The Mists of Time: Amateur Scientists

Comet Hale-Bopp
Comet Hale-Bopp
NASA/JPL-Caltech

August isn’t a special month (unless you’re fortunate enough to be on Summer vacation, then it’s magic) but, historically, August has brought us many exciting scientific developments.

Atomic Bombs

In a future article we may delve deeper into the work leading up to the development of the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs detonated over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan in August of 1945. However, while the circumstances surrounding those events were tragic, we can and should learn from them.

The development of those devices was not all, as Woody Allen put it, “men in tweed suits” writing on chalk boards. There was also all of the day-in day-out role-up-your-sleeves lab work to — for instance — determine the previously-unknown critical mass values for the many isotopes, compounds, and configurations of the components used, and to confirm that the experimentally determined values agreed with the theoretical predictions.

On one such day, a scientist, one of about six workers in a lab, was doing just that, for the who-knows-how-many’th time. He let his guard down for just an instant and a screw driver slipped and fell, causing him to lose his grip on a neutron reflector made of pure beryllium.

In an instant, the sample approached critical mass. The scientist felt a burning in his hand and got an acrid taste in his mouth. The air near the core glowed electric blue and the other workers in the room felt a wave of heat. They carried the scientist outside the lab, where he immediately vomited. In about a week, he was dead.

Amateur Astronomy

Now, back further, to August 1789.

Sir Frederick William Herschel, born November 15, 1738 in Hanover, was an amateur astronomer. His formal training was in music, but even as a child he was keenly interested in science and engaged in lively discussions on the subject with his older brothers. When the French invaded Hanover in 1757, he fled to England.

Herschel was frustrated by the limited quality and power of the refracting telescopes of the time so, guided by the work of Newton, he constructed a reflecting telescope. On an August night in 1789, trying-out the new instrument for the first time, he pointed it toward the planet Saturn and discovered a previously unknown moon of the giant planet, and later another. (Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was discovered by Christiaan Huygens in 1655 using a 2.2 inch refracting telescope, also of his own design.)

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9
Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9
(cc) NASA/JPL-Caltech

The discovery of Mimas and Enceladus (two of Saturn’s moons) was just the beginning. Herschel also discovered Uranus and four of its moons, but he later concentrated his efforts on binary stars. Until that time, astronomers using earlier telescopes had thought that the double images they saw were probably only optical aberrations.

Herschel pioneered the development of high-power reflecting telescopes and charted 700 binary stars. He also discovered the Spindle Galaxy, NGC 3115, in 1787.

Major contributions by amateurs were common in many of the sciences in those early days, and now, astronomy especially, still relies heavily on contributions by amateurs.

  • David H. Levy, along with Carolyn and Eugene M. Shoemaker, discovered comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that struck Jupiter in July, 1994.
  • Thomas Bopp was an amateur astronomer when he discovered comet Hale-Bopp with Alan Hale in 1995.
  • Anthony Wesley, in Canberra, Australia, discovered that an asteroid had struck Jupiter June 3, 2010.
  • Frank Melillo of Holtsville, New York discovered a bright spot on the planet Venus, which was later confirmed by the European Space Agency’s Venus Express space craft.

The list of amateur contributions to astronomy alone is far too long to state here, but each entry is a story of wonder and excitement.

Amateur Radio Astronomy

In the 1980’s while wringing the last drop of reading enjoyment out of one of my monthly electronics magazines, I came across a small item in the personal ads in the back pages: “Radio Astronomy. Send $8.00 for info pack.” Thinking that there was a good possibility that I might get scammed, but hoping for the best, I bought a money order and sent it off to Mr. Robert Sickles, Fort Pierce, Florida.

A couple of weeks later, to my pleasant surprise, the info pack arrived. It contained a letter from Mr. Sickles, info on the club, OBSERVERLAB, and a sample of the monthly magazine. That began a wonderful acquaintance with Bob, as he was known to the members.

Bob was a retired engineer, who now ran Bob’s Electronic Service and led the club. He was the first amateur radio astronomer to ever log a quasar and was well respected and well liked in radio astronomy circles. He built all of his own equipment, and home-built technique and precision in measurement were the main focus of the club.

When the “big dish” at Greenbank, West Virginia, one of the oldest radio telescopes in the US, and home-base for SARA (the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers) collapsed, Bob quelled my fears of sabotage. He knew many of the workers there and explained the history of the grand old dish, how it had greatly out-lived its design life thanks to the “loving care” and hard work of the dedicated people attending to it.

We were on the edges of our seats when Bob, in one of the monthly issues, began listing reports coming in from some of the members and also from SARA, of strange, unidentified, high-energy bursts. The excitement grew when Bob distributed a letter from NASA requesting details of any observations of high-energy bursts. They were correlating them with observed gamma ray bursts detected by one of their orbiting satellites. One explanation proposed by NASA workers was that the bursts resulted from colossal collisions of high-mass high-velocity objects, possibly neutron stars at great distances from our solar system.

With a home-built radio telescope consisting of a dish (either bought or home-made), a UHF TV tuner, a good IF amplifier from one of the older-style TVs, a DC amplifier (the video amplifier from a TV will do), and a paper chart recorder, a skilled operator can record radio storms on the planet Jupiter, and even high-energy objects in the next spiral arm of our galaxy!)

Bob passed away in the early 1990s. He is fondly remembered and is greatly missed. The club disbanded fairly soon after, and the head of SARA contacted all of the members individually and offered us entry to SARA.

Today, in August and in every month, the opportunities for amateur scientists continue.