"Amateur" geologist finds a South American crater

By Phil Plait | March 16, 2010 2:30 pm

This is very cool: a guy got a grant to comb through satellite imagery to look for terrestrial craters, and found one hidden in plain sight! The Planetary Society has all the details. The man who found it studied geology in college, but is now a systems analyst!

This is a perfect example of citizen science. There’s too much real estate — on Earth and in the sky — for what we normally think of as geologists and astronomers to examine carefully. And this shows there’s plenty of room for "amateurs" to help out… and that word always makes me laugh. I know a lot of amateur astronomers who know far more than I do about pointing a telescope. You’ll almost always find that at their borders, most definitions are pretty fuzzy.

Tip o’ the Whipple shield to David Kessler.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff
MORE ABOUT: craters

Comments (24)

  1. Katharine

    Ah, but finding isn’t everything.

    You also need data.

  2. Ld Elon

    They should be called pre-professional, wtf!

  3. Ah, yes, gone are the days of the amateur experimentalist. The sciences now seem to be transcending cheap experimentation. It used to be that working at the frontiers of physics involved a telescope, what amounts to a few toys, and the ability to invent calculus. Now you need a particle accelerator that straddles the border between two countries.

    Observation is where it’s at for the non-professional (whatever that means). Still, I love stories like this that confirm for me that what unites scientists isn’t a kind of fancy paper, but a method. A kid with a magnifying glass could easily have done more science (as a fraction of time spent on this earth) than a rocket engineer with four PhDs over his or her career.

    (Not knocking engineers BTW)

  4. Phil, this is a great story. I read it on the Planetary Science blog over the weekend, thanks to you linking to them frequently. 99.999999 percent of all scientists in history have been amateur “citizen” scientists. Astronomy is one of the few, if only, hard sciences in which professionals actively encourage non-professional input at the research level. One measure of a good professional scientist is the extent to which they encourage and help people at a “lower level” of knowledge in a subject to continue their growth, and provide them, to the extent their time allows, with tools and references to help them advance. Galaxy Zoo is also a good example.

  5. As an unemployed geologist who’s done this very thing for fun, I’d like to get a taste of this grant money.

  6. jest

    I studied geology in college as well… actually my interest in both astronomy and geology were very well fostered by my grade 5 science teacher, and it carried through all the way through school. I never did go far in college with it, but geology (and astronomy) have always been passions of mine. It has enabled a LOT of people the freedom to ask me questions. Heck, I’ve even managed to clear things up for a couple Christian friends of mine who couldn’t initially grasp the concept when I showed them an ammonite sticking out of a rock face where we were camping. They were absolutely enthralled by my simple explanation.

    I wonder if there’s room out there for The Bad Geologist? LOL.

  7. A number of anti-reality type folks love to criticize the scientific community for being opaque and exclusionary, for saying that only the work of established scientists using established tools counts. This, such people, argue, makes scientists suspect, as if defacto members of a kabal.

    These kind of stories are the perfect counter to that spurious line of argument, showing that valid discoveries can be made by anyone with sufficient enthusiasm.

  8. Cain

    That was an exceptionally well written article by Amir Alexander. If only all science writing could be half as good…

  9. jolly

    Remember the root of the word, amateur, ‘to love’. I hope to remain an amateur in everything I do.

  10. Allan

    @jolly beat me to it. Don’t be so down on the word “amateur.” It seems to be right up there with “theory” for having a real meaning, and then an incorrect colloquial meaning.

  11. Mike

    The word “amateur” has become twisted in our time, when it’s viewed as meaning something inferior to a “professional”. Originally amateur just means someone who doesn’t do a thing for a living, but rather for the love of doing it (like jolly there commented on the roots). And there’s nothing inherent there that would say someone who has a passion for doing something would be less skilled in it than someone who has a job doing it.

  12. Pustle

    If Ultraholland is looking for easy cash, a Nobel prize is the answer, assuming that you don’t mind the current ridicule for receiving the recognition from this worthless committee. If it wasn’t for the cash incentive, I wonder how many of the recepients would actually bother to show for the award? Oh well! Money is money, even if you have to take it from morons. I wonder if Alexander Nobel wishes he had used his money to better end now? It would have saved his good name.

  13. Spanish_guy

    I had always a suspect of this point I saw years ago in Google Earth, there is a small depression on the terrain, under the dunes, aligned with other 2 known craters…


    I did just for fun years ago, I wrote about that in a web, but now this stuff is forgotten… but I am still curious. I know that perhaps that’s not a crater…

    The other two known craters:


  14. MadScientist

    “Amateur” has always meant “doesn’t do this as their profession”; I have no idea why people think it means “not any good”. You could always try to change it to “Astronomy Enthusiast” but I doubt that would be popular because it’s missing the “Astronomer” part.

  15. Michel

    Amateur comes from the French language and means “lover of”, from Old French and ultimately
    from Latin amatorem nom. amator, “lover”

    So better be an amateur than a bored pro.

  16. Craig

    One of the things I respect most about astronomers is that they seem to be quite willing to talk with and examine the results from amateurs. Those in other sciences (even in economics, my science) are much more reluctant to do so.

  17. When I took Intro to Astronomy at the local community college, the man who taught the class was an amateur astronomer. His lack of an advanced degree eventually got him canned.

    Guy knew his stuff.

  18. Neil Haggath

    As a couple of others have correctly said, the word “amateur” comes from the Latin for “to love”. So its correct meaning is someone who does something for the love of it, as opposed to doing it as a profession.
    There are many, many amateur astronomers whose work could be considered “professional” in all but name.

  19. Mike from Tribeca

    “I’ll always be grateful to the public of intelligent amateurs.” — Paul Cezanne

  20. Pi-needles

    Aren’t the Olympic athletes meant to be “amateurs” – or, at least, weren’t they originally?

    Great discovery, well done to the guy. :-)

  21. Calli Arcale

    FYI, the old (correct) meaning of amateur does persist. As Pi-needles points out, Olympic athletes were expected to be amateurs, not professionals. This rule has been pretty much obliterated since then, but there are still plenty of sporting events where one’s amateur status is important — and a lot of amateurs will zealously guard their amateur status so they can continue to compete at that level. Many regard amateur athletics as more pure than professional athletics, though obviously this can be argued both ways. And is. Professionals will often, for obvious reasons, argue that if you’re really good, you’d be able to make a living at it. And it’s probably this that has led to the popular connotation of “amateur” as inferior to professional. After all, one is an amateur before one is a professional, right? Well, yes, but that’s only because most of the time, once you’ve become a professional you can’t go back. Having accepted money, you are no longer classed as an amateur.

    So amateurs are people without enough dedication/skill to make a living at it, and professionals are sell-outs. ūüėõ

  22. Chris A.

    I suspect much of the negative connotation associated with “amateur” comes from the decidedly negative connotation of the related adjective “amateurish.”

  23. Michel

    That¬īs also why amatuer pron is so sought after.

  24. Captn Tommy

    This is very interesting. I am in the Engineering profession and as I am sure “Bad Astrom*r” would recognize there are many “Pros” in all fields, who ruin the fun for the rest of us “Lovers”.

    I think Dr.Suess said it best In his book “On Beyond Zebra” to paraphase (since its been years and the book is packed away) “Oh the wonders you’ll see when you go beond Zee.”



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