There was a time, decades ago, when the popular image of a typical amateur astronomer was a teenage version of the Hollywood portrayal of the mad scientist from cheesy 1950s science fiction movies. No Carl Sagans or Neil deGrasse Tysons back then — neither the real ones nor the movie versions. A 1950s teen astronomy nut (like me) had no public figures as role models. I remember in 1958 describing my passion for astronomy and skywatching to a cousin at a family gathering. “Why would anybody be interested in that?” came the unvarnished response. Sadly, it was a not uncommon remark at the time. Since then, things have evolved significantly, vastly improving the image of both astronomy and its fans.
A pivotal event that elevated the subject — if not to “cool” at least to “interesting” status — was the 13-part 1980 Cosmos television series by Carl Sagan, which became the most-watched science series in television history. Today, astronomy documentaries are common on both the Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Channel.
Never has there been a better time to get engaged with things astronomical. In my experience, the largest group of astronomy enthusiasts is a category usually referred to as the armchair astronomer, someone who is fascinated by the subject’s majesty and immensity but is restricted in the amount of skywatching he or she does. Armchair astronomers scan the web and astronomy publications, attend the odd public lecture and catch the above-mentioned television specials. They love the subject. They may have a small telescope for occasional celestial viewing, but often, because many live in urban areas not really conducive to outdoor skywatching, they do less of it than they would like. This might be you.
Or you could be an active observer, someone who has lists of astronomical events at the ready for the next clear night (or weekend) as well as telescope equipment to examine the night sky. Active observers often have previously sought-out dark-sky observing sites and semidark locations closer to home.
A third category is the equipment aficionado, someone who appreciates fine craftsmanship in telescopes, optics, accessories and related electronics. Most equipment aficionados purchase telescope components for assembly into a complete observing or astrophoto system. A few even fabricate parts themselves (optics, mounts, home observatories) to complete their own astro-arsenal. In the era half a century ago that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the few manufacturers of telescopes that existed hand-made virtually every part of a telescope — and charged accordingly. Many amateur astronomers decided to do it themselves, with predictable varying levels of success, ranging from jewel scopes to junk scopes. Today, much less costly mass-produced telescopes of excellent quality are readily available and completely homemade telescopes are far less common.
Finally, we have the true amateur astronomer, the amateur scientist who has selected a sector of astronomy as a specialty and focuses his or her activities into that niche. Examples are variable-star observing, supernova hunting, comet sleuthing and even such extreme specialties as searching for extra-solar planets. Astronomy is one of the few scientific disciplines where amateurs can still make real contributions to the field. It takes true dedication and resolve, and probably fewer than 1 percent of those who call themselves amateur astronomers actually do this type of disciplined self-training and observing.
What type of astronomer are you?