It's Time to Say Goodbye
uriously — or perhaps not — I'm paying only half-attention as 1 begin to write this, my last editorial. My concentration has been shangliaied by a mom and three baby skunks, who have just wandered into our backyard to gobble fugitive birdseed. Outside my study window the troupe pirouettes and sways, like tightly packed anemones in a rocking sea, to a choreography written by the gloaming. C00I+!
Thirty-eight years have sublimated since I joined ST, 20 since 1 took the helm. I've often wondered how anyone could be so lucky as to have a job loaded with everyday magic, everyday surprises — one you willingly take home nightly and on weekends. I've watched the magazine evolve from about 60 black-and-white pages born on manual typewriters and set in hot metal to 170 or so in color delivered to the press electronically. Our editorial staff has tripled. Our art-and-design department has leapt from a part-timer to seven. Our paid circulation has quadrupled. It s been a fabulous ride!
Astronomical journalism has flourished over the past four decades, as has science writing generally. As a cub, I was among a handful (at best) of reporters at the biannual meetings of the American Astronomical Society. Our care and feeding was crummy: no pressroom, no designated place to do interviews, and few, if any, press releases. On the upside, the society then had only about a thousand members (a sixth its present size), so you got to meet the major players pretty quickly.
In the '60s a lone reporter could pretty easily cover all the bases. Today, at a big meeting, two or more scribes are stretched to take in everything during a 16-hour day. Amazingly, we didn't get professional treatment until 1985, when the AAS's current press officer, Steve Maran, took over. Now it's not unusual for a hundred or more media types to show up.
Of course, the work of summarizing new discoveries and putting them into context hasn't gone away. In fact, it's become much more challenging due to the increasing complexity of our science and the ever-greater entwining of its subdisciplines. And nowadays we're blitzed with press releases that are often loaded with self-serving spins and hype, to create a high profile for the scientists at the funding trough. Even more sinister are ones with gross inaccuracies or ones that ignore history. Good science reporting ain't easy!
It was also (usually) great fun to help grow Sky Publishing from a mom-and-pop shop run out of a cookie jar into a real business, albeit a microscopic one in a megaenterprise world. The good news is that we remain privately owned and absolutely free to do what we believe works best for the astronomical community, amateurs and professionals alike. I've never been told I couldn't add pages or do something special because it would depress the next quarter's profits.
During my tenure I've been privileged to watch, and be continually amazed, as the entire electromagnetic spectrum became a book to read. And now we're moving on to perhaps the most exciting spectrum of all, that imprinted by gravitational waves upon space-time itself
Much more riveting, at least for me, than even the most eye-catching Hubble images or those from Chandra or TRACE has been the awesome advance of cosmology — the real astronomy, the omega. It blossomed from an almost fantasy-world backwater into a robust, almost experimental science.
Amateur astronomers playing at least Triple A ball in research were almost unknown in the '60s. Today they are a rapidly growing force, thanks to burgeoning, affordable technology. Amateurs are showing that they can be important players on the research stage. In many ways — from planetary imaging, to astrometry of comets and asteroids, to millimagnitude photometry of variable stars — they have already reached the cutting edge.
We're at a historic junction on this road. Most crucial is sustained, dynamic leadership; then come organization, intradisci-plinary connections, proselytizing, and innovative ideas. With the new and wonderfully positive support from professionals worldwide, this is an opportunity not to be missed! New challenges multiply daily, thanks to the need for following up myriad discoveries being made by many ground- and space-based sky surveys as well as the ever-easier ability to link kindred spirits worldwide for 'round-the-clock monitoring.
Amateurs should also begin planning for their exploitation of virtual observatories. You haven't heard much about these yet, but their mind-bogglingly huge and largely unplumbed databases are lurking just around the corner. If they're set up right, amateurs will be able to mine them off the Internet with PCs just as readily as pros do with workstations.
I also foresee the dramatic proliferation of Internet-accessi-ble, pay-per-view robotic telescopes. At the '/2-meler class and up, such facilities make perfect economic sense for both user and provider, especially when folks in one hemisphere can play in the other without leaving their living rooms!
It's very encouraging to watch a growing number of amateurs partner with professionals and teachers to carry the message of astronomy to schoolchildren. (My dad is still going to schools to tell kids about the wonderful world of rocks.) Such outreach, as through the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's Project ASTRO, can't fail to inspire learning excellence and spark scientific careers. Regardless, any freshet that promotes critical thinking and knowledge about how science works is a huge plus. We must have an informed aud engaged public if wc desire continuing support for discovering who we are and how we came to be.
In the early '40s Charlie Federer, the founding editor of Sky
10 December 2000 j Sky & Telescope