field: amateurs and professionals. Until ~ 1.5 centuries ago all of astronomy was done by amateurs. I was employed by Caltech's JPL as a professional radio astronomer in the 1960s for about a decade, and then transitioned to the atmospheric sciences. After retirement in 1998 I resumed a childhood hobby of astronomy, as an amateur. Since retiring I've collaborated and co-authored with professional astronomers (during the past 12 years). Since retiring I have been the author, or co-author, of ~ 37 publications, mostly in optical astronomy. I'm therefore in a unique position to comment on the state of pro/am collaborations in this field.

WD1145+017 (hereafter WD1145) was discovered using the Kepler spacecraft during its K2 mission. I presume that when it was recognized as an unusual star system, probably in early 2015 by Dr. Andrew Vanderburg and collaborators, it was clear that follow-up ground-based observations would be needed to improve understanding of the somewhat erratic dips in the K2 data. Fades of ~ 1% appeared to last about an hour in the K2 data, occurring at 4.5 intervals, and the amplitude would vary on weekly timescales within the range ~ 0% to 2% during the 80-day Kepler observations. WD1145 is a very blue 17th mag star, so I'm guessing that the professional astronomers who shared this information assumed that only professional observatories could provide follow-up ground-based observations.

Some professional astronomers used to be amateurs, but probably most haven't been. Those practicing professional astronomers who have never been an amateur must have a low opinion of amateur capability. The truth, for those professionals who are still clueless about this, is that amateurs today are capable of professional quality work for specific categories of observing and analysis. I tried to describe this in my book Exoplanet Observing for Amateurs, citing as an example the monitoring of exoplanet transits. The rule-of-thumb for when amateurs may be able to contribute is based on the concept that amateur telescope time is free, and amateurs are willing to observe for long hours if they are motivated. Therefore, a task may be suitable for amateurs when many hours of monitoring a star's brightness is required. This is illustrated by the role of AAVSO in recruiting amateurs to monitor variable stars in order to alert professionals when they begin to observe unusual outburst behavior.

WD1145 is an example of a star whose brightness changing behavior is well-suited to amateur observing since many hours of observations are needed to determine behavior patterns. Why, I ask, didn't the professional astronomers who knew about WD1145, and the need for follow-up observations, ever consider asking for help from us amateurs?

In 2015 February, when I estimate that the professionals were formulating follow-up observations, they chose to pay for expensive time on large aperture professional telescopes instead of contacting advanced amateurs to inquire about the feasibility of many hours of (free) observations. If they had contacted me in February or March, one year ago, we amateurs could have observed the target when it was high in the sky and observable all night, as was done by the professional telescope observers. Instead, we amateurs didn't know about WD1145 until the arXiv article appeared in late October. By then the target could only be observed for ~ 1.5 hours, before sunrise, when it was low in the sky, suffering from high air mass extinction (worse for a blue star due to atmospheric Rayleigh scattering). In spite of this handicap, we amateurs achieved in 2.5 months what the professionals failed to do a half year earlier during a similar interval under far more favorable circumstances, using professional observatories.

When I contacted Dr. Bryce Croll to ask if I could help support him with his planned future observing project, starting in 2016 February, he just wanted a vague assessment of activity level, and possibly an ephemeris for dips, in late January. He had no idea that I would be able to do more than that. I was more optimistic, since I had recently measured the rotation period and phase-folded rotation light curve of a 19.6 mag Trojan asteroid, and showed that as it rotated its brightness varied with an amplitude of 0.23 mag (link). My first observation of WD1145, on 2015 Nov 1, established feasibility, and a week later (Nov 8) I acquired a 35% dip with a trailing tail that demonstrated a capability with far more scientific usefulness than was initially envisioned. The next observations showed 3 dips, then 5 dips, and by then it was clear that a 14" aperture telescope was showing a different level of dip activity than had been seen by the professional telescopes a half year earlier. I recruited 3 more advanced amateurs to observe, and on Nov 21 two of us corroborated on the presence of 11 dips during a 3.2-hour observing interval. The only encouragement we got from a professional astronomer was Dr. Saul Rappaport, a theoretician; there was minimal e-mail acknowledgement of our work by anyone else. But I knew that our amateur team was capable of doing what the professionals were planning to do months later, under more favorable conditions and with larger telescopes, so we amateurs moved forward with observing whenever skies permitted.

By mid-November we saw evidence for "drifting" of dip features to earlier times than the published principal orbit period could accommodate. At Tom Kaye's suggestion we began making "waterfall plots" to convince our lone professional collaborator, Dr. Saul Rappaport (the only professional who encouraged us), that drifting was occurring. After about 3 weeks we convinced him that the dips drifted, and thus began a new focus of our observational/theoretical collaboration. Dr. Rappaport came up with a novel idea that the parent asteroid was filling its Hill "sphere" (a football-shaped volume), and fragments that broke off at the L1 end would be in orbits with periods that would produce the drifting that we had found. After this, it was clear that our small team of 4 amateur observers and one theoretician may have "cracked the case" of WD1145.

Returning to my original question: Why didn't the professional astronomers who knew about WD1145 a year ago invite us amateurs for help? I'm faulting only the observational professionals, for they should have known that large aperture telescopes weren't necessary for follow-up observations; the theoreticians wouldn't have known this. We amateurs could have done a much better job last March, when the target was high in the sky and observable all night, compared with the handicapped conditions in November. Our telescope time is free, and we could have obtained many more hours of observations than were obtained by the few large aperture professional telescopes that had been used during last March, April and May. The article that we've submitted to MNRAS (2016 Jan 27 & 29) could have been submitted last summer if we had been asked to help. Did the pro's neglect us because they were unaware of our capabilities? I don't want to consider that it was because collaborating with amateurs is a career killer.

I don't know the answer, but I hope that professional astronomers will gradually learn to appreciate the potential value of pro/am collaborations because we have a lot to offer, and the price is right.

And in case any amateurs are reading this, and wondering about collaborating with professionals, I have some advice: Don't!

The Ugly Details About This WD1145 Collaboration

Here's a rhetorical question for any lay person reading this, or, in fact, any professional astronomer or NASA program manager: Is everyone glad to see amateurs contributing to an understanding of WD1145 in the way we have with the MNRAS paper by Rappaport e t al (2106)? Or for a single amateur to be contributing in the manner of this web page? Answer: No! The MNRAS paper is an embarrassment to professional astronomers, as well as NASA; and I suspect that both categories of people would like to see this work discontinued! To understand this, consider that amateurs (and retirees) don't cost anything to the taxpayer.
It is naive to think that every scientist merely wishes for the mysteries of the heavens to be studied and understood, with nuggets of insight conveyed to the general public for all to celebrate. Foremost for the astronomer is to stay employed! And foremost for the NASA program manager is for him to also stay employed. Everything else is secondary. At some level of thinking, everybody knows this, but it's in poor taste to talk about it - especially, publicly, like I am now. If the lay person thinks I'm making friends with professional astronomers by helping them understand WD1145, think again; I'm making enemies!
Just compare the value of the MNRAS paper's contribution (by 4 amateurs and one retiree) to that for the corresponding taxpayer-funded paper by Croll et al, 2015, based on ground-based observations with professional telescopes conducted and analyzed by 15 professional astronomers, all of which cost the taxpayer.

My observatory investment is ~ $20,000. For comparison, the MINERVA observatory atop Mt. Hopkins, 40 miles west of me, consists of
set of 4 PlaneWave CDK700 28" telescopes, each costing $200,000. When you add the cost of CCD cameras, control systems, service roads and maintenance, the MINERVA observatory may have cost $1.5 million as an initial investment, with operating costs that could be $70,000 per year (just a guess). This observatory was apparently "sold" (to NASA?) on the basis of it being cost-effective, as one of their web sites touts (link). Last May professional astronomers, headed by Dr. B. Croll, used this observatory on 6 dates to produce 21 LCs of WD1145. In addition, this same group used the Perkins 72" telescope (Flagstaff) on 5 dates, and Discovery Channel Telescope 170 " telescope (Flagstaff) on two dates, and the FLWO 48" telescope (Mt. Hopkins) on two dates. All of these professional telescopes have costs per hour of telescope time, which I'm not privy to, but which the taxpayers pay for whenever they're used. In addition, whenever a professional astronomer observes, with any telescope, their data reduction time, and analysis time, manuscript preparation time, and publication costs, are borne by the taxpayer. Bear in mind that this paper has 15 authors, and each author's contribution included some hours of work time at taxpayer's expense. I'm not going to guess the taxpayer's investment in the Croll et al 2015 paper; but it wasn't free.

So, what scientific insights did this paper yield? Rather than stating my opinion here, I invite the reader to check it out: link. I'll give you a hint, quoting from the abstract: "We detect 9 significant dips in flux of between 10% and 30%..." As a reminder, our cheap MNRAS paper states "...we have detected some 237 significant dips..." and "...53 observing sessions on 37 nights, totaling 192 hours..." In addition, our MNRAS paper presents a model that can explain why the dips have a different period than the K2 A-period (a clever insight by Dr. Rappaport). The reader might complain, "but Dr. Croll is a co-author on your MNRAS paper, etc." Yes, but he wasn't privy to any of the amateur observations after Dec 16 (for a reason I won't give), and he wasn't privy to the preparation of the manuscript until it was complete and ready for internal review (Jan 20). His contribution was therefore close to zero. Don't ask me to explain why he was invited to be a co-author. Dr. Vanderburg's contribution was slightly greater. The MNRAS paper is based on observations that are 100% amateur in origin, the only professional with a substantial contribution is Dr. Rappaport, who is retired, so the taxpayer's contribution to this paper is very close to zero!

This simple comparison of two papers, one by 15 professionals using several professional observatories and the other by 4 amateurs and one retired professional (working without pay), gives a lie to the saying "you get what you pay for." Sometimes you don't get what you pay for. But another message I'm trying to convey is that professional astronomers, using taxpayer funding, may not be as productive as a small group of amateurs using modest hardware.

Do you think NASA would be interested in upgrading my $20k observatory, and paying me a fraction of what professionals earn, in order to increase their "bang for the buck"? Nope! NASA isn't allowed, by law, to do that. And moreover, professional astronomers would howl in protest if that were done.

By the way, if you were wondering why Dr. Croll and the other 14 professional astronomers didn't ask us amateurs for help one year ago, when WD1145 was high in the sky and easy to observe, now you know why!

Imbalance of PhD Production and Job Availability

Since my first years as an astronomer, in the early 1960s, there has been a momentous shift in the balance of job availability and PhD graduation rates within the field.

This graph shows NASA's budget since it formed. A fraction of it is available for jobs in astronomy. It suggests that the number of job opportunities has decreased during the past 5 decades.

The line at 1964 was an ideal time to start a career in astronomy (as I did).

The next graph shows that the granting of PhDs in astronomy has increased during the past 3 decades. 


These two graphs suggest that there's a growing imbalance between astronomy job openings and new PhD astronomers seeking a job. 

One astronomer ("Professor Astronomy"), summarizes the situation starkly (in 2010):


Warning: my next speculation is possibly "inflammatory." I believe that this imbalance of job opportunities and job seekers creates an environment that favors the "Darwinian" survival of the most ruthless, and those closest to the sociopath personality type. Note that 4% of the population meet the criteria for sociopath. I suspect that another 5 to 10 % have "borderline personality disorder," BPD. This is a milder form of sociopathy, and these people have an amazing skill at escaping detection while perpetrating the most outrageous immoral manipulations of others (I know this from personal experience as a victim). The sociopath/BPD segment of the population (~10%) must be on the rise given society's transition from village life to metropolis life, where it has become easier for bad deeds to go unnoticed and unpunished. It would therefore be surprising if the culture of astronomy wasn't affected by the sociopath/BPD personality type. Indeed, I think my experience during the past 5 decades, with the decrease of open congeniality and the rise of unscrupulous competition, shows that this is happening.

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