On Saturday 24th June, tucked into the auditorium of the National Gallery of Scotland was an exhibition hosted by the British Astronomy Association (BAA). Organised by Lorraine Cook, I was given a warm hug on arrival and an introduction to the president, as well as many other notable figures in the association.
Although I admitted I didn’t know much about astronomy, I was not affronted or met with disappointment, instead I was met with an enthusiasm to share with me as much as I wanted to know during the hour I was there. The dense collection of images and data seemed intimidating at first, but BAA members were eager to share their knowledge, and slowly decrypted what was in front of me.
This exhibition was, it seemed, as much an exhibition of community spirit as it was of the projects and discoveries made by BAA members past and present. It served as a watering hole for professional experts and amateur enthusiasts to readily engage with each other.
While it is of course the professionals who make the most progress in collecting data and making new discoveries, amateurs are essential to making this possible. Professionals rely on shared telescopes and equipment available only during working hours, but amateurs have the flexibility to work from home whenever they like, collecting as much data as they wish.
Often, I was told that amateurs help fill in the gaps of professional astronomical research, supplying a bulk of data from their previous observations which professionals simply cannot rival in a laboratory environment.
Though the exhibitioners were largely men, a display still held its place devoted to women’s increasing role in the field, with one member pointing out that the BAA was one of the first associations of its kind to admit women in 1916.
I was shown images of the Horsehead Nebula, discovered by Williamina Fleming who was promoted from housemaid to Harvard College Director, to researcher at the Harvard College Observatory in 1881, making huge advancements in the field.
The images on display were, without exception, beautiful and intriguing, boasting remarkable definition and precision even though much of it was amateur work. Images of the Aurora Borealis had the attractiveness of professional photography, particularly those shots taken of the mesosphere, an astronomical anomaly which emerged unexpectedly after the eruption of Krakatoa.
The mesosphere consists of ice formations in the sky producing luminous ribbons of blue light through the night sky which many have likely seen without recognising their significance. In the past few months these formations have disappeared, likely due to warmer weather, highlighting the relevance of astronomy and astrophysics in understanding and monitoring the conditions of our own planet.
Observations of Venus in particular depict the ‘worst-case scenario’ for Earth, as BAA President Jeremy Shears explained. Its abundance of toxic gases and scorching climate offer a glimpse into the potential future of our own planet if our environmental abuse continues at the current rate.
Amateur work and the interest of our own generation is more important than ever. Professionals in the field are receiving more funding and data than they know what to do with. European countries are pounding millions into astronomy, and they are going to need to recruit a lot of researchers to make sense of all this new information.
These countries are constantly making new discoveries with advancing technology and as such astronomy is becoming a viable career path for students in the sciences.
But for those who are not considering a career in science, there are still many ways of dipping a toe in the water. Websites such as Galaxy Zoo offers people the opportunity to actively classify newly observed galaxies from home, and new members are always welcome at the BAA, as well as our own Astronomical Society of Edinburgh.
The BAA offers funding of up to £1000 for promising amateur projects, with the hopes of getting more people engaging in astronomy.
There is a whole boundless universe out there waiting to be discovered, and the beauty of it is that it can be taken with you anywhere you go.
We all look up into the same stars, yet there is so much more left to learn about them. Through this exhibition, the BAA proves that anyone can be a part of these new discoveries, whether from the end of the telescope or the click of a button.
Image: NASA Earth Observatory