(meteorobs) Why don't more amateurs get it? (Meteors, that is.)

JBortle at aol.com JBortle at aol.com
Thu Sep 20 14:23:48 EDT 2007

As someone who has spent a lifetime in the hobby, let me relate what that 
long interval has shown me about observers and serious observing.

First of all, not more than 1% of amateur astronomers ever contribute 
anything worthwhile in the way of scientifically useful data during their careers. 
There seems to be very little interest in doing so. Those that do contribute are 
generally working in just a few limited fields. First and foremost is 
probably variable stars and associated observing (GRB, et al.), followed by comets 
and then meteors. I do not consider deepsky observing, which is vastly more 
popular than all three of the scientifically valid areas combined, as being 
"useful," beyond simple individual enjoyment. Of course, there are a smattering of 
folks doing worthwhile and recognized planetary work, as are a few in some 
rather exotic fields. But that percentage of amateurs is truly vanishingly small. 
In the long run, what this says is that there has always been a very limited 
pool of potentially serious observers to draw from for all observational field, 
with today being even more so. It should also be noted that quite a few 
serious observers contribute to more than one field.

Probably the greatest hindrance to serious meteor observing has always been 
the required significant commitment of time. Even truer today, when time has 
become increasingly scarce for most. Another factor, already expressed by 
others, is that most of the time spent meteor "observing" results in not actually 
seeing anything happen. That's not too bad on a short, warm, summer night but 
when it's 20 degrees outside, sitting around for several hours can prove very 
discouraging very quickly. During many of the lesser showers, the inactivity can 
become downright boring. By contrast, a good effort in observing variables 
stars or comets may require an expenditure of no more than one hour or so once a 
week, making it difficult for meteor observing to compete for potential 

As we all know and as my compatriot, Joe Rao, has pointed out, significant 
light pollution has ruined the skies for perhaps 75%-80% of Americans today. 
Where once most of us could just venture outside our backdoor and see 6.5 
magnitude stars, finding skies that good nowadays (especially in the Eastern US) 
often requires multiple hours of driving in each direction. Again, a situation 
very discouraging to potential observers and increasingly unsafe.

Society itself has changed in several respects. Few younger people (say those 
under 40) have the leisure time to spend even just plain old "star gazing" 
with a scope. For them, dedicating hours of time regularly to serious observing 
is out of the question. As for us older guys, who may well have the time to do 
what we please, the rigors of exposure to often rather harsh weather 
conditions and the often inconvenient hours tend to deter us. 

Finally, there has been a significant trend in the hobby itself away for 
building one's own specialized equipment and taking an extended time to develop 
one's observing skills. We are today definitely living in a time of, "I want it 
now and I don't want to have to work at it." If it can't be bought or 
accomplished outright, it isn't worth doing. This sort of attitude/ethic does not mesh 
well with doing any serious form of amateur astronomy. Never has, never will. 
Sadly, these attitudes are clearly evident virtually across the board in 
hobbies of all kinds. I see it on many of the forums that deal with my other hobby 
interests. I've also read some articles suggesting that we are seeing 
essentially the last generation in which traditional hobbies will be pursued to any 
degree. Not much of an upbeat outlook but probably true, I'm afraid. 


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