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Advancing Variable Star Astronomy: Interview

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The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) celebrates its centenary this year, having received the 20-millionth variable star magnitude observation to its international database this February. To celebrate the association’s anniversary Thomas Williams (top) – a former president of the AAVSO – and Michael Saladyga (bottom) have chronicled its history in their new book Advancing Variable Star Astronomy. Here they talk to us about the AAVSO’s contributions to science.

What was the most interesting discovery you made whilst researching the history of the AAVSO?
Williams (right): There were so many interesting surprises in nearly ten years of research that it would be hard to recall, let alone prioritize, which of those surprises were the ‘most’ interesting. One that stands out for me is the discovery, in the Campbell correspondence in the AAVSO archives, that Lewis Judson Boss, who eventually headed the AAVSO’s photoelectric photometry (PEP) committee for many years, had actually been involved in that work as early as 1919. AAVSO did not formalize a PEP committee for over thirty years after that. Another surprise, discovered in the Harvard University Archives, was the extent to which Harlow Shapley, as director of the Harvard College Observatory, had relied on the presence of the AAVSO at the observatory in securing funding from the Rockefeller Foundation for his major expansion of the observatory and its programs in the 1930s. Yet another interesting find came when we learned of the very modest circumstances in which Margaret Mayall had been born and raised. This was really crystallized for me when I received a picture provided from the archives in the Delaware county in which Mayall was born. In that picture it was easy to see just how isolated her father’s country store was beside a railroad track but otherwise surrounded by farm fields. Obviously, there were many other such moments in our research.

Saladyga (left): I was always being surprised by how careful Margaret Mayall was to preserve as much correspondence and documents as she could in the AAVSO's files, especially material pertaining to the events of 1953-1954. Many times I found that what appeared to be a trivial memo or seemingly insignificant sentence in a letter – easily dismissed or overlooked – would turn out to be a very useful piece of the puzzle when trying to recreate the chronology of events, or the relationship between individuals. A good example of this is the little note Harlow Shapley wrote to Mayall on the eve of her meeting with Harvard's Dean McGeorge Bundy, telling her how to emphasize her own accomplishments. Mayall had saved this note together with the materials related to that meeting, during which she made her case for the AAVSO, not for herself.

Whereas the BAA Variable Star Section is merely one section of a general astronomy group, the AAVSO is (almost) exclusively devoted to variable stars. How has this difference been an advantage/disadvantage for the AAVSO?
Williams: I would count it as a distinct advantage. In fact, it is not hard to see the extent to which the periodic efforts to involve AAVSO in other areas of amateur astronomy distracted the attention of the AAVSO leadership from variable star astronomy and thereby diluted the all-critical credibility of the association in the scientific community. Because the AAVSO observers have since proven so dedicated and reliable, those temptations continue to be raised, but now that the association has an established reputation, those temptations tend to come as requests from professional astronomers who want the support of dedicated and skilled amateur observers, though not always for established fields of inquiry in variable star astronomy.

Saladyga: I agree that it has been a distinct advantage for the AAVSO to center itself on its primary mission of obtaining variable star observations. History has shown that involvement in areas beyond the primary mission saps the energy and time of everyone: the observers, leadership, and Headquarters staff.

Many observing groups tend to be almost exclusively male, whereas women have played very prominent roles in the development of the AAVSO. Why has the AAVSO been different and are there any lessons for other groups to learn?
Williams: This is such an interesting question that it deserves a lot more consideration and discussion than we can devote to it here. Any answer must start with the observation that women had been establishing a presence in the sciences for many decades in the 19th century before the AAVSO was founded in 1911. However, astronomy was one of the more difficult sciences in which women attempted to establish a foothold. That is largely because of gender based prejudices related to the proper place of women in the home, concern for the health and safety of women at night and especially in a dark observatory dome with men, and concerns about women’s natural abilities to do the critical thinking and understand the mathematical and physical foundations on which astronomy was based. All of these prejudices had eventually to be overcome and eventually were, but it was a torturous process.

At Harvard College Observatory, in contrast to most other astronomical institutions in the nineteenth century, the work involved in research programs was subdivided by Director Edward Charles Pickering in such a way as to make it possible to rely on men for work in the observatory domes at night, and to use women for day-time photographic plate reductions, spectral classifications, and other data intensive work that was clearly a desk activity. Pickering’s factory style of astronomical data production lent itself to the employment of women, especially since they could also be counted upon to work for less money than men in the same task. A major part of the earliest work on discovery of variable stars photographically, therefore, came about at Harvard because of the work of these women, who were examining photographic plates of the sky as part of their daily routine work, and noticed exceptions that turned out to be variable stars. Thus women were a part of variable star astronomy well before the founding of the AAVSO.

Thus, when AAVSO first developed its close relationship with Harvard, about five or six years after the association was founded, women were already a part of variable star astronomy. In fact, when the AAVSO incorporated in 1918, some of the original incorporators who signed certificates needed by the State of Massachusetts were HCO women astronomers. It was therefore quite natural that feminine involvement would continue into the AAVSO and its variable star activities. Also important in all this has been the active support provided to William Tyler Olcott by his wife Clara Olcott, a pattern that has been emulated by AAVSO wives ever since.

It might also be appropriate to interject here, the observation that British women had been increasing their presence in astronomical activities as amateurs as well as spousal helpers for astronomer husbands during the late 19th century as well. The Liverpool Astronomical Society, and later the first sections of the British Astronomical Association, enjoyed the beneficial contributions of women interested in participating in the science of astronomy so Harvard was not completely unique in that regard.

Saladyga: I can only add to Tom's comment that, at the time William Tyler Olcott was organizing observers for his AAVSO, he recognized the real scientific talent in the HCO corps of observers he could draw from; and he did not hesitate to write to Prof. Caroline Furness at Vassar, Prof. Anne Young at Mt. Holyoke College, Helen Swartz, a former Furness student, and Prof. Harriet Bigelow of Smith College, to secure their involvement in the AAVSO. What is worth noting is that these four women proved to be among the most dedicated and supportive of all the AAVSO's members over the first 25 years; their belief in the mission of the AAVSO was not just based on enthusiasm, it was based on their knowledge of the scientific importance of gathering variable star observations for future analysis. Olcott knew that such qualified members as these would be a key to the success of his organization.

Were there any key questions about the history of the AAVSO that you had to leave unanswered?
Williams and Saladyga: Too many to even begin enumerating! The whole idea of the history of amateur science and the organizations involved in it is a field ripe for historical and sociological research because there are so many interesting questions. Among other things we hope our book achieves, in fact, is to crack open that door and invite more intense scrutiny in an academic sense.

The likes of the AAVSO and the BAA VSS were among some of the first 'citizen science' projects, literally a century before Galaxy Zoo and the rest came along. As a citizen science experiment, conducted over such a long time, what do you think its main success have been, and the secret to its longevity?
Williams and Saladyga: It has always seemed to us that the basic goals of Citizen Science and organizations like the AAVSO and the BAA-VSS are fundamentally different. Galaxy Zoo and other citizen science projects seem more oriented to establishing an understanding of and credibility for the scientific project, broadly speaking, in the minds of a large number of unscientifically inclined but curious individuals in the population at large. The goal of citizen science has seemed to be making science more palatable or acceptable among the population and to educate them about some of the difficulties involved. Citizen science takes advantage of opportunities to use simple, easily performed experiments in which large numbers of individuals can dabble in science and thereby develop some feeling for what scientists do and the object of their work. Let there be no mistake that in our view this is an extremely important undertaking. No one should minimize the danger that exists to society in general and specifically to the sciences in the rampant scientific illiteracy of today’s populace.

In contrast, though, the goal of the AAVSO and its members has always been to do science, not just to demonstrate how science is done as a matter of general interest. Variable star observers actually perform the routine grunt work that is necessary to amass large amounts of data over an extended period of time. The AAVSO works by involving relatively few individuals willing to devote themselves to that labor, mainly as an avocation, and providing a vehicle whereby the fruits of that labor can be collated into an archive that will, in some unforeseen future, prove valuable to the vocational practitioners of the science in a broader sense.

Most AAVSO observers would agree that being out under the stars on a clear moonless night and exploring those skies with their naked eyes, binoculars or telescopes fulfills a deeply felt spiritual need. Most also would agree that the fact that they are also involved in creating scientific data that they understand will someday be useful and help achieve greater understanding of stellar evolution and the life cycle of stars is very rewarding. In recent times, those long standing motivations have been supplemented by involving AAVSO observers in the day to day work of the astronomical community by providing real-time monitoring of stars in support of expensive orbiting observatories and giant land based telescopes so that those resources can be most efficiently utilized. It is very rewarding to know that your observation and alert to the system controllers may have been the one that redirected a whole scientific enterprise towards the achievement of some scientific objective, perhaps an important scientific discovery, that had to wait until nature provided the opportunity.

So that is why we see the AAVSO (or BAA-VSS) and citizen science as distinctly different but complimentary projects, both essential in the long run, and both intensely demanding and at the same time rewarding for those who have the patience to pursue them. We use the term patience advisedly; both require large reserves of patience but the two skill sets are not necessarily even congruent let alone overlapping.

Furthermore, we hope in doing so, we have also made clear what the enduring attraction of the work of associations like the AAVSO and BAA-VSS are to some people, and how those individuals come to feel a deep satisfaction in the work that can be provided in too few other ways in today’s complex society. It is those satisfactions, the knowledge that the cause of science has been advanced through one’s own efforts, coupled with the fellowship of working with kindred spirits towards those common goals, that account for the longevity of these organizations.