Thursday 12 April 2012

Not quite the answer they expected!

There is nothing wrong with making astronomical observations for fun or in order to develop new skills and publishing these observations on a web site or in an amateur magazine is something that I would always encourage. Moving onto the next step, peer reviewed publication, is quite a leap upwards both in terms of the quality and quantity of the work involved but is definitely achievable.

But sooner or later you find yourself asking the question, “What astronomical observations can I make that would be of real value to the professionals?” The traditional, safe and non-controversial answer might include double star measurement or estimating the brightness of variable stars. There is just a tiny problem associated with both of these options – one is entirely wrong and the other is wrong at least 99 times out of 100!

The number of amateur astronomers I can bring to mind who have made double star observations in the last ten years that were subsequently found to be of value to the professionals is exactly zero. The situation with variable star observations is very little better. I have contributed many thousands of observations to the American Association of Variable Star Observers. While the number that have been used by professional astronomers is by no mean insignificant the number that have been used with full and detailed acknowledgement of their source is probably under 100.

In my experience it would be far better and far more honest to answer the question with the friendly warning that it is extremely unlikely that any observations you will make during your time in the amateur hobby will be of any value to the professionals. You should observe and report on objects that interest you and regard any professional use of your results as a bonus.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Facebook, blogs and an audit trail

I saw the other day that there are 35m people in the UK with a Facebook account. A more interesting statistic, which was conspicuously missing from the article, would be the number of these accounts owned by people who have died in the last year? I appreciate that Facebook accounts tend to be concentrated in the young and dying in the old but I would estimate that the number of such accounts will be increasing by between 100,000 and 200,000 every year. I must be very distressing for the parents of a deceased teenager or the husband or wife of somebody who dies in their 20s or 30s to be unable to access the account should they want or need to in the event of a sudden death.

There is also a problem that long-term users of Facebook are just starting to discover. Many people have aspects of their life that they were happy to share with the world when they were young but that they very much would not want to share with their children or second wife. It is usually possible to delete material directly under your control but it can be a very different and very difficult situation when you have posted to another person’s account. Anybody who uses an on-line resource like Facebook or Live Journal as an electronic diary is running the risk of comments or thoughts they wrote 5 or 10 years previously coming back to bite them.

Just this week I was reading a blog that E+E have discovered. The author is a university student who had a very difficult time as a foster child. I think the young lady has revealed far too much about her past but more worrying is the very serious allegations she has made about some named and some easily identified third-parties. If you are going to describe the house, identify the small town and reveal the first names and the jobs of alleged abusive foster parents you are leaving yourself in a very vulnerable position.