Astronomers are becoming too insulated from the observing process

(This rant first appeared in sci.astro on September 18, 1996)

Mark Gingrich wrote:

> Hey, now *that's* the way I want to go: to be impaled by the diffraction
> spikes of a nearby supernova!  It sure sounds more heroic than the main
> threat to astronomers' lives: falling off the observing ladder.

Alas, the fraction of astronomers who ever come into contact with an "observing ladder" is becoming smaller and smaller as time goes on. For example, here at Princeton, graduate students and professors who use the 3.5-m telescope at Apache Point, New Mexico, very rarely actually _go_ to the telescope; instead, they stay here at Princeton, log onto to a computer at Apache Point, and control the telescope remotely.

And, in what strikes me as an even more disturbing (but unavoidable) trend, sometimes we don't even control the telescope. There's a project here at Princeton, run by Ed Turner, to monitor the brightness of gravitationally lensed quasars. Because this is a long-term project that requires about an hour of observation every other night, it turns out to be difficult to run with remote observers ("Okay, John, you'll have the 3AM-4AM shift on every Tuesday for the next two months.") All observations are actually made by the Observing Specialists at Apache Point, who are present at the site and run the telescope all night long.

Please don't misunderstand me -- in several senses this a GOOD thing: it saves travel expenses, it allows students here in New Jersey access to information which can't be gathered locally, it allows students to sleep at night :-), and, most important, it allows experienced observers to acquire the data. The Observing Specialists at APO (Karen Gloria, Dan Long, Eddie Bergeron) are excellent observers who do use the telescope and instruments daily, and who are well-versed in all the nasty things that can go wrong. They are much more likely to figure out a sudden glitch in an observing program than I am, for sure.

But, on the down side, the astronomers (and students, especially) who USE the data are, in my opinion, becoming less aware of the many issues involved in acquiring optical data. That means that when they try to reduce and analyze the data, they may not realize the cause of some strange effect; for example, they might not know that scattered light has a certain signature when one points close to the moon. I fear that some astronomers will become so insulated from the observational process that they will make fundamental mistakes in interpretation ... mistakes any practicing observer would never make.

Yes, I know, I'm beginning to sound like a curmudgeon -- "Back in MY days, we had to clean the mirror with our tongues before we were allowed to use the telescope" -- and I'm well aware that fiscal restraints are going to push astronomy further and further down this road as time goes on. Still, someone has to point this out.

A good dose of falling off observing ladders would be good for most of us :-)