Up in the Air: How astronomy lost its romance

I’ve been an astronomer during a great transition in observing techniques over the last few decades. When I started as a graduate student in the late 1970s, I had to drive to the observatory, open it up, point the telescope to my target, and write down the brightness readings of the variable star as they were displayed. With the advent of inexpensive personal computers, I soon had a system that would log the data for me, but I still had to maneuver the scope all night.

When I came to Appalachian State, the technique was the same, but I would have a student helping me, one of us pointing and guiding the scope, and the other handling the data-acquisition computer. When light sensors were replaced with digital cameras, the action moved into a comfortable control room. But the all-night banter between mentor and learner continued. There was a lot of bonding going on, building up a unique closeness between faculty and student.

As the Internet became more reliable, I started observing remotely from home. Usually I would set up the observation sequence and let it run automatically while I slept. This has been an enormous benefit in efficiency – not having to drive out, stay up all night, sleep the next morning at the observatory and then drive back. With an increasingly busy life, I really don’t know how I could observe the old way today anyway.

But where is the romance? No more stepping outside the dome to see a dark sky full of stars. No more late night banter with students. I fear that the nurturing of the next generation of astronomers may be at risk. I have students tell me that they would like to observe at the observatory. I have to tell them that they were born a couple of decades too late.

Will they be turned off by the loss of contact with the night sky?

I still occasionally observe all night at the dome when I am joined by visiting collaborators. I also observe there a few times a month when I do special, timing-critical observations that can’t tolerate any Internet connection problems. But the vast majority of observing is done remotely.

The national observatories are also doing this, and funding for travel to them is continuing to decline. So, the adventure of traveling to use distant telescopes is also becoming lost. The trend is only getting worse: The next generation of new, larger telescopes will be feeding their data streams to servers, already processed and calibrated, ready to study. Data will come from a big, “black box,” that both astronomers and their students will find mysterious.

Indeed, the romance is gone.

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: More on this month’s column: