Date: November 11, 2009

Title: An Amateur Goes Pro. Almost


Podcaster: Michael Koppelman from Slacker Astronomy

Organization: Slacker Astronomy

Description: Michael from Slacker Astronomy discusses his journey from his first 4-inch telescope to working on data from HST, with stops at calculus and photometry along the way.

Bio: Slacker Astronomy is a light-hearted podcast that wanders the astronomical road-less-traveled. Visit us at

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is brought to you in thanks to all those who have sacrificed for our freedoms. The freedom to learn is something to be enjoyed every day.


Hello and welcome to the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast. This is Michael from Slacker Astronomy. Today I want to tell a little bit about my own story in astronomy and how I went from sort of a four and one-half inch telescope to using the Hubble Space Telescope and the very fun process in-between.

Let me start by saying my accomplishments in astronomy are meager. I am no great astronomer or no great researcher. My story is no more special than thousands of other stories out there of people who make this transition of being interested in astronomy to participating in astronomy. I don’t think my story is particularly special but hopefully it will get the wheels turning anyway for people who are thinking about this same path.

I started my interest in astronomy like a lot of people by observing. I literally had a four and one-half inch reflector telescope. I dragged that thing all over the place. I went out every clear night and I looked at everything I possibly could through that thing. I really enjoyed getting to know the sky and looking into the eyepiece. I know most of you can relate to that feeling.

I started to get interested in photography and what I liked about astrophotography is that it reveals the hidden. If you take a normal camera and point it at Sagittarius and take a ten second picture, you’ll see things you can’t see with the naked eye. If you take a 60-second picture or a five minute picture, you can see amazing things even on the scale of the naked eye.

With a telescope as you’ve seen a million times on the internet you can take fabulous pictures of objects literally from your backyard. I enjoy taking pictures and revealing this sort of hidden nature of astronomy. One of these pictures, and literally it was one of the first ones I took in my back yard of Cygnus, I caught the North America nebula and it was on a very short exposure. It was maybe fifteen seconds or something, with a normal camera mounted on a tripod.

So, no telescope at all and it was a light-polluted sky and of course not a great picture. I could see the North America nebula on it. As I played with the contrast of the image I realized what I had captured there was data. This was data about how bright things were distributed across the frame.

Later I got into digital imaging. I was actually using film initially. I got into digital imaging and realized I could do photometry with the same camera I was taking pretty pictures with. Photometry is measuring the brightness of astronomical objects especially over time.

I looked into the AAVSO the American Association of Variable Star Observers and I made my first measurements of variable stars with a CCD camera. I was instantly hooked. I loved it. The process of acquiring data with a CCD camera is not a single step process. You don’t just take a picture. You can also calibrate the images which makes them more precise and accurate or both or whatever.

When you make the transition from imaging objects to doing photometry of objects you start learning about the scientific process. You start participating in it. You start using formulas even though you’re not doing them by hand or yourself even. You’re doing calculations on images and you’re doing science.

It’s a very fun thing for someone who has never really participated in science before, which was me at the time. I read voraciously about astronomy and I read voraciously about photometry and doing science with small telescopes. This led me to scratch my head about calculus. If you read very much about astronomy eventually you stumble upon calculus differentials and integrals.

I didn’t know what calculus was. I don’t blame you for those people out there who don’t know what calculus is. It is initially a hard thing to explain. I didn’t know what calculus was and I was curious. How can math be used in astronomy? How does math describe stars?

I decided I needed to learn calculus and I bought a calculus book. I got about ten pages in and realized it’s not something I could teach myself. Maybe smarter people than I can but I couldn’t. I decided to enroll in some classes at the University of Minnesota. I began taking calculus primarily and some physics classes.

My goal was eventually to take astronomy courses. As I got more into doing photometry and science on my own, and more into studying science at school, calculus and physics, I began to long to do more research. I thought who better to bug about doing research than the people at my school, the University of Minnesota.

So, one night I went to the University of Minnesota astronomy webpage and looked at all the faculty and what they were studying. I copied and pasted their e-mail addresses into an e-mail message. I didn’t e-mail them all. I picked a few people that I thought would be interesting to work with or might find my skills useful and I sent them an e-mail.

I explained I was an amateur, a computer dork. I had used a lot of tools like IRAF, written C code, etc., done my own research, and I wanted to get involved in some research. A few people replied and gave me other ideas [laughter] I should say to be kind.

One person replied and said yes, we’d love to talk to you, come on in. We had a meeting and that began a relationship that’s lasted I think six or seven years now already. It has been very rewarding for me. It’s being involved with a group at the University of Minnesota that studies massive stars, studies Eta Carinae and stellar astrophysics for the most part.

They use data from the Hubble Space Telescope, from the MMT, Gemini, from Keck. In the process of working with this group at the University of Minnesota I literally worked on data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the MMT, from the Keck, from the Gemini as I was just saying. I worked on the spectra. I did some reduction of it, some analysis of it. I was in on discussions where they were doing observing plans on how they would do the observations.

I was a very small part, a very, very small part of the research this group did. Yet it was amazing to be an amateur astronomer who started out looking at galaxies through a four-inch telescope with no idea what calculus was to being involved writing papers about some of the strangest stars in the world using data from the most cutting edge telescopes in the world with, what I consider to be, some of the smartest people in the world.

I’m not a kid – I’m in my forties and the idea of continuing on to get my PhD in astronomy was very compelling. The idea of starting a new career as a professional astronomer was compelling. But alas, at this point of my life I decided that I couldn’t do that. So my interest in astronomy continues to be amateur and I’m very happy about that. I love the things I’ve learned in the academic world about astronomy.

I love the things I learn participating in peer-reviewed published astronomy research. It guides my efforts now as an amateur and informs them. I hope to do more work with professionals and never feel limited by my sort of amateur status in terms of the research that I might do or the people I might collaborate with.

Again, I’m one little amateur astronomer who still enjoys the night sky in a very simple sense who at the same time truly appreciates the genius that is modern astronomy research and the wonderful things it has taught us. It’s a very special thing to experience that firsthand. I encourage you to do so. Thank you for listening to this podcast from Slacker Astronomy and from the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast.

This transcript is not an exact match to the audio file. It has been edited for clarity. Transcription and editing by Cindy Leonard.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.

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