Sky Writer

Stargazers revere Arizona Robert Burnham Jr., creator of the most complete, practical, inspirational book ever written about the night sky. But like so many people of genius, he would spend his last years alone and destitute.

The certificate's error was preserved on a marble headstone placed on Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery's columbarium, a wall covered with headstones in memory of servicemen and women who had been cremated.

Courtney requested a correction. Today, Burnham's headstone reads correctly, but his name still appears as "Burham" in the cemetery's index.

Above his name on the headstone is a cross, put there at the request of a San Diego County public administrator assigned to oversee Burnham's cremation.

It seems inappropriate.
"No, I don't think of the universe as some sort of ultimate monarchy being ruled by a cosmic king on a throne, handing out written directives to his subordinates like a commanding general," Burnham wrote in 1982. "Is there any religion that invites doubt, skepticism, or a freely inquiring type of mind? The scientist is free to say to his colleagues: 'Gentlemen, new findings have made it necessary to revise some of our ideas.' Have you ever heard a minister make such an announcement to his flock?"

But Bruce Thomas cautions against making too much of the symbol on Burnham's memorial. "I'm sure if you asked him, he would tell you he wouldn't want any kind of headstone, that it was silly. And he probably wouldn't care what you put on it."

As she did while he was alive, Viola Courtney has seen to her brother's needs. She is executor of his estate and has wrestled with Dover Publications. Only recently, she says, did the company pay for three years of royalties owed Burnham's estate. She has waited more than a year for Dover to submit an accounting of the Handbook's sales in the final eight years of Burnham's life.

Going through her brother's papers, she also found that he had never withdrawn money from a retirement plan.

"It appears that he had money he didn't know he had," Michael Bartlett says. "He needed to be taken care of. He was like a brain in a bottle."

Thirty years after its first publication, the Handbook remains a popular work. But the ineluctable shift of the Earth's axis in space has made the positional data in the book sorely out of date. Other material is well behind the latest scientific understanding.

A year ago, a talented astronomer who has worked both as an amateur and a professional began considering taking on the task of updating Burnham's massive work.

His name is Brian Skiff, he works at Lowell Observatory, and he knows the night sky about as well as anyone in the world.

He says that before taking on the challenge of producing a new, improved Celestial Handbook, he decided he'd better take another look at the old one.

"I was amazed. I think it's just fantastic," he says.
It was also daunting. Skiff thought better of the idea, and has put the task aside, at least temporarily.

He has enough work to do investigating asteroids. And when he's done with a night's observing, he retires to his home: Burnham's old cabin.

On a recent afternoon in Lowell's library, he talks with Norm Thomas about the few times he met Burnham.

Thomas grins when Skiff says that the most important work ever done on the 13-inch Pluto telescope was the proper-motion survey.

"I like to hear that," Thomas says.
Later, walking across the grounds of the century-old observatory, Thomas talks about the nights when a high-school-educated shipping clerk took him on journeys to distant celestial realms. And then, with characteristic restraint, he sums up his feelings about Robert Burnham Jr.

"He is an amazing person who I value my acquaintance with," Thomas says.


The asteroid Bernheim is currently 260 million miles from Earth, moving slowly eastward in the constellation of Leo.

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