Investing in our Community

by Jeno Sokoloski, President, The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)

Recently, I saw a woman wearing a T-shirt that read, “Stand back! I'm going to try SCIENCE”, and showed a stick figure waving a bubbling beaker in one hand and a calculator in the other. I love this T-shirt because it plays with the notion that science is something that restrained professionals do far away, at a safe distance, in their pristine labs and ivory towers. I believe that it benefits society to have citizens that understand, embrace, and have direct access to scientific discovery. In fact, that is part of why I support the AAVSO. In this column --- which is an unabashed fund-raising appeal --- I list some reasons why you might also want to support, or to increase your support of, the AAVSO.

Like me, those who invest in the AAVSO are advocates for science. In my experience, most people like astronomy. How many times, after answering the question about what I do for a living (astronomy), have I heard the responses, “Wow, cool,” and then, “When I was young, I wanted to be an astronomer/scientist”? Because I am part of the AAVSO, I can explain that one doesn't need to spend years in graduate school to become an astronomer. Variations in the brightness of stars are crucial diagnostics of fundamental physics in the universe. So, observing variable stars enables anyone to make important contributions to cutting edge astronomical research. AAVSO 2nd Vice President Roger Kolman describes the scientific significance of amateur variable-star observations this way:

“Think of the HR diagram as a static snapshot that becomes dynamic as our observations are contributed. We have seen stars change from long period variables to semi-regulars in the period of decades. We have seen the evolution of cataclysmic variables from one class to another as mass transfer occurs --- the same for eclipsing variables. This is a remarkable achievement, and the AAVSO has done it!”

Emphasizing the scientific value of such observations, AAVSO Vice President Kris Larsen explains that, “Giving to the AAVSO is consistent with my values because I strongly feel that the pro-am collaboration in astronomy makes the field stronger.”

In addition, people who support the AAVSO typically prize education and the sharing of knowledge. One need look no further than the mentor program, capably headed by past councilor Donn Starkey, as well as the many active forums, to see that we are a fellowship of natural teachers and life-long learners. The time given by our devoted volunteers is a major component of what makes the AAVSO strong. Financial donations, however, help staff provide structure and continuity for these wonderful volunteer efforts. They also allow staff to organize more formal educational materials such as observing manuals and CHOICE courses. In the words of past councilor Arlo Landolt, financial support of the AAVSO “will ensure that other observers have opportunities to enjoy the glory of the night sky as we have been able to enjoy.”

Moreover, an advantage of training and encouragement from the AAVSO is that it is there when you need it, in a variety of forms. The contrast with traditional classroom education can be particularly important for young people. At the recent membership meeting in Muncie, Indiana, long-time AAVSO member Ronald Kaitchuck relayed his own story:

 “When I was in high school my teachers considered me to be a mediocre student at best. They kept chiding me for being an ‘underachiever’. But what my teachers didn’t know was that on the weekends and evenings I was doing something exciting. I was doing actual science.

 “Like many children I got excited about astronomy at an early age. By the time I was in middle school I had made my own telescopes. In high school I learned of an organization called the AAVSO. I quickly joined and started making visual variable star observations from my backyard on the west side of Chicago. Thanks to a book by Frank Bradshaw Wood and a photometry manual circulated by the AAVSO, I built a photoelectric photometer and a telescope designed to carry it. I was learning machine-shop skills, electronics, optics and the science of observational astronomy.

“I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I had joined an elite group. A very important driver for me was the existence of an organization that valued what I was doing as real science and wanted my observations. In this way, the AAVSO was an inspiration and a cheerleader for a high-school boy in Chicago.

“The AAVSO does much more than collect data. By its very existence it inspires people of all ages to reach higher and to be stellar over-achievers.”

AAVSO Director Stella Kafka plans to expand efforts to bring students into the AAVSO community. If you give to the AAVSO, you are a supporter of hands-on, life-long education outside of the classroom.

In a broad sense, the AAVSO is about science. At a more personal level, its goal is to foster a community that shares a love of the night sky, in all its beauty and vastness. For example, when discussing what the AAVSO means to him, Roger Kolman expounds, “For many of us, it has been submitting data to the AID and providing a database for future astronomers analyzing the evolution of stars. For others, it has been the friendships developed over many years or those under development.” When I asked Kris Larsen why she thought the AAVSO makes the world a better place, she emphasized the varied and global nature of our community. She also made the direct connection to her plan to remember the AAVSO in her will “to honor my support of the AAVSO and its people.”

As I discussed in my column in the 2014 October AAVSO Newsletter, the reason that AAVSO needs your donations is that earnings from the endowment typically cover only half of our annual operating costs. Dues cover only about 6%. Staff at headquarters often apply for grants to pay some of the remaining costs, but grants are getting harder to obtain, and they usually involve new projects that take staff time. To continue our current level of services, we therefore rely on supporters like you. Although many of our tools, such as VSX, VPHOT, and AAVSONet, were generously provided by volunteers, maintaining these tools – and continuing all of the fabulous services that staff at headquarters deliver (such as finding charts, bulletins, the JAAVSO) – costs money. Ways that you can help include volunteering, opting for sustaining dues, sponsorship of dues for members from developing countries, end-of-year giving, contributing to the annual campaign, donation of equipment, planned giving (bequests), or establishing a named fund to increase the endowment.

To sum up, just as donors on Kickstarter enjoy becoming patrons of the arts, donors to the AAVSO make the conscious decision to become patrons of citizen science and access to the night sky. According to past AAVSO Treasurer Gary Billings, no other amateur astronomy organizations “have quite the same mix of breadth of observing, permanent and freely accessible data, large number of participating professional astronomers, and funding (this is your part!) for the infrastructure (website, database, meetings) to make it all work.” And from the ever-eloquent past councilor Bob Stine, “Though we variable star enthusiasts are indeed a miniscule percentage of the population, I believe that humankind depends on us to be the developers and keepers/safeguards of the knowledge concerning variable stars, because variable stars are a portal through which a wider and deeper understanding of our beautiful and amazing universe is gained.” I hope that by supporting the AAVSO financially, you will be proud of your important contribution to this endeavor.

Stand back! We're all going to try SCIENCE.