Don’t let anyone tell you your “pretty pictures” have no scientific value.

Are you doing science by just looking through a telescope? Many would say yes: You are observing and learning about real phenomena, learning to navigate the night sky, and using equipment that scientists use.

In the early days of astrophotography, the scientific community actually scoffed at those taking images at the telescope, because . . . well, who likes change, right? But that was 150 years ago. The photographic revolution turned the tables to the point where very few professional astronomers use anything but a camera to make their observations today.

Nevertheless, if you've traveled in imaging circles, you've doubtless encountered individuals on a mission to ensure that you do not squander the awesome power of modern technology by making pretty pictures. I walked out of a meeting once after a planetary imager was quite rude to deep-sky imagers, claiming "they weren't doing anything to contribute to real science."

Indeed, when I was getting started in astrophotography, I remember the pressure from my early mentors to engage in this pursuit with all the seriousness it deserved. One of them would use the term “pretty picture people,” stated with all the contempt of someone saying “con-artist.” I still recall how agitated this made me.

Narrowband example
Although these colors are "fake" in the sense that they are not what you would see with your eyes, they are coded to specific wavelengths of atoms giving off light. The image reveals two familiar looking nebulae to be hollows in a vast, dusty pocket filled with gas.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

I’ve long since come to terms with this quarrel, and I have my own take on the situation, which I'll outline below. It’s not unlike the Zen moment when you realize that some people are going to think the world is flat no matter what, and I can’t change their emotional commitment to that idea with additional information.


Everybody's an Expert

While I’m not a scientist, I’ve been an amateur astronomer since I was a child and I’ve written science software for decades. I’ve always tried to maintain a scientific attitude and worldview, which is to say: I believe that science is not a body of knowledge, but rather a way of determining what’s true and what’s not about the physical world.

Let me tell you something about your pursuits as an amateur astronomer. There are two kinds of scientific data: Quantitative and qualitative. I’ve never met a scientist who didn't know the difference, nor understand that both kinds of data have value. I've also met a few amateur astronomers who don’t. They tend to be the ones brow-beating that amateur “science” isn’t meeting their own amateur standards.

False color Moon image
Look at these crazy colors someone used on the Moon! No scientific value at all! It's just ART!
Courtesy of the USGS

To simplify, quantitative data is measured data. Counting the stars in an image and stating "there are 4,328 stars in this image” is a good example of quantitative data. “This is a spiral galaxy,” is an example of qualitative data. It’s a type of galaxy that we recognize and have categorized. While the statement is more subjective, it's still true because that is our convention.

“This is an unusual looking galaxy” would be an important qualitative observation, one that challenges our previous categorization schemes. Such a statement can cause scientific upheaval as much as anything unexpected in the quantitative realm.

The one and only rule about gathering qualitative data is that you can't fake the data. In other words, don't clone in stars to fill up an empty area, don't selectively rotate a galaxy but not its surrounding star field, and don't combine two nebula to make a more creative image.

However, if you assign different colors to particular wavelengths recorded in an image, or apply a non-linear stretch, that's not faking data. Nor is applying noise-reduction or sharpening. In the world of science, data processing is done all the time to uncover subtleties that wouldn't be apparent otherwise.

Galaxy out a Window
Always be forthright about your more creative endeavors. No, this is not a post card from a penal asteroid in the Delta Quadrant.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

If you've followed this simple philosophy and someone claims your image has no scientific value, well that's baloney. What they really mean is it has no scientific value that is of interest to them. It's an arrogant thing to say. If it’s of no interest to you, then does that mean it's not important to anyone? Are you going to let someone like that ruin your day or discourage you from continuing your hobby? I hope not.

Not Just a Pretty Picture

Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say you take some images of your favorite galaxy. You calibrate it, processes it, do all kinds of noise reduction and non-linear stretches galore. What a pretty picture of a galaxy! You post it on social media for your friends and family to see. A JPEG, no less. To add adventure to the story, let’s say your laptop is stolen at a poorly selected overnight hotel, and now you have no raw data. Just a lousy JPEG (sigh . . .)

Super nova in a galaxy
An extra star in an image, even if it has been heavily processed can be an indication that something has changed.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

Nevertheless, your photo is full of important qualitative data. It is a real galaxy. While its brightness has been modified, the structure you’ve enhanced is real enough. For example, it may have four spiral arms — you didn’t remove one of them or add a new one. “This galaxy has four spiral arms” is a piece of scientific data and you’ve captured it and verified it with your “non-linear, heavily-processed, nothing-but-art” photograph.

“Wait,” a friend says. “Hey I know that galaxy, but what’s that bright star right there?” You didn’t clone brush any new stars there . . . The next night your friend images the same galaxy, records the same star, carefully calibrates the data and does some photometry to determine its brightness. Hey! It’s a supernova! Your friend has gathered quantitative scientific data on the supernova by measuring its brightness, based on your qualitative data that there is a star there where there wasn’t one before.

Congratulations, you’ve both done science. And you my friend, have discovered a supernova . . . using a JPEG no less. 

The world is always going to have the kind of people in it who will walk into a 7th grade science fair to tell children that they aren’t contributing anything at all to science. Don’t be that person, and don’t let that person ruin your love of science or astrophotography either. You don't have to be discovering something new to be doing science. Repeatability is a hallmark of the scientific method. So just think of it as repeating the experiment and making sure the results haven't changed!


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August 18, 2020 at 6:15 pm

Great article, Richard! Yes, I have heard a famous astronomer from Mauna Kea use that "pretty picture" term about those of us who do astrophotography in our backyards. Have to say that I was shocked. After having participated in the Citizen CATE solar experiment with the National Solar Observatory in 2017, which was a childhood dream of doing "real data gathering for science" I suppose he thought that not having a 10 meter telescope at my disposal made me of little consequence as we used only 80mm refractors to gather images. The "My telescope is BIGGER than yours therefore I am doing REAL science" is almost bullying! Oh, well, like you said, "I’ve long since come to terms with this quarrel." In fact, it is those "pretty pictures" that have sprouted in people the desire to pursue the science of astronomy and some for a lifetime profession. So there is nothing wrong with "pretty pictures". Thanks again for a great perspective!

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August 24, 2020 at 9:44 am

Ar one time or another all of us astro-photographers will be asked "why did you make it that color? or a similar response. I know I have.

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August 18, 2020 at 6:45 pm

LOL - Speaking of supernovae, Fritz Zwicky had a rant in his book Morphological Astronomy about Edwin Hubble wasting so much 200" telescope time taking "pretty pictures by the trunk load", many of which eventually went into The Hubble Atlas of Galaxies. So this particular put-down has a long history.

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Alain Maury

August 19, 2020 at 12:52 am

Mmmhhh, mixed opinion about all this. The reality is that even amateurs who understand they can do science with their telescopes have a harder and harder time to do it. Long gone are the time of the Bradfield's and Evan's (respectively visual comet hunter and supernova hunter). The large surveys are making it harder and harder to do any useful contribution with a small telescope and a lousy city sky. So people who don't even know they might have something interesting on their hour long exposures have to have a lot of luck to do any useful scientific contribution. Then also "discovering something on an image" is not doing science. Neither is taking the spectra of a comet even though it looks already much more "scientific". It takes quite a lot of time and practice before being able to look at a spectra and say anything useful about it. Where I have seen professionals looking at a supernova spectra and say immediately something like "this is a type II supernova, 2 weeks after explosion", I never saw an amateur doing it. Then, there are like a couple of supernovae of the many hundreds detected each year which are reachable with amateur telescopes and spectrographs. Same for comet spectra, even the pros have problems deciphering all the details in them. There are still a few niches out there, a look at the recent MPEC tells you that amateurs with telescopes larger than 50cm, and 1m better, can follow up most of the recently discovered NEOs which are between magnitude 21 and 22. There are still a few amateurs discovering NEOs, but like a handful each year, compared to a few thousands by the professional surveys. The golden age of amateur science in astronomy is gone.
People selling 8 to 10cm diameter robotic telescopes claiming they can be used for "science" should learn a little bit about astronomy in 2020 before making such invalid publicity claims (or show publications done using observations made with these toys).
A last point, about the so called "citizen science", looks cool, some pros who were unable to program an IA software were able to find slaves to do what they couldn't do. Then again, it's funnier and nerdier to look at galaxies or curves than to spend evenings on netflix. Or is it ?

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August 19, 2020 at 6:46 am

Well, I think you're mistaking "doing science" for "making discoveries." Pretty much everything you do in science class in school is not "making discoveries," but it is still "doing science." Even the act of making a discovery requires someone to replicate whatever work you were doing. Science is "the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment." I don't think anyone could argue that observational astronomy and astrophotography doesn't fall within that definition.

I think you also missed the quantitative vs. qualitative point of the piece. A ton of science is qualitative and is no less worthy of being called science than quantitative science. Most of the time, a qualitative observation is necessary to beget a quantitative one. The most famous of those being the apple falling on Newton's head. So, making an observation of a new "star" where there was none before absolutely qualifies as science.

8 to 10cm telescopes can absolutely be used to do science. You can track the movements of the cloud bands of Jupiter or the dust storms on mars. You can observe the extinction across the galactic disc at varying wavelengths. You can even, if you like, measure the magnitude of the new Starlink satellites with their sunshade, so you can be mad at Elon Musk with data. For that last one, you will even be making a discovery too.

I studied astronomy in school and continue to work with professional astronomers using large telescopes in different parts of the world. Not one of them have ever, or likely would ever, say that observational astronomy or astrophotography is not science.

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Alain Maury

August 20, 2020 at 4:00 am

My main point is that it's getting almost impossible for an amateur to make discoveries, and let alone do useful science.
I guess you don't know what you are talking about when you talk about tracking the movements of the clouds bands of Jupiter with an 8 to 10cm telescope. I tried to look on google to see if I could see images taken with one of these telescopes, and really, you can't do anything with these images except saying there seems to be 2 bands on Jupiter and that Mars is orange (I found for example ). I don't know if you ever tried to measure the magnitude of a trailing object, but it's kind of hard. For now the first problem is to be able to point one such satellite in real time, but soon this will be solved, you'll have a track of these vermins of the sky on most of your images. But anyway, I don't have any problems with the idea, if somebody can show me some publications made with these toys.
Facts :
In 2019 2 NEOs were discovered by amateurs, out of 2433 discovered that year. Look at and tell me if you see the name of an amateur...
There was the case of a Victor Buso from Argentina who caught the explosion of a SN in a galaxy in 2016... But to me that falls in the category of "lots of luck".
Comet outbursts and other events are still sometimes discovered by amateurs.
Some amateurs do observe exoplanets light curves, but compared to the mass of data obtained by professional, it's a very small percentage.
I didn't say it was "impossible" to make any science with amateur telescopes, I said it was getting more difficult, and you really need a lot of luck to be in a situation to see something which hasn't been seen yet with a 2m telescope sifting through terabytes of nightly data.
But it's good to be optimistic.

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August 19, 2020 at 8:20 am

An interesting debate and a question I have often asked myself. While I love to see or create a nice astro picture, the question "so what?" regularly comes to my mind. First, I think there is nothing wrong, at all, at creating pretty pictures. It brings joy to many people and that's a justification in itself.

Doing science is another business. It takes equipment (but not necessarily completely out of amateur reach, depending on the objective), it takes some level of knowledge (possibly the hardest part) and it takes a plan.

As pointed out by Alain, I think that we should also make the difference between "doing science" and "making a discovery". When the Gaia people work on creating their catalog, they are no doubt doing science, while they may not be directly making discoveries. The same applies to amateurs: if you are the first to observe a new SN, you will be contributing to science in a similar, albeit smaller scale, as the Gaia people. You will contribute to a catalog of SN's, not more, not less. And that is quite alright.

Some times ago, I have decided to try to go a bit deeper into a more scientific approach and have done a few projects: I built a wavefront sensor and wrote the code to analyse the data, I have measured the caracteristics of an exoplanet (orbit, size, temperature) from observations I made with a C8, and more recently I measured the ratio of dark to visible matter in the Virgo cluster. While none of these projects has led to any new knowledge for humanity, they have taught me a lot about the practice of science: the rigor of the planning, the testing, the modeling, the data acquisition and its analysis, the ever present problem of noise, etc. It has been a great journey for me and have come to respect even more the scientists who do that on a daily basis. I am planning to do more projects in the future and would definitely encourage anyone to try that way of doing amateur astronomy, at least once.

To conclude, I would like to underscore the need for respect. We are all different, have different means and capabilities and we should respect and value the contributions of everyone to astronomy, however grand or small they might be.

Arnaud Debuchy

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Stub Mandrel

August 20, 2020 at 3:09 am

This discussion is very erudite. The truth is simpler. There are some rather sad people who are simply jealous that amateurs can make such striking images.

As a botanist, are pictures of pretty flowers science? If you are interested in which flowers, where they are and why, or understanding their structure and growth of course it is.

Personally, I find astrophotography a dual challenge: getting the best out of my equipped data; and understanding what I see. The science is that second part, it's in looking at your image with a curious eye.

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Alain Maury

August 20, 2020 at 4:39 am

I don't believe there are people who are "jealous" of amateur photographs of the sky. Most professionals just don't care. The others have a "good for you" type of attitude. Some find them nice or striking eventually, but jealous...
The most "striking" photographs of well known nebulae are taken with professional equipment. I am not even talking about the HST gallery, but look for recent publications on M51 (there is quite a large Ha cloud above the galaxy much further away than what typical amateur "deep" images reveal) or deep images of M31 to understand what striking means. They are mostly ugly (black and white, poorly done mosaics), but going to such depth, that it's really striking.
As far as I am concerned, I find SHO images ugly, even though I understand that for most people it's the only thing they can do from their light polluted skies. Same for images of galaxies where the arms of the galaxy are shown in purple (have you ever seen a purple star ?) and the center deep red. I guess everybody is free to publish what they want, and I am free to find them unrealistic or processed like a pig. But that my choice and I stand by it :). And happily so. 🙂
Your definition of science is yours. There are multiple scientific activities, but mostly science is when you are able to explain something new. First step is to obtain relevant data, second is to explain what you see, if possible in a manner that brings something to our current knowledge. You looking at your image with a curious eye is not science. It's looking at your image with a curious eye. Seeing that such galaxy has spiral arms is not science, it was discovered more than a century ago. Back then it was science. Seeing that this nebula is red because it contains hydrogen has also been discovered a century ago. You understand what you see because people a long time ago discovered that, and you know of it. It's not a discovery (maybe for you), and it's not science. To be science you would need maybe to measure something on your image, and then have a sufficient theoretical background to make something (new) of it.

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August 21, 2020 at 5:29 pm

Mr. Maury, you appear to be an intellectual snob. It is the interest of serious amateurs that gives life to astronomy and allied fields. Remember also that the sciences are funded because non-specialists – i.e., those who are not 'professionals' – allow it. It is often the beauty of 'pretty pictures' and not the science (e.g., chemical make-up of a nebula or the atmosphere of Venus) that interests the public who funds modern scientific study. Don't bite the nand that feeds you.

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August 21, 2020 at 5:43 pm

Or the hand that feeds you.

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August 21, 2020 at 10:59 pm

I read the comments with some bemusement. There is certainly more than one way to do science. Kepler's advancements such as the Laws of Motion benefitted greatly from Tycho Brahe's decades of detailed observations. They are both considered important scientists -- important enough to have sizable Moon craters named after them!

For citizen science, observations are valuable, if systematized and proper records are kept, etc. One area of valid contribution requiring NO equipment is observations of light pollution and its changes over time (see ). In fact a relative of mine did a very similar study for a science fair project, and then won 2nd place in an invitational competition in another state. In his case the "pretty picture" was a color-coded light pollution map of his entire city.

So relax! There's enough different kinds of science for just about everyone!

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August 21, 2020 at 11:12 pm

And I forgot to mention the other example I was thinking of -- the recent enlistment of "citizen scientists" from the public to scrutinize photos of the asteroid Bennu to help locate a safe landing site for NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

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Richard S. Wright Jr.

August 24, 2020 at 12:30 pm

Context is important in any discussion about vocabulary, and I think some have far too narrow a view of what "counts as science" for this context. I was very careful to define science as the "process" by which we examine the physical world. It's how we know and verify what is true and objective about the universe and our place in it. I take this from Carl Sagan's definition and discussions on the topic, but I realize that Sagan also had his critics. To be more clear, in this context when I say "doing science", I mean observing, validating, and discovering. Discovering can be for oneself, OR for the world at large.

A sports analogy may be more illustrative. Some people like to play basketball. Some do it with friends, some do it for school or local leagues, some professionally. Imagine if you will Michael Jordan showing up at a neighborhood park and telling the people there that what they were doing was a joke, and not really basketball. That what they were doing didn't count because there was no trophy or championship at stake. No reporters were there to cover the game and publish the highlights. Their ball was a cheap toy purchased at a department store. No one in the sports community really cared that they existed at all in fact. It would be pretty silly wouldn't it? So... showing up at an astronomy club, gathering, or forum and doing the same thing is also, a bit silly I think.

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August 30, 2020 at 6:31 pm

I am an imager that has been imaging since film and hand guiding in the early '90s.

I have had articles in both S&T and Astronomy and quite a few published images in both magazines as well as elsewhere. I have had none of those in the past 10 years largely because I finally concluded that it is not worth the trouble. As they say about medals in the military: "With that and a few bucks, you can buy a cup of coffee".

What does this have to do with how I feel about this debate, you might ask?

The answer is that I do my hobby because I enjoy it and I enjoy interacting with the others that are in the hobby and with that part of the general public that has an interest. Do I care whether I am published anymore? No. Do I care if others think my hobby is worthwhile? No. Do I worry that my hobby is not worthwhile because it is not hard science? No.

It is a hobby. I enjoy it. It is fulfilling to master the hobby at ever greater levels due to increasingly better tech and my own hopefully improving skills. It is fun to interact with others within and without the hobby. In that it is no different than any other hobby, especially those involving taking images of terrestrial subjects.

I admire and am interested in the science generated by the professionals but do not care once whit about their opinion of my hobby and even less about those of other amateurs who are arrogant enough to look down on those of us who are such "fools" as to enjoy taking pretty pictures.

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