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In a different (but somewhat related) field, some baseball stars have been known to have "baseball eyes." That is, an exceptional ability to visually follow the trajectory of a 90+ mph baseball to a degree enjoyed by 0.1% (one in a thousand) of the human race.

I would imagine that would also be an advantage for an astromer, all other things being equal. But has "history"shown this to be necessary? That is, have there been a large or at least disproportionate number of famous and successful astronomers that been identified with eyesight in the top 1% (or higher) of the human population? Conversely, have there been any noted astronomers with notably bad eyesight who have made contributions because their theoretical, intuitive, or other abilities were enough to compensate?

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    $\begingroup$ Can you add references for the "baseball eyes" claims? $\endgroup$ – user1569 Dec 30 '19 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ Just curious why it might be necessary to have great eyesight? I assume it's because perhaps better eyesight helps see the (relatively) small stars/brightness changes/etc when using the naked eye, or telescopes and other equipment? $\endgroup$ – BruceWayne Dec 30 '19 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ @JanDoggen BB Eyes: spatial perception/acuity - flow processing - jov.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2192948 biology.stackexchange.com/a/41636/49363 biology.stackexchange.com/a/3452/49363 $\endgroup$ – Rob Dec 30 '19 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ “Has … been” implies past tense to me. In which case I would guess that before telescopes, an astronomer with poor vision would have been (for that reason) in the wrong field. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Dec 30 '19 at 17:08
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Johannes Kepler

Wikipedia: "However, childhood smallpox left him with weak vision and crippled hands, limiting his ability in the observational aspects of astronomy."

He made great use of Tycho Brahes great systematic observations in his theoretical work. He did not need exceptional eyesight for his developments in optics and telescopes.

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I don't have a full historical perspective on this, perhaps someone could add more, but in the past an astronomer could formulate a hypothesis, design an observation schedule, and then hire and coordinate a group of people to

  • cary out the observations and photographic plate exposures
  • develop and analyze those plates
  • measure and reduce the data

and then announce a discovery, without necessarily doing any observation of their own.

The key to doing this was suppressing half the population, making it extremely difficult for them to become astronomers. Not impossible, but just very, very difficult.

The title of a book on this subject The Glass Universe is likely a play on words, the photographic plates were made of glass, and so was the ceiling. (Space.com review, The Atlantic, Magiscenter, BBC interview in YouTube, NPR)

It is strongly recommended to see and/or listen to the author Dava Sobel talk in the YouTube video The Glass Ceiling and The Glass Universe and in Dava Sobel: The Glass Universe


From Space.com's Harvard's 'Computers': The Women Who Measured the Stars

From Space.com's Harvard's 'Computers': The Women Who Measured the Stars

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    $\begingroup$ In the distant past, people were hired to recognize traces in bubble chambers. It was determined it was best not to use particle physicists to do this due to inherent biases that led to false results. The random person was hired to do this. Maybe the case you stated didn't apply to astronomers? $\endgroup$ – jmh Dec 30 '19 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ @jmh the point of including so many resources in this answer is to provide a way for people to read or watch or hear about the work these women did. Rather than speculate out loud that they were hired as unskilled labor, why not read up on it a bit? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Dec 30 '19 at 21:05
  • $\begingroup$ How is this any different than professors putting their names on papers their grad students wrote? $\endgroup$ – nick012000 Jan 2 at 3:59
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Have there been any noted astronomers with bad eyesight who have made contributions?

Wanda Diaz Merced:

Astronomer Wanda Diaz Merced lost her sight in her early 20's when she was studying supernova explosions. Merced, fueled by her passion for the cosmos, found a way around her impairment. She discovered a way to hear the stars through sonification. Merced became a sonic astrophysicist.

Merced explains sonification as using sound waves to detect patterns in stellar radio data, and uncovering connections obscured by visual representation and graphs. The technique she developed translates complex universal data into audible sounds using duration, pitch, and other properties.

Sonification has enabled discoveries that sighted Astronomers missed because they didn't have access to this new source of data.

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It should be obvious that the qualities of sight which benefit athletes, including wide field-of-view and extremely fast focal length adjustment, are irrelevant to astronomy.

Prior to photographic capabilities coming into existence, there's some small case to be made for having excellent dark-adapted low light sensitivity, especially near the fovea. As you may know, in general the eye is most sensitive well off-axis, but it is tricky to learn to "stare" at something in your field perimeter without allowing the eye to track to that location.

One side note: despite statements supposedly made by Ted Williams during his career about being able to read the trademark on a ball as pitched, after retirement he flatly said that was nonsense. Reading a pitched ball's spin is a learned trait based on blur patterns generated from different spin angles and speeds.

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    $\begingroup$ hmm.. how do we know if what Ted Williams said after retirement wasn't also nonsense? youtu.be/YbHtzqCge_8?t=247 $\endgroup$ – uhoh Dec 31 '19 at 1:53
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No it is not necessary. The vision of astronomers is consistent with the population as a whole. I suppose you are referring to the ability to recognize a moving body like a planet, meteor or comet. These may be recognized over a period of days or weeks without baseball vision.

In baseball, the batter has to be able to track a ball in real time and he has less than a second to determine its path. There are no do-overs or second shots. Astronomers usually do not have an extremely short timeline like this to deal with.

Many astronomers, like baseball players, wear glasses or contacts to improve their vision. Astronomers can also focus a telescope to improve what they see.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, and usually they file an application or proposal to one of the observatories, describe the what, when and where and reason about the scientific background, and one day get a data stream in return to do things with ... or not ? There are instrument platforms in the various foci of a telescope, they don't sit there and watch through an ocular. But we can watch in realtime where e.g. the GTC is pointing at: grantecan.es/en/gtc-live. And GTC call for proposals for the coming period: gtc.iac.es/observing/calls.php. $\endgroup$ – user31179 Dec 29 '19 at 22:28
  • $\begingroup$ A telescope is essentially really powerful glasses. $\endgroup$ – Barmar Dec 30 '19 at 16:42
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Even with better than average visual acuity, we still see only about 1% of the electromagnetic spectrum. Take a quickie look at Chromoscope and Planckoscope for a whiff of what we're missing -- and that is in just real-time here-&-now 7 mm clear aperture observation. No human eye ever saw a magnetic field, the swerves of space in time or veers of time in space; gravity's rainbow. No symphony lover has ever heard the measured breathing of a Cepheid; the shredding rend of galaxies in collision; the tremour of the sonic wave 52 octaves below Middle C as a supernova shell transitions between super to subsonic at around 100 km/sec 1.2 million years after it was first emitted. What our eyes know about the universe is what an ant's eye knows about us. And if you want to skip this trailer and see the movie, here's the marquee: Illustris/TNG.

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    $\begingroup$ That's very nice, but historically has there been any correlation between good eyesight and good astronomers? $\endgroup$ – Nick Matteo Dec 30 '19 at 16:03
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"Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who co-discovered the first pulsar PSR B1919+21 in 1967, relates that in the late 1950s a woman viewed the Crab Nebula source at the University of Chicago's telescope, then open to the public, and noted that it appeared to be flashing. The astronomer she spoke to, Elliot Moore, disregarded the effect as scintillation, despite the woman's protestation that as a qualified pilot she understood scintillation and this was something else. Bell Burnell notes that the 30 Hz frequency of the Crab Nebula optical pulsar is difficult for many people to see."

Wikipedia links to Nature.

Some flashlights use PWM (pulse width modulation) so they flash at a high frequency which can be detected using a camera:
enter image description here
According to Kris Van Bael "There is one important effect that can keep flicker visible, even at 200Hz or more. And that is due to movement: leaving the trace like a dotted line on the retina".

I think I can see this effect with some LCDs but I can't find any scientific experiments on our ability to detect high frequency blinking in this way.

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Today, astronomers never ever look through a telescope, so eyesight is more or less irrelevant. In the distant past, you needed good eyesight, unless you'd be a theoretical astronomer who'd rely on other people's observations. There weren't that many astronomers without good eyesight, I guess. A century ago, many astronomers did visual work so they needed good eyesight, but at the same time, plenty of them didn't. When I graduated in the 1970's, I had never looked through a real telescope, nor did I ever need good eyesight (which I don't have). I still graduated, mostly on computer models of interstellar gas clouds.

So my answer is "it depends".

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