A Personal Confession

The truth of the matter is that I’ve had relatively little success as an observational astronomer, never no mind the embarrassing fact that I’ve been at it for more than forty years.  Resorting to numeracy, alone, there are at least at least 3×1023 stars in the observable universe (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star) yet I’ve barely glanced at a measling fraction of that whole.  Take the 4×1012 stars in the thirty-nine Messier Galaxies, for instance, then toss in a few odds and ends from the ARP and NGC yet that wouldn’t even put me within ten orders of magnitude of the theoretical total.  Not that the reality of it all is likely to be a fraction of that optimistic number.  No, I’d be astounded to learn that I’d so much as glanced upon a quadrillionth of it all.  And I’m an unabashed optimist!

So the question one might ask is : “Why bother?”

It’s a great question, not that I find myself quite able to answer it well.  Indeed, when I think back upon my astronomical life I can’t help but focus on the frigid nights and the long and dangerous drives to the middle of nowhere.  Plus the bears; I’ve been accosted by way too many bears for my taste.  Add in the great expense and a host of technical difficulties, plus the all-too-likely likelihood of being skunked—I once spent several thousand dollars and great deal of effort to haul my ass up to the largest observatory in Europe (Pic Di Midi) only to be met by an honest to goodness blizzard; on a June 1st, no less!—and any rational observer (pun intended!) would have to be perplexed as to why I do it.

Now I know I’m supposed to wax glorific, to expound upon the spectacle of it all, to offer something pompous and poetical, but the truth of the matter is that I do view my life in astronomy as somewhat quixotic.  Like most of my fellows I rarely look at things that haven’t been looked at before.  And even then, my instruments have been far from ideal.  For a start, I’m more than a little blind (literally, I mean; my vision barely corrects to 20/30 with glasses) but the metaphor is pretty apt, too.  Those with keener “sight” have come before me.  They’ve perceived the heavens with more sharpness and fervor and love than I; no mean trick if I may be allowed to boast.

Happily, though, I’m long past the point of trying to suss it all out.  Indeed, I can’t quite even remember a time when I didn’t think of myself as an astronomer.  Yes, it’s all too often a pain in the ass and frequently underwhelming.  Not to mention difficult; like “Make you feel fifty IQ points dumber than you’d prefer” difficult.  And inconvenient; “No we can’t {whatever rational nighttime activity you want}, I have to go outside and look up before I miss it.”  And it’s cold; did I mention the cold.  Astronomy comes with a whole lot of bone aching “What the in the world could I have been thinking?” chill.  Hell, it doesn’t even come in color; not really, not like in the magazines.  No, there are countless negatives.

Then again, and here’s the rub of it all, there’s wonder; unabashed mouth-agog can’t-stop-yapping-about-a-bunch-of-overachieving-photons-while-you-freeze-your-toes-off astonishment.  Yeah, I know it doesn’t make a normal kind of sense.  Then again, I’m an astronomer.

BTW, and I probably should have started with this: I’m “your” new president (if you’re a DVAA member, that is).  Hello!

I very much doubt that I will be able to serve you as well as any one of my wonderful predecessors but I do promise to try.  There’s a bunch of the day to day stuff to get done but if I may be so bold I hope to do more.  With your help, that is….

Be Careful When You Feed the Lunatics

One of the hazards of being an outreach-minded astronomer is having to deal with a never-ending stream of lunatics.  Whether it be the overly-fervent gal who got supper-pissed when I failed to agree with her that asterisms were galaxy-sized corporeal beings or the octogenarian who called  out the cops because he was sure that I was using my telescope to peep at him through his solid walls, I’ve had more than my fair share of encounters with both the grossly misinformed and the all but barking mad.  As a rule, though, I tend to take such crackpots in my stride.

The people who drive me bonkers, though, are the supposedly sane and well educated; fellow citizens who hold the most outrageous and improbable beliefs even though a modicum of sense and introspection should serve to dispel them one and all.

Continue reading

Ore-oh (ORRERY OH!)

I’ve always loved Laurel & Hardy’s 1934 film “Babes In Toyland,” and have certainly been known to intone the toy soldier’s signature phrase to myself during any number of odd—and usually inappropriate—moments.  Ore-oh, OREO, indeed!  If I could only fit myself out with one of those natty enameled uniforms then I’m quite sure that I’d be styling with the best of them.

But I digress.  On this day, my purpose is to discourse on orreries; not ore-ohs, nor even oreos.  For the uninformed, an orrery is (to quote Wikipedia): a mechanical device that illustrates the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons in the Solar System in a heliocentric model.  In this somewhat mod-ern era, mechanical orreries have fallen out of fashion, particularly since online orreries like “The Planets Today” are so easy to use, and exceedingly more accurate.

The problem with electronic orreries is that they lack my favorite component: gears!  Continue reading

2003 UB313 was seen by actual human eyeballs!

(Note: this article was originally published in 2005 on my defunt astronomy tourism site: ScopeSeeing.com.  A related press release may be found here.  2003 UB313 was ultimately named Eris, and in the process helped to dethrone Pluto to “dwarf-planet” status.)


On the morning of October 9th, 2005 a small team of amateur astronomers visually observed the 10th planet using McDonald Observatory’s 2.1m Otto Struve Telescope. Keith Murdock completed the first observation at 1:08 AM CDT. Louis Berman made a second confirming observation at 1:15 AM CDT. Over the next hour the planet was subsequently observed by seven additional team members and two McDonald Observatory staff. Continue reading