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
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
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
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
These two graphs suggest that there's a growing imbalance between
astronomy job openings and new PhD astronomers seeking a
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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WebMaster: B. Gary. Nothing on this web page is copyrighted. This site opened: 2016 Feb 05