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.

But one night in 1957, he made a discovery from the front porch of his parents' house that would bring him to the attention of state media and Lowell Observatory's astronomers.

It also piqued the interest of an ambitious Arizona senator with his eyes on the White House who made a point of visiting the clever young man a few weeks later.

That visit would help launch Burnham on a remarkable trajectory which would end, eventually, in penury and anonymity.


On the night of October 18, 1957, eager to use the newest of his telescopes despite its lack of a proper mount, the 26-year-old Burnham propped up its tube against the porch railings of his parents' Prescott home.

As on other nights, he used the instrument to scrutinize tiny portions of the sky, doggedly searching for items to include in a massive survey of the heavens that he had taken upon himself.

And it's likely that as Burnham slowly examined multiple-star systems in the constellation of Cetus the whale, inside the house his mother sat at her desk, writing letters. She was part of a dying breed: people who develop reputations for writing letters to newspapers. Lydia Burnham voraciously devoured papers and fired off missives about politics and religion--"She was a fanatical nonbeliever," says her daughter Viola Courtney--which were regularly printed and won her an army of far-flung correspondents.

She had gained particular influence with the editors of her hometown paper, the Prescott Courier, and in the coming days, she would use it.

That night, at 10:30 p.m., Burnham's telescope found a smudge of light where there was not supposed to be one.

It was a comet, a celestial interloper speeding past the Earth in one of the nearest approaches of a comet in 50 years.

Although it was his first such discovery, Burnham knew what to do: He made a phone call to Lowell Observatory and sent a telegram to Harvard University.

The astronomers at Lowell didn't try to confirm Burnham's find until the following night. But by then clouds had scudded in over Flagstaff and would remain the next night as well.

Instead, a Swiss observatory acting on the sighting of Paul Wild, a comet hunter in Bern who had spotted the object a few hours before Burnham, grabbed credit for confirming the existence of the object. Fortunately, because Burnham had sent a telegram to Harvard, where the world's arbiters of astronomical discoveries were located, Burnham's observation was credited as well.

Comet Latyshev-Wild-Burnham would eventually gain its third name when a delayed report from a Russian astronomer--who had actually beaten the other two--arrived weeks later.

Today, about 30 new comets are found each year, mostly by professionals in the course of their work. A handful, however, are snared by amateurs. While a few of those discoveries become news items--such as Phoenix resident Tom Bopp's 1995 co-discovery of the spectacular Comet Hale-Bopp--most go unnoticed by the nonastronomical world. In the 1950s, fewer comets were found, and amateurs played a greater role in spotting them. But even then, most discoveries did not excite the media, especially for an object such as Burnham's which could not be seen by the unaided eye.

Arizona newspapers, however, hailed Burnham as a hero.
Stories began appearing October 28 in the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette as well as the Courier, which treated Burnham as something of a celebrity. The paper would consult him in future stories on celestial events as Prescott's home-grown astronomer. Partly, that treatment may have been because of his mother's relationship with the paper's editors.

Another reason for the attention was surely Lowell Observatory's promotion of the story. Perhaps embarrassed that his colleagues had not confirmed Burnham's find themselves, Lowell's Henry Giclas mailed a congratulatory but apologetic letter to the amateur on October 24. The observatory then notified the press.

American paranoia about Russian superiority may also have boosted coverage. At least one news story presented Burnham's ingenuity as a sort of Yankee comeback to Sputnik, the Soviet satellite which was then orbiting the Earth and unsettling the stomachs of hawkish Cold Warriors.

Particularly, one of the most hawkish of all.
Senator Barry Goldwater descended on Burnham on November 7. Their meeting was taped by a local radio station and preserved in the Courier.

"The Senator was quite intrigued to learn that someone with a home-built telescope had beaten the professionals to a 'major astronomical discovery,' as he put it," Burnham would write years later. "But he was really fascinated by my account of the optical test of my telescope mirror. Here I was, measuring the curve on a mirror to an accuracy of a few hundred-thousandths of an inch, with equipment made from an old tin can and a razor blade."

Goldwater was genuinely intrigued by Burnham's feat, but he couldn't help but make political hay out of the encounter. His comments were dutifully reported the next day: "It is exciting that Burnham . . . could use the talent God gave him, and not depend on doles from the federal government to make such progress," said the conservative icon.

The senator surprised Burnham by offering him a telescope owned by his late uncle, Morris Goldwater, who had once been Prescott's mayor. It was a valuable refractor which the elder Goldwater had purchased in 1882.

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