Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Seeing in the dark

In recent years, professional astronomers have discovered a hundred or so planets around other stars. These are not Earthlike planets, but gassy Jupiterlike giants whose mass is sufficient to cause a detectible wobble in the parent star.

Now another technique has found an extrasolar planet. A tiny telescope, no bigger than those of many backyard astronomers, has detected a planet around a distant star by the faint dimming of the star's light as the planet moves in front of the star.

The newly discovered planet orbits a star 500 light-years away. Within that distance there are approximately 1 million stars with potential planetary systems.

So here is a rich new field of research for amateur astronomers with halfway decent small computer-driven telescopes, one which can make real contributions to our understanding of how planets are formed.

Amateur astronomers are amateur in the original sense of the word: the am- derives from the Latin word for love. What unites them is love of the night.

It has been suggested that the root of the Latin for love, am, had its origin in baby talk, like yum-yum or mmmm! an expression of delight.

And that's what propels amateur stargazers into the night when everyone else is settled down indoors. They seek the mmmm!, that special moment of delight when the night reveals itself in an intimate way, knowledge and beauty coming together in a seamless experience.

My dictionary of English usage says that the word amateur has acquired "a faint flavor of bungling and a strong flavor of enthusiasm." That faint flavor of bungling devalues an otherwise honorable word. Amateur astronomers are increasingly competing with the pros, and match them step by step for enthusiasm.