Amateur astronomer or stargazer? Or something else? Someone on Cloudy Nights forums made the comment that we non-scientists shouldn’t call ourselves ‘amateur astronomers’ because astronomy is a science and astronomers are scientists.

Personally speaking I really, really don’t like the term ‘stargazer’, partly because, to me, the term invokes a vision of someone standing or sitting, staring up, mouth open, at the the sky and not doing much else. I also don’t think that ‘stargazer’ adequately conveys what a lot of amateurs do. Ok, so most of us aren’t making variable star estimates, studying black holes or contributing to a theory but neither are we aimless gawkers either. A ‘stargazer’ to me is someone who goes out stares up for a while, enjoys the view and that’s it. Yes, there’s a bit of the stargazer in all of us, but there’s also something more, even if it doesn’t quite extend to ‘scientist’.

Anyway, since when did professional scientists lay claim to the term ‘astronomer’? Astronomy began as an amateur pursuit, as did all the sciences, and the name has stuck ever since. If you Google  ‘definition of astronomer’ you get this:

Noun: “An expert in or student of astronomy”

I wouldn’t claim to be an expert but, as someone who reads about astronomy, I think I could call myself a ‘student’ of the subject and, as I am not paid for it, an amateur. Therefore I think we are entitled to claim to being ‘amateur astronomers’.   That said, I generally just call myself a ‘deep sky observer’, which suits what I do, very nicely, as I don’t tend to observe the Moon or planets.

My friend, and fellow amateur astronomer, Steph, put it this way:

I’m with you, we’re in that middle state between those who do little but look up, and those who are scientific astronomers. We’re serious enough about what we do to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on our equipment, and hundreds and thousands of hours of time using it. I think we’ve earned the right to use ‘amateur astronomer’.” Spot on and well said.

On a related note – and in the same CN thread – the same guy who told us that we shouldn’t call ourselves ‘amateur astronomers’ also derided those of us who enjoy doing observing lists and getting pins as being boy scout/girl guide-ish. Excuse me? Is it really anyone’s business why we observe? And if we get a certificate and/or a pin for it, so what? Some of the best observers in the world have done these club observing programs and earned pins and I am sure they wouldn’t be happy at being accused of being overgrown boy scouts or girl guides. Not only that, I don’t like having my interests and activities devalued and sneered at by somebody who seems to think they are above such things, even if they may be trolling. It doesn’t matter why you do astronomy, as long as you do it.