Rainy Day Science Perusing The Professional Literature

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Any amateur astronomer who is pursuing research activities will want to gain a bit of exposure to the professional studies that are being done in your area of interest. You will find it quite valuable to see the types of data that the professionals are using, the ways in which they display their results, and the conclusions that they draw from the data. There are two fine resources available to help you in this regard: the internet, and the library.

On the internet, the NASA Astrophysics Data System, located at http:// adswww.harvard.edu/index.html, is a wide-ranging, searchable archive of most of the astronomically-oriented literature. This is a handy tool if you're searching for published papers about a specific topic. If you're reporting an asteroid lightcurve, for example, a search of the ADS will identify virtually all published data on that asteroid. If you're curious about a particular star or a specific phenomenon (e.g., gamma-ray bursts), the ADS will bring to your attention the literature on that topic.

There is a pitfall in the ADS, however, when it comes to recent references (within the last few years): while it can provide abstracts of current articles, the full text of current articles is available only by paying a fee to the publishers.

In order to avoid copy charges, and to have a more leisurely opportunity to scan the latest goings-on in astronomical research, your best resource is the local college or university library. I try to spend an afternoon haunting the current periodicals in the science library at the nearby university, about once a month. I don't read all of the articles in the major journals—in fact, I barely read one article per journal per month. My method is quite random: I pick the current issue of, say, Icarus, and I scan down the table of contents. If an article sounds interesting to me (e.g., it relates to asteroid photometry or meteors), then I read the abstract. If I don't understand the abstract (or in some cases, I don't understand the title), then I move on. If I can follow most of what is written in the abstract, then I'll read the article. Often, I have no idea what I'll do with what I've read, but occasionally I run across a real gem (such as that happy afternoon when I found M. Kaasalainen's original results from his inversion of asteroid lightcurves to determine the 3-D shapes of the asteroids).

It is fascinating to compare "professional" data with similar data gathered by amateurs. The professional often has to make do with a very sparse data set, whereas the amateur can make profligate use of his telescope time, gathering dense, complete, overlapping data sets. It also isn't unusual for the amateur's data to display features that were indiscernible, or difficult to confirm, in the professional's data.

What journals should you browse through? The following list is far from exhaustive, and some journals may not be available at your local university library. See what's available, spend a few days skimming over them, and after a while you'll have a good feel for the journals that are most likely to carry articles that are aligned with your interests.

The two most prestigious general science journals are Nature (Nature Publishing Group) and Science (the Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science). Both are weekly publications, and both endeavor to present the most significant research results across all of the sciences. In any given issue, you are likely to find only one or two astronomical papers, but those are likely to be very heavy-hitting news. For example, the first evidence for gravitational lensing was reported in Nature [15], and the first detection of a brown dwarf was reported in Science [16]. It is a worthy use of time, and a very educational practice, to at least skim through both of these journals on a regular basis.

One of the ways that scientific journals are ranked is the "impact factor'' of their articles. This is roughly defined as "the average number of times that articles published in this journal are referenced by subsequent articles published anywhere in the scientific literature.'' The theory is that the most significant results will be frequently referenced by later researchers. Not everyone is happy with the use of impact factors as a way of judging the significance of scientific results, but they do give at least a rough guide to the relative prestige of the journals. (The most prestigious journals are likely to be the most widely-read, and therefore the most frequently referenced.) Within the astronomical universe, the three highest impact journals are The Astro-physical Journal (including ApJ Letters and ApJ Supplement Series, published by the University of Chicago Press for the American Astronomical Society), The Astronomical Journal (published by the American Astronomical Society) and the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (published by Blackwell Publishing for the Royal Astronomical Society). These are almost certainly available in your local university library.

Despite the prestige of the "high-impact" journals, the vast majority of really important astronomical research results are published in journals that have smaller circulation, and/or more focused audience. Journals that are of particular interest to the amateur researcher, because they are likely to include articles related to the projects described in this book, include:

• Planetary and Space Science (Elsevier).

• Earth Moon and Planets (Springer).

• Icarus—International journal of solar system studies (American Astronomical Society).

• Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (published by the University of Chicago Press for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific).

Astronomy & Astrophysics Supplement Series (EDP Sciences).

• The Minor Planet Bulletin (Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers).

• Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).

• Journal of the British Astronomical Association (BAA).

• Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC).

• Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand (RANZ).

• Journal of Double Star Observations (University of South Alabama).

• Meteoritics and Planetary Science (Meteoritical Society).

• The Observatory.

• WGN—The Journal of the International Meteor Organization (IMO).

Your local college or university library may not carry all of them, but you will probably find a goodly number in the "current periodicals" room. Spend some rainy afternoons with them!

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