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Declining Visual Observations

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A thread over in the CV forum branched off into a new topic that we think deserves attention in its own right. (We also think that the general discussion forum is a more appropriate place for this topic.)  I am copying the most recent post from that thread below.  Please feel free to comment.  

You can read the old thread (which has now been locked) here

Clear Skies!
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======================
Declining Visual Observations

Posted by: BRJ
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Posted: May 7, 2014 - 2:27pm

Several of the above posters have indicated a need to ascertain just why more hobbyists today (particularly from the U.S.) do not join the ranks of visual variable star observers and how to address that situation. There was even some mention here that some attending the June meeting would like to see some formal, or informal, discussion take place addressing it to hopefully gain a better perspective on the situation, its causes and how to proceed in the future. This is an idea that I heartily support.

Now this is certainly not the first time that this topic has surfaced in recent years. Probably the first occasion it was ever formally address by AAVSO was already back roughly 20 years ago. At the behest of Director Janet Mattei a blue ribbon panel of the AAVSO's best and brightest at the time from all around the New England area was convened at HQ. Broken up into groups, we were asked to discuss throughout the course of that day the problems that AAVSO might, or certainly would, face in the next 10-20 years as we saw it and report back offering potential solutions. 

I recall that one of the more serious problems my group felt would confront the organization in the future was the general dumbing down of the hobby and hobbyists. Sadly, this was already becoming apparent even back then. The meeting was too long ago for me to recall in detail our conclusions and suggestions on the matter. However, if any records, or notes, from that conclave held at HQ years ago remain in our archives today and if they could perhaps be brought to the June meeting for examination by any discussion group formed to talk about our current situation, they might prove useful. At the very least the thoughts and ideas put forth by that earlier group of members might serve as a good starting point to work forward from. Certainly, something has to change if we are to maintain a viable visual observer corps into the future.

J.Bortle   (BRJ)

Declining Visual Observations
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Thank you, John, for raising this again.

Variable Stars South is holding its 3rd Symposium after the RASNZ Conference in early June and I am going to be speaking on Visual Observing.

One thing I did was to graph the numbers of visual observations of three well known CVs over the past 60 years – a southern one (VW HYI), an equatorial one (CN ORI) and a northern one (SS CYG), and an interesting trend was common to each. I have attached the graph for CN ORI (if I can work out how to attach). The big decline started around 1993-1997, and I put that down in large part to the emergence of new technologies.

I opine that a lot of serious visual observers exchanged their eye at the telescope for CCDs, cameras of various sorts, spectroscopes, etc. Keen potential visual observers are possibly going straight to the technologies and pypassing the visial observing of variables.

I believe that we need to get mentors visiting astronomical societies and actually work through the Visual Observing Manual, taking them outside with binoculars and leading them through the process of actually observing, recording and submitting their observation. Develop that relationship. We have the "Adopt a Star" programme. Maybe we need to have an "Adopt a Local Society" programme as well.

Stephen [HSP}
Pukemaru Observatory
New Zealand

The times they are a changin'
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RebeccaTurner wrote:

Several of the above posters have indicated a need to ascertain just why more hobbyists today (particularly from the U.S.) do not join the ranks of visual variable star observers and how to address that situation. 

A lot of truth in that old Dylan song. A lot has changed in astronomy over the last 20 - 30 years! The common availability of turnkey imaging and goto systems has probably been the primary cause of declining visual interest in general. I myself have been playing with such systems recently, and must admit, the convenience and comfort of just clicking on a target, and downloading a ready-made image on your computer screen kind of beats fiddling around with manual scopes out under the clammy dark night skies.

And, I am in Hawaii too, no doubt 99% of visual observers have some pretty rough outdoor conditions to deal with most of the year...

So yeah, comfort, convenience, the easy life, it sure is hard to fight that. That's what the new technologies of the past generation have provided us. So, if you don't have to go out in -20 freezing cold winter skies to observe thru a telescope under light polluted skies, struggling to find objects, why do it?

For me, fortunately, I have nearly the best outdoor conditions possible and a custom designed large newtonian optimized for my needs, so visual observing is still pleasurable, even with a CCD system at my disposal. But how many observers can expect to have that perfect arrangement?

We need to be realistic about prospects for the visual observing, given all the factors which have come into play for alternatives in the modern age.

Mike LMK

Declining Observations
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Hello John:

This thread seems to crop up every few years. I'll just throw in some of what I have seen from my own organization.

1. Lack of interest. I am the only one in my organization that does visual work on variables. The owners of the big Dobs are only interested in the big faint fuzzies- in fact that is why they have them in the first place. I always talk about variables at our star parties- but I am the only one that does so. Which is a shame- because I often have people try to make an estimate- and they are usually reasonably close.  I had one student last May that successfully made a measurement of R CrB. In fact she was one of the first in the world to see the latest decline - at the time I checked the decline had begun only two days previously and there were only three visual data points. 

2. We are in direct if unstated competition with binary star observers. Several of our members regularly measure and publish these. 

3. Lack of support from the professional community. Three years ago we had a dinner with a former head of an instute tell me that visual observations were totally worthless pointless nowadays- ESPECIALLY regarding CVs. Unfortunately there were a couple of teachers I had invited and the net effect was to undercut what I had been pushing. 

Dave M. 

My thoughts as a new visual observer
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Hi all,

I only have a few moments and I've love to go into this in more detail when I have time.

I am a new visual variable star observer, having only started in the last few months and only seriously for the past month or so.  I had many false starts.  I stumbled upon variable stars as, after twenty years in the hobby (I'm 38), I was getting burned out at tracking down yet-another-elliptical galaxy.  This coincided with a desire in my life to do something useful....to leave a legacy, no matter how small, to contribute to humanity's knowledge in some small way.

I am not interested, at the moment, in doing CCD or DSLR work.  It's not that I don't find it fascinating or even enjoyable, but it engages me with the technology and not the night sky.  As long as my day job is the innards of servers and code, I want to keep that stuff out of my hobby.  

Due to my desire to be useful I did a lot of web searching on visual variable star observations.  Much of the results of such a Google search are quite discouraging, especially for a beginner who doesn't understand the differences between all the different types of stars.  

If the AAVSO is interested in growing visual observers, the means to doing so is not by selling the science per se.  A CCD/DSLR image is going to be more precise than my visual estimate.  You can also see the data, but you can't see what I see when I do an estimate.

What got me cemented in visual variable star astronomy was HOW MUCH FUN THIS IS.  I am witnessing WITH MY OWN EYES changes in the stars!  Moreover, visual variable star astronomy has saved weeknight astronomy for me.  I can go out with my scope, even on a moderately moonlit night, and do something amazingly satisfying -- even for just a few minutes -- that is highly interactive from the city!

The science has become secondary to me in some sense.  The science isn't unimportant, obviously, and, of course, I make my estimates with great care, but the observation and INTERACTION WITH THE HEAVENS has become primary.  If you want to grow visual observers, you need to emphasize the fun, the enjoyment, the interacting with enigmas of the sky...as David Levy emphasized in his Observing Variable Stars book.

EDIT:  I made some edits to my post after reading the initial thread over in the CV group.  I also removed a sentence or two that might have been perceived as overly critical, which was not my intent at all.  It's what I get for writing too quickly. :)

What I really want to do is find some time to reflect on my experiences as a new visual observer, where I got discouraged, with what information, where it was, and why and write something up that would be helpful to the AAVSO in growing the visual program as it is indeed so much fun.

--Michael (RMW)
Dickinson, Texas

Declining Visual Observations
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Though I never tore up the night skies doing visual observing of variables I still found it enjoyable. However, in 2009 I inherited a SBIG ST-7E camera and moved into the world of CCD robo scopes. This type of observing appeals since I have had very demanding day jobs. Staying up late every night just didn't work for me. Now I have the ST-7 and an ST-2000 along with a 11" and 8" SCT. It would seem a shame to scrap all of that and go back to visual observing. I think one factor that has not been mentioned is the availability of low cost CCDs and scopes. For a couple of thousand dollars you can buy a set up that will do science that only professionals could do 20 years ago.  With the availability of CCD Commander and other control software you can get your scopes to work all night even if it isn't convient for you to observe. Many folks like to play around with their equipment, trying to get the most out of it, so building goto, computerized scopes is relatively easy and very satisfying. 

The second factor is just how much fun it is to do imaging (pretty picture) taking. The fact that you can take amazing images with relatively low cost equipment and minimal effort (relatively speaking, it still takes a lot of time but not as much as doing good photography) is quite a sirens song for many. When I first got into observing (50 years ago) doing visual variables was pretty much about all an amateur could do with equipment they could get. Even photography took a lot of time and money to do it well. Now in the world of big Dobs and computron goto scopes a wider world awaits and visual observing seems to pale in comparison. Hopefully there will always be a hard core group willing to buck the trends to keep this most important area alive!

Declining Observations
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MDAV wrote:

Hello John:

1. Lack of interest. I am the only one in my organization that does visual work on variables. The owners of the big Dobs are only interested in the big faint fuzzies- in fact that is why they have them in the first place. 

Dave M. 

I agree with you about the big DOBs, Dave. However Rod Stubbings, possibly the most prolific current observer in AAVSO/VSS, is getting a 22" f3.8 DOB (I think) from SDM Telescopes. I am getting a 28" f/3.3 from the same company. We are both doing this for observing fainter variables, so there are a few exceptions.

But not too many I would say.

Stephen [HSP]
New Zealand

Declining Visual Observations
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Hello Folks,


This issue has been a major concern of mine for years. I have talked with a number of folks in AAVSO about this. It is a frustrating situation. I know the HQ staff is concerned about this.

My situation is more personal. 13 months ago I went through a divorce, retired from science teaching in Florida, and moved back to Ohio. I can't find a job here, I'm stuck in a little 2 bedroom apartment, and surrounded by city lights. It is very inconvenient and difficult to load up my scopes and go out in the country. I'm 58 and don't have the strength to do that. So, unfortunately, my observing numbers have dropped immensly.

My hope is that I can find a job, get a house out in the country, and get back into observing. I have had to go to smaller telescopes. My beloved 14" reflector that I had done tens of thousands of estimates with was simply to big to bring back to Ohio.

My heart's in it, my situation is an obstacle. I am even thinking of temporarily doing binocular stars until I get back on my feet.

But , yes, more and more folks are getting into ccd and DSLR. I'll always be a visual guy.

Chris Stephan   SET

Wooster, Ohio (for now)

The good days are over.
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I started observing variable stars in 1999 and the counter is now on + 30.000 visual observations.  85% of my program where mirastars.   About 4-5 years ago it began to be difficult to observe without eyeglasses.  I had to wear them to read.  In the beginning I read the chart with the glasses and made the estimation doing them off.  Suddenly the fun of observing was gone.  Then I tried to observe for a while with my glasses on, even when looking through the telescope.  There was no fun either.  I often stumbled against my eyepiece, dew on my glasses, I couldn't see anymore the sky with the eyeglasses because everything further away than 1 meter was hazy (due the glasses).....

 

So you can imagine that I was more stressed while observing.  That routinely observing of variable stars was over.  I bought a CCD and started observing with the CCD and did for about 2 years timings of High Amplitude Delta Scuti Stars.  Actually this was fun for me again but I missed that visual observing.  So I sold everything and started again observing visual.  Soon I realized that I made a mistake selling the CCD because I was back on the same road as before.  Visual observing and eyeglasses don't go together. 

 

Now I'm back on the search for a CCD and start again doing CCD observing.  I have to realize that visual observing is past for me and that I must concentrate on the CCD work.

 

I think a lot of visual observers are in the same position as I am and this is one of the reasons of the visual decline.   Of course I enjoy occasionally visual observing but the good days are over.  :/

Declining Visual Observers
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Hello John

I am interested your comment:

" I recall that one of the more serious problems my group felt would confront the organization in the future was the general dumbing down of the hobby and hobbyists. Sadly, this was already becoming apparent even back then".

I would be interested in reading this study if anyone has it.  I don't remember it ever being referred to, but I have only been involved in AAVSO for the past 20 years.  It would be interesting to see the time line and read more details.

Not being a visual observer, I have no basis to comment on this.  Perhaps the transition away from manual scopes and towards GOTO scopes for visual observers is what is meant here.

As for CCD observers, I don't think it applies at all.  With the proliforation of CCD cameras, computers, GOTO telesocpes, computer controlled mounts, cameras, filter wheels, focusers and domes via software, backyard observatories, and robotic observatories, I hardly feel that this is a dumming down of the hobby, on the contrary its a sofisticated direction, different from the past, and it has resulted in observations of science of Variable Stars into a new temporal realm, that was previously not realized.  

While its within the technology for me to fully roboticize my observatory, I probably never will, as I still enjoy opening up, turning on all the equipment, finding a bright star in the sky, aligning the scope, and taking a shot of a variable star field to see if it matches the chart.  Its still enjoyable after 20 years.  This way I feel connected to the object that I am observing that night.  Because I have the equipment to do it, I usually go deep, take 5 minute exposures, and do a time series to see what a CV is doing at quiescence--my current research interst.  

I see this as a pursuit that does not conflict with visual observing.  It may appeal to some more than visual observing.  It may appeal to former visual observers, who are looking for something new to try.  It also appeals to former imagers, like myself, who go tired of taking pretty pictures and wanted to do something with more long term appeal and some scientific value.  

I would like to hear more about what positive steps AAVSO can make to help visual observers.  In the past decade, AAVSO has given us much better charts, accurate sequences, campaigns, email discussion, on-line Journal, and much more, which enhance both the variable star experience.  

What are the suggestions of the visual observers?

 

Gary

WGR

 

 

 

 

I began visual estimating of
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I began visual estimating of variable stars back when that was the only thing you could do. I was science oriented, so I wanted my contributions to be of some value.

Today, someone beginning with my attitude would look around and conclude: visual estimates have value, but photometric measurements are ten times to one hundred times more precise and therefore more valuable. I might make a few visual estimates if I couldn't afford the new technology, but I would be discouraged from becoming a visual observing maniac by the knowledge that the tech observers were collecting much better data. Then there are the sky surveys such as ASAS - why am I knocking myself out when there's a tireless machine collecting higher quality data every clear night?


I think we have to accommodate ourselves to the fact that visual observing is no longer as attractive to potential "citizen scientists" and never will be again.

Not astronomy clubs
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WI wrote:

Today, someone beginning with my attitude would look around and conclude: visual estimates have value, but photometric measurements are ten times to one hundred times more precise and therefore more valuable. 

Yes, higher precision, but the accuracy of visual observations is not that much worse than what the typical CCD observation is submitted to the AID. We have been through the complex reasons behind all the factors at play that are responsible for the loss of accuracy of CCD (at least compared to its true potential in the ideal case) in other discussions. So, I am going to just leave it at that for now.

Regarding ideas on promoting visual observing, well unfortunately I don't have many left. At first glance, given the growth in popularity of amateur astronomy, and the availability of reasonably priced large aperture "Dobs", one would think this would be a prime hunting ground for potential new visual observers. Thats what I thought for many years.

I used to be quite active in astronomy clubs, star parties, etc. As the novelty of just recreational observing soon wore off, I became interested in scientific observing. Not just variable stars, but also comets, meteors, occultation timings. I tried to interest my fellow club members in trying these types of useful observations, but had little to no luck.

As time went by, I became more and more frustrated with the astronomy club scene. All those enthusiasts with the large apertures and their time and effort spent on hauling those montrosities out to dark skies and observing countless faint fuzzies, not for any scientific purpose, but just to "log" them as seen, win certificates and awards, bragging rights, etc. I started to get into some acrimonious discussions on the merits and direction of these efforts. Eventually I became so fed up with it all, I quit all associations with the amateur clubs and star parties. As far as I can see, that large group of potential visual observers is no potential at all.

Not that I didn't try compromises, middle ground. Several times I suggested to these faint fuzzy enthusiasts - Since you are going to look at all these galaxies anyway, why not take a little extra time and check for supernovae too. A useful adjunct indeed, I thought. Well, this suggestion fell on just as deaf ears.

So, as far as I can see, though Astronomy clubs have many "advanced" amateurs with top notch equipment, their interests are almost entirely social, recreational, pretty pictures oriented, not scientific. We need to look around for a different group of people as a more fruitful source of useful scientific visual observers.

Mike LMK

"Interested in what I can see"
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I quote from myself. Scanning the thread, ones impressed with the diversity of offerings as to just what turns an individual on. No problem there: “something for everybody”. In my case it's, “what can I actually see”, with two eyes and the chosen instrument? Utility is beside the point. We all have this desire, to some degree, to be significant amongst our peers. This is resistible! Contributing, is fair payment for calibrating oneself against the consensus. If anything emerges from this, as useful, or memorable; that's pure accident. Selfish? Sure...it's my hobby. I don't stand out there, on the drive, in the small hours, to meet the neighbours.

 

There never will be a lack of visual observers. There's always going to be enough of us to chat or compare notes. No pandemic in sight. Let's resist, also, this itch to forever be persuading others to our partiality. The CCD brigade, are quite happy with what they're doing. Leave them to knot their brows over recalcitrant equipment and wade knee deep in cables. No doubt, “real science” is coming off that end of the production line.

 

Meanwhile; we'll steal away and have a few hours of fun...weather permitting.

Decling Visual Observations
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Let me interject here for just a moment and advise all that the intent of my initial post, before it was separated from the CV thread and transferred here, was simply to inform the few other members who had indicated a desire for an impromptu discussion at the Spring Meeting addressing the declining number of visual observers about  something I was aware of. My post was to let them and whatever group might potentially spring from it, know that a study along the same lines had been conducted years earlier and its conclusions might be worth examining, if still extant. I had no desire for my post and comments to generate an independent thread here that once again simply is arguing the various pros and cons surrounding the situation.

J.Bortle   (BRJ)

 

 

Do not assume surveys and CCD observers have picked up the slack
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To quote David:

Today, someone beginning with my attitude would look around and conclude: visual estimates have value, but photometric measurements are ten times to one hundred times more precise and therefore more valuable. I might make a few visual estimates if I couldn't afford the new technology, but I would be discouraged from becoming a visual observing maniac by the knowledge that the tech observers were collecting much better data. Then there are the sky surveys such as ASAS - why am I knocking myself out when there's a tireless machine collecting higher quality data every clear night?

Please know that there is no guarantee that CCD observers anywhere have picked up where visual observers leave off.  Know also that there are no current all-sky surveys whose purpose is to mimic the coverage that visual observers once provided.  ASAS is often cited in these conversations, and while I believe ASAS are trying to make their data available, there have been no public ASAS data releases in several years.  As a result, coverage of some southern variables has all but disappeared.

I did a paper a couple of years ago that investigated not only the decline in visual observations, but the decline of all observations including V- or clear-band data.  Nightly coverage of some of our most important cataclysmic variables -- by any observing method -- has declined significantly over the past decade.  CCD observers (who are fewer in number than our visual observers by a factor of 2.5) are not making the same kinds of observations as visual observers were.   Concentrated time series of a handful of variables cannot make up for nightly or weekly monitoring of hundreds of targets that visual observers used to do. 

There is interesting astrophysics to be gained by doing time-series, sure.  There's also interesting astrophysics that will be lost if people stop observing.  We're just starting to see how interesting behavioral changes in stars can be on timescales of decades and centuries given our available data. It will be a loss for science if we close the door on that area of study now for no good reason.  And that's what I see happening.

If you are a visual observer who decides to switch to CCD because you'll find it more enjoyable or better suited to your needs, great.  Please consider observing all the targets you used to do visually.  If you are a visual observer who believes there's nothing worthwhile left for you to do because somebody else with a CCD is doing everything you could do, you are almost certainly wrong.

Frustrated with in-vogue activities
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Strangely enough, some of Mike's frustrations is exactly how I found visual variable star observing.

In the last decade I found myself caught up in both the imaging craze and the have-I-observed-10,000-objects-yet craze.  I love to think about how I got caught up in both of those activities, what I learned about myself and astronomy as I did them, and ultimately why I found neither fully satisfying.

It isn't that these in-vogue activities aren't fun, exciting, or fulfilling, but for myself at least, I was doing them for the wrong reasons.  I really can't blame myself, I saw people doing really cool stuff or having neat experiences and I wanted that, too.  

With imaging, of course, I learned that imaging is very, very hard, especially if I want to do anything beyond the fifteen billionth overexposed image of M42.  It's also so subjective and the processing is never ending.  I remember one night trying to enhance an image of M66 and thinking, "what is any different from my adjusting these curves or blending these colors than if I were to just draw the galaxy as I think it should be?"   While the learning curve was challenging and I reveled in the technology, it ultimately wasn't what I later realized astronomy meant to me.

Likewise for hunting down faint fuzzies.  Of course, of course, deep sky astronomy is fun and challenging.  But, I starting having nights in which I came home frustrated because I hadn't viewed some perceived minimum number of objects.  While I didn't quite realize it, the number of NGC objects I had viewed became some bizzare measure of my perceived self-worth (at least in astronomy).  I was constantly comparing myself to other observers.  So astronomy became all about the score or how many AL certificates I had.  (If only I had the Herschel certificate, then I'd be a "real observer!")

After burning out on imaging and faint fuzzies, I bounced around a bit and fell into visual variable star observing.  Here this gets me out in the night sky in an interactive activity (estimating) based in curiosity (what is the star doing tonight?) with an appropriate and pleasing amount of challenge (can I find the star) and opportunities to grow as my skills develop (trying more challenging/fainter stars).  It reminds my most of the enjoyment and wonder I had in astronomy when I was in grade school, and that is important to me.

So that is how visual variable star astronomy came to be attractive to me.

--Michael (RMW)
Dickinson, Texas

Yay for visual! :)
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Matthew Templeton wrote:

If you are a visual observer who believes there's nothing worthwhile left for you to do because somebody else with a CCD is doing everything you could do, you are almost certainly wrong.

Hi Matt!

Thank you so much for your comments.  They are buoying. :)

I can only offer my experience as a new observer, but the perception I had when I was first exploring variable stars was that visual observations may now just be an afterthought...a historical artifact and that CCD is the only way to go.  I perceived the feeling as a "well, if you can't do CCD -- and we wish you could -- then there's at least visual where you can help out....sorta."

Now, of course, that is not the AAVSO's message!  And I know that now.  

Some of the reasons I had my erroneous perception are: 

  • There is more CCD information on the main site than visual.  Now, this makes sense, as CCD is more intricate than visual, but the perception can be problematic.
  • The LPV and Legacy LPV information is off on some separate Google sites pages.  I'm sure this is done for ease of editing, but as they don't have the look and feel of the main AAVSO site....it looks as if they are not part of the mainstream AAVSO activities at first glance.  
  • Lack of mention of visual in AAVSO interviews.  I need to be careful here not to be unfair.  One of the first videos I saw from the AAVSO was S&T's 2011 interview of Arne.  In that video, Arne talks about a system that will observe hundreds of stars all night long.  Now, Arne never says that this system makes visual obsolete, but I was a beginner and inadvertently took that as, oh, I guess visual is on its way out pretty soon now.  And to be fair, Arne gave a talk....recently I think...somewhere that was filmed and did indeed spend a significant amount of time on visual observation, but by sheer chance I saw the first video first and it colored my perception negatively.
  • Visual observations aren't validated, but CCD ones are.  Now I understand why they are not, but my initial perception of what that meant was that, well in the past the observations were validated because they were useful.  Now that they aren't validated, that is the AAVSO saying they aren't useful and are in the "better than nothing" category.  

I'm trying to think of what would have helped when I first started out.  Maybe a document or section Making the Case for Visual Observations.   Maybe a clarifying or "reassuring" document is what is needed.  Perhaps, as I gain more experience, I could help write such a thing.

In any case, the above were some of my misunderstandings when I first got started.  I hope it was helpful.

--Michael (RMW)
Dickinson, Texas

What is REALLY needed ? That's the question !n
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John, I think the real question is about what are the needs and the purpose of variable star estimation from an educational and science stand point. Think about this:

1) neither variable stars, nor Sun observations are considered as glamorous as planetary or deep sky imagining among amateur astronomers

2) inside astronomical clubs some derivative of Freud statement applies, something like "my telescope, camera, equipment is larger-better-more expensive than yours"

3) simple, plain and cheap eye-binoculars-star chart gear is looked as the ultimate cavemen tool

 

I do not care about glamour, fashion or fame at all, so I feel very comfortable  with visual observations, but on the other side I'm starting right now some DSLR observations to beat light pollution and make the best use of more recent, general purpose technology. I think they can complement each other, but I think also there is no way to learn the variable star stuff without visual observing. So there is an educational need unsatisfied among the general reduced interest in astronomy and this cultural gap can be filled by joint efforts by high school teachers, amateur AND professional organizations. What if AAVSO select a subcase of binocular variable list possibly including historical bright variable such as Zeta Gem, Delta Cep, Beta Lyr, Mu Cep, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse and so on, asking schools to join the program and science teacher to guide students through ? What if professional astronomers show more interest in visual observations too, or at least specify how they can help their work and explain / support the cultural value of continuing historical practise ?

Giancarlo Gotta, Italy

Yea for Visual
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Hello Matt and Michael

Thanks for your comments.  Michael your four bullets are extrememly helpful and represent things that AAVSO can do better in this area.  I would like to see more of these.

I challenge all reading this post to add any items that you can think of that add to this understanding of the misconception--or things that can enhance the visual observers work.  

One comment about validation.  I am not completely sure about this, and Matt can tell us for sure, but I don't think that observations are validated, unless specifically requested or needed for some purpose.  I think that we do have certain software checks to make sure that discrepant data does not get into AID.  My conception is that this software is applied to all observations.  

I don't think there is any preference to validate ccd over visual data.  Can anyone on staff help me here.  

 

Gary

WGR

validation
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Hi Gary (and Michael),

We have "pre-validation" software in WebObs that looks for the obvious mistakes in formatting, or JD in the future, that kind of thing.  This traps most of the common mistakes for all observers.

We used to have 3 full-time validators of the visual data.  We can't afford that any more, so we've taken two approaches: (1) we provide a program called Zapper that lets observers flag estimates that they think are discrepant, and a staff member then looks at these; (2) for "objects of interest" (campaign targets, new transient objects, data requests from researchers, etc.), we use staff time to watch for discrepant points and do long-term validation when required.  These skim the most obvious discrepant points, but cannot be called a thorough job.  Note that these approaches flag both visual and CCD discrepant data; any lack of validation is due to budget, not due to value of the data.

CCD observations are now being aparsely validated as mentioned above, but usually at the same level as visual observations - the wildly discrepant points are flagged and the observers notified.  Fine validation at the <0.1mag level is not being done at this time.  Fixing CCD observations takes much more time than working with visual data, as we often have to request images and look at the observations ourselves to find the problem.  Our main goal with the limited CCD validation is to improve the observers, so that they submit higher quality data in the future.  It is far too easy for a CCD observer to press a button and submit 1000 bad data points due to wrong filter, wrong star ID, incorrect aperture size that includes a nearby companion, trusting your software to do the right thing, etc.  The visual observers are much better on average!

I think John's idea of taking time to discuss the visual observing decline at the next meeting is a great one, but please! We all know the problem.  Come with ideas for its solution.

Arne

Declining Visual Observations
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A specific response to part of Giancarlo's note is merited. He asked: "What if professional astronomers show more interest in visual observations too, or at least specify how they can help their work and explain/support the /cultural/value of continuing historical practise?"

To me, his valuable question points out that the discussion misses the point of the original purpose of the AAVSO. Whether you like it or not, the original purpose of the AAVSO, and for 75 years or more was understood to be the main mission of tte AAVSO, was the warehousing of observations of variable stars that might some day be useful to professional astronomers. That data has proven invaluable for certain studies in the past 20 years, and that includes classes of variables besides LPVs. So while the high accuracy and precision, and the short-time density offered by  CCD observations can be valuable, and are certainly sexy in today's environment, and most certainly are vital to certain contemporary professional programs, so too is that basic mission of long-term warehousing of observations, however prosaic it may seem.

FWIW

Tom Williams

Declining Visual Observations
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John, Arne, Mike, et al:

1.  Wasn't the original issue (re DX And) about getting better coverage on many neglected stars, particularly CVS?  Does it really matter if the gaps are filled by visual observations or CCD data?  Let's figure out a way to get more gaps closed rather than worry about the tradeoffs between the two approaches.

2.  I think the best way to get new ideas/ insights at the June meeting would be to have one of you give a 30 minute talk on the problem, summarize suggestions in all of these posts, and then open to the floor for specific suggestions.    There seems to be a consensus that we have a problem.  Coming away with a consensus on specific steps the AAVSO should take to address the problem would be a wonderful result.

R. Stanton (STR)

Declining Visual Observations
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I've been in this hobby for over 50 years and I've seen many epochs come and go. Times change. Nothings stays the same, except for the drive to observe, experience, and share the universe, each in our own time and epoch. With regard to the specific topic of visual variable star observing... one reason I entered this hobby over 50 years ago was in part due to my poor eyesight. It was only through the eyepiece of a small 50mm Sears refractor on its wibbly wobbly mount that I could see the world in focus. I'm also red/green color blind. I don't know how much these factors contribute to what I found very difficult, but for decades I was very interested in the photometry of variable stars and asteroids, but I simply never could master the art of visually estimating bright ness. I admire those that can, but I never could. I'm also a professional contract research engineer and I like to be able to measure things quantitatively and reproducibly. The advent of affordable CCDs, and now DSLRs, finally opened the door for me to do satisfactory work in photometry and spectroscopy using modest equipment. I discovered a fascinating universe that is ever changing and a way to observe it, measure it, and record it. It is so neat to see light curves slowly build in my spread sheets of data and to poor over the images stored on my hard drive, and yes, get my scope out and follow them visually as they ebb and flow across my visual threshold. The data and imagery also provides a valuable tool to share with the next generation of observers and practitioners and to do so in a manner that is consistent with their epoch. As I approach retirement and my eyesight continues to fade, I hope that my cameras allow me to do the best that I can for as long as I can in a fascinating area that was closed to me for so long.

Enjoy

-John

Hello, You should not
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Hello,

You should not under-rate stupidity as a factor here.  I had been involved in astronomy all by myself, starting in the 1980's.  In 2009, I decided to be a bit more social.  AAVSO was the first thing I joined, and I have not been disappointed.  Unfortunately, all the other groups I have joined have made me wish I had kept to myself.

The level at which these current amateurs operate is a real shame. (I am just an untrained hobbyist myself, too)  I cannot believe they have always been so stupid, but it's hard to say...  I have found that the most basic skills for astronomy are not present, and they also cannot think at all.  

I found some people with an informal club in Ohio who were planning on making observations for AAVSO.  It sounded good until I realized they were planning to use their 16-inch Newtonian/EQ telescope (which they use for little more than peeping the Messier objects) to observe mag 1 and 2 stars - visually.  I simply could not get them to listen.  They were narcissistic.  It was like talking to people who were not fully conscious.  I will never speak to them again.

Their idea of "astronomy" is entirely consumer oriented.  "Astronomy" to them means equipment, and not even building it - buying it.  Lots of it.  I could not talk much about comets or novae with them, but bring up TeleVue or ES, and you'd have thought they were having a religious experience.  They are engaging in a phoney hobby called "amateur astronomy" which is warped very seriously.  All they know is the marketing.  Things in the sky?  Who cares?

At a fairly small club, the main interest seemed to be eating.  Every meeting was an excuse to eat - a lot.  In the true style of the people who inhabit these clubs, when I jokingly said, "I only come out when there's food to eat," they naturally got mad.  This crew has the biggest SCT you can get but I don't think they ever observe anything besides the Moon and planets.

Then there are the amateurs who carry guns and let you know it, but I won't relate that tale...

It's just a sick and dumb society, and the stupidity has leached into everything.  I like to keep to myself.

-----

It is hard to get the right comparison chart for any particular star, and orient it to the view in the eyepiece.  Go-To will not do the trick for you.  You have to get a chart which has a field and mags to match your scope.  This is not easy to do.  Few of the people at the clubs I have visited would be able to do it right.  There is something wrong with this, if you ask me.

WGE

Help with Charts
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WGE wrote:

It is hard to get the right comparison chart for any particular star, and orient it to the view in the eyepiece.  Go-To will not do the trick for you.  You have to get a chart which has a field and mags to match your scope.  This is not easy to do.  Few of the people at the clubs I have visited would be able to do it right.  There is something wrong with this, if you ask me.

WGE

Hi Glen.

Like you I love the night sky and enjoy visual observing. I use several different scale charts with my 12" Meade LX200, getting increasingly smaller. I use a 900' (15°) chart down to mag 9.5, 210' (3.5°) down to mag 12, 60' (1°) down to mag 14, 30' down to mag 16 and 18' (0.6°). I don't necessarily use all of these, just what I need to find the variable. Also it depends where the variables are. If there are too many stars in the field eg Sco or Sgr, I won;t go as faint. Using these it is relatively easy to get the orientation right.

Best wishes with your observing,

Stephen [HSP]
New Zealand

Just a few thoughts-
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WGE had discussed the issue of "stupidity" in his article.  I think this is a little closer to what John was alluding to in his original posting. In particular that several decades ago the "dumbing down" of the hobby was an area of concern. To some extent that was inevitable as quality large instruments of reasonable price became available. We see this in the evolution of Astronomy and S&T over the past few decades as well. I suspect though that the number and types of observers we are looking for are still out there. 

   The real issue as John alludes to is- how do we get these people doing visual variable star astronomy? As I mentioned in an earlier post in my own astronomy club there are quite a few who do visual double star measurements but I am the only one who does visual variable star work.

I have never had anything but support for what I do and for pushing variables at our star parties and my school outreach events- but neither have I been able to convince the regulars to do it. Astronomy is a big hobby with a lot of sub-disciplines and we get set in our ways. Those of us who are hardcore visual observers are no exception. My own impression is that we really need to grab the new people before they get grabbed up by the others.

We just started a new program geared toward beginners where we only use the "Gasp!" laser pointers and binocs. At our first program a couple of weeks ago I talked about some of my variables- talked Cepheids while people were looking at Polaris etc- and had a couple try their hand at Eps Aur. Clouds didn't allow doing much more.  Don't really have a feel for how it went. In my own case I was introduced to Del Cep decades ago and it was seeing the brightness actually change from night to night that hooked me. Followup is essential.

 Dave Majors (MDAV)

Section websites
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Michael Rapp commented: "The LPV and Legacy LPV information is off on some separate Google sites pages.  I'm sure this is done for ease of editing, but as they don't have the look and feel of the main AAVSO site....it looks as if they are not part of the mainstream AAVSO activities at first glance."

Michael,

There are reasons for this.

1) The observing sections are managed independently by volunteers. CVnet was actually created on its own before there were AAVSO observing sections, and was brought into the fold later. 2) Since it was easy to use and free, most of us settled on Google sites as the platform for other section websites. 3) Doing it this way, most site admins can share notes and help each other with the Google sites and AAVSO does not have to give access to sensitive information and the aavso.org website to a dozen volunteers. 4) The CV site is blue and the LPV site is red because of the color of the stars. (It really is that simple) They were never intended to look like the AAVSO website. 5) The YSO website was built by Mike Poxon and it has its own look and feel based on his design. (Based on the previously mentioned design scheme, I think it should have jets!)

The Solar Section and High Energy Network are managed and supported by AAVSO, so they are hosted on the aavso.org site.

There is some precedence for this kind of thing. The BAA Variable Star Section has their own website, separate from the BAA site and they have their own DB and publications (newsletter, charts, catalogs, light curves, etc.) I'm sure it saved them "tonnes" of work not having to modify every page on their site when the BAA made the last two major overhauls to their site.

Things like these evolve over time, and they aren't always planned with a big picture strategy or a long term goal or vision. Trying to bring them all under one umbrella and in compliance with our Drupal site would be demanding a lot from volunteers and probably should not be a staff priority.

You've made some pretty good points about the perception of visual observations and visual observers. I don't disagree with you at all. I'll address those thoughts in another message. I don't like to get too many topics mixed into one reply if I can help it.

Mike Simonsen
AAVSO

Declining numbers of visual observations
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Let me preface my comment by saying I am a long time, semi-active member of the AAVSO.  I have been to only one meeting, and rarely participate in any forums, although at one point I volunteered to do some processing, making use of my experience in processing radar and sonar time series data, and was, well, ignored.  The point is that being isolated as I am, my viewpoints are not necessarily reflective of those of others.

I've been a visual observer my entire career, first because when I started the only alternative was photoelectric photometry (anyone remember the 1P21?) and, being a student, I could not afford it.  Much later, when I resumed observing I thought about buying a CCD system but decided against it, convincing myself that it wouldn't be cost effective, given the few clear nights here in northern Virginia.  But over time, I came to realize there is another reason for it:  I just like visual observing!  All my career I've worked as an analyst, so while I enjoy spending time in front of the computer, it is also very nice to take a break from that routine.

Anyway, one of the things I have noticed from my very limited contacts with other astronomers - mostly people from around here, and NOT AAVSO members - is that anyone who continues to use their eyeball instead of an imaging system is looked down upon.  While I agree wholeheartedly that the field of hobbies in general has experienced a massive dumbing down, with visual observing it appears to be quite an opposite phenomenon:  snobishness on the part of the so-called techies toward us old codgers.  You know how it is:  as they're twiddling with their iPad or iPhone they see someone like me with their 2G cell phone and wonder how anyone could be so dumb. 

The irony is that while visual observing is well suited to the less technically astute people of  the current generations, the image of the visual observer is somehow seen as undesirable.  The AAVSO and its sister organizations might want to do something about that by emphasizing the advantages of having expertise as a visual observer as a prerequisite to doing good electronic photometric science or an end in itself.  That, to me, would foster a win-win situation:  more visual observers, and more skillful photometrists.

Stephen Schiff

The romance of eyeball on glass
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While I would never be accused of wanting to be "in fashion", I concur that we need to work to keep our culture from sliding much further into a hierarchy where visual observers are seen as the "poor cousins". It reminds me of the old adage "those who can't do, teach," which we all know is false. The same is true for visual observers. Those of us who do it (mostly sunspot counts for me) do it because we love it, not simply because we can't do anything else. I have a CCD camera sitting in a box (ok, so it's technically the university's, not mine); I'd personally rather keep my eyeball firmly planted on the glass. I've earned my various AL pins the old fashioned way (starhopping) and am grinding my second mirror (a 12.5 inch this time). I don't call it "old fashioned"; I see it has having a personal attachment and investment in the photons!

We all know that astronomy is not one size fits all. Neither is the AAVSO in terms of observing projects. But that's the beauty (and strength) of it! Some people want cataclysmics and some want eclipsing binaries; some want CCD while others like photometers; some are pushing for spectroscopy or DSLR (I hope I have that acronym right) and some are more interested in the history or education aspect, or even data mining.

There's room for all of us. We just need to respect and appreciate what we all do. We are, all of us as a collective group,far far smarter and stronger than any one of us.

KL

Visual is a lot easier
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LKR wrote:

 I've earned my various AL pins the old fashioned way (starhopping) and am grinding my second mirror (a 12.5 inch this time). I don't call it "old fashioned"; I see it has having a personal attachment and investment in the photons!

We all know that astronomy is not one size fits all. Neither is the AAVSO in terms of observing projects. But that's the beauty (and strength) of it! Some people want cataclysmics and some want eclipsing binaries; some want CCD while others like photometers; some are pushing for spectroscopy or DSLR (I hope I have that acronym right) and some are more interested in the history or education aspect, or even data mining.

I don't know which is rarer, visual variable star observing or making one's own telescope mirrors? Certainly those that do both can be counted on a few fingers! No doubt the proliferation of commercial "computer controlled" telescopes, SCT's, APO's and CCD imaging equipment over the past 20 years or so, has had a major impact on reducing the numbers of those who make their own telescopes, and do visual observing.

Its just so much more convenient to go out and buy what you need, and image from the comfort of your home. Well, at least it seems so to many newcomers. The reality of "turnkey" imaging systems is somewhat different. I have had the opportunity to work with both visual and CCD recently.

While in principle, and under the ideal circumstances, CCD offers more precise, accurate and convenient measurements than visual, the reality can be quite different. CCD doesn't always work so perfectly and easily. Getting the numerous software and hardware components of a complete CCD system to work together harmoniously and consistently can be quite a "pain". Compare that to your own visual telescope setup, when its optimized for efficiency and simplicity of use, its orders of magnitude easier to go out and make visual observations!

Yes, the visual scope may lack any electronics, look shabby and "homemade", but that lack of "bells and whistles" precisely makes it a nearly foolproof system for variable star observing. Compare to the issues of a typical CCD setup - numerous complex software interactions, drivers, upgrades, PC OS compatibilities, communications between different manufacturer's interfaces, "dropped" connections, software and hardware bugs. Frequently, a high level of expertise in these types of systems is needed to work one's way through all these obstacles.

So, a word to the wise - unless you really like, and are good at, PC and electro-mechanical and digital communications details and issues, the CCD observing path can be quite a painful, time-consuming and frustrating one compared to the simplicity and ease of the visual.

Mike LMK

 

Visual is a lot easier
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Hello Michael and all:

No truer words have ever been posted about ccd observing than:

 

While in principle, and under the ideal circumstances, CCD offers more precise, accurate and convenient measurements than visual, the reality can be quite different. CCD doesn't always work so perfectly and easily. Getting the numerous software and hardware components of a complete CCD system to work together harmoniously and consistently can be quite a "pain". Compare that to your own visual telescope setup, when its optimized for efficiency and simplicity of use, its orders of magnitude easier to go out and make visual observations!

 Compare to the issues of a typical CCD setup - numerous complex software interactions, drivers, upgrades, PC OS compatibilities, communications between different manufacturer's interfaces, "dropped" connections, software and hardware bugs. Frequently, a high level of expertise in these types of systems is needed to work one's way through all these obstacles.

So, a word to the wise - unless you really like, and are good at, PC and electro-mechanical and digital communications details and issues, the CCD observing path can be quite a painful, time-consuming and frustrating one compared to the simplicity and ease of the visual.

 

 

 

Its not something that is posted and talked about, but its very true.  CCD observing is not a "plug and play" observing robot that turns in tens of thousands of observations.  It takes care and feeding, so to speak.  Its the reason I have not "fully roboticized" my telescope.  I still go out and open up the dome, remove the cover from the , scope, initialize it manually, and point to each object and set up a script to do CCD observations of each object.  I find it rewarding to do this.  I have no desire to take my observing "to the next level of pain" with full robotic control. I take my hat off to those who have done it.  I also take my hat off to the many visual observers who enjoy making visual estimates.

Everyone should do what they enjoy.

Gary

WGR

The same trend is visible
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The same trend is visible here in Finland too. Most of the amateur astronomers are interested only in "pretty pictures" stuff. Only a handful of amateur observers are observing variable stars. There are about 15-20 active variable star observers here, and most of them are doing CCD observing. Visual observers, including me, are only a small fraction of the pool of variable star observers.

In Finland we have a variable star interest group within the Ursa astronomical association, but the group is quite inactive. The group is not working as a group, everyone is just doing their on individual observing programmes.

I'm in a challenging situation in my life, struggling to find a job after graduation and without any certainty of the future. I don't even know, where I'm living in a year from this moment. It is possible, that I have to give up my car and sell my telescopes. Without a car, any telescopic observing is just impossible. But I could still do some binocular observing in any situation!

I'm still relatively young (I'm 28) but I like to do things "the old way". I love visual observing, and I haven't ever had any interest in CCD observing. I love being outside under the dark night sky, just me and my telescope (or binos)! I have been interested in astronomy as long as I can remember, and I have been doing all kinds of observing since I was 11. I was mostly doing visual deep sky -observing, but I seriously started doing visual variable star observing in 2011. I'm sure that I'll be a visual observer as long as I'm capable of doing observations!

Greetings from Finland,

Juha Ojanperä (OJMA)

Turku, Finland

AAVSO 49 Bay State Rd. Cambridge, MA 02138 aavso@aavso.org 617-354-0484