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.

And that's when, despite his prediction to his sister, he indeed became a professional astronomer.


Henry Giclas has seen many people come and go in the 56 years he's been associated with Lowell Observatory. Yet the 87-year-old still goes to his office there every weekday, and it's no trouble for him to remember the details of hiring Robert Burnham.

"Anybody that spends a lot of time out looking for comets, first of all he has to have a lot of patience, and he has to want to take the time to do it. And so I just figured that anyone who would spend that much time would make a pretty good observer for a routine job."

An article without a byline which appeared February 3, 1958, in the Courier described how Burnham got the post: "H.L. Giclas, of the Lowell Observatory, passing through Prescott, took Burnham to lunch, and invited him to visit the Flagstaff observatory over the following weekend. Soon after he returned home, he received the offer of the position in the observatory. The camera studies he will make are expected to take a two year period, Burnham said. . . . He will begin his work on Feb. 10."

Courtney remembers her mother telling Burnham: "If you turn this down, you're crazy."

"I'm not going to turn it down," he answered.
He accepted the job at $6,000 a year with the likelihood that it would last only the two years of the project.

Then, Giclas says, the entire deal nearly fell through.
The February 3 Courier article infuriated the astronomers at Lowell. Always sensitive about Lowell's reputation, they did not appreciate that Burnham had spoken about his upcoming job without the observatory's approval.

"We had a bit of trouble about that article in the Courier. His mother, you know, was a kind of jackleg reporter for it," Giclas says.

"He damned near didn't get the job. We thought he'd written that article." They changed their minds, says Giclas, after a contrite Burnham convinced them that he hadn't written it.

"It was his mother. When I offered him that job, his mother went bonkers and wrote up a big story about how he was going to do a proper motion program at the Lowell Observatory when the guy didn't even know what a proper motion was."

It wasn't the first time the observatory had hired a skilled amateur on the cheap for repetitive work that better-paid professionals might have scorned.

In 1929, a young Kansas farmer sent the observatory detailed drawings of Jupiter and Mars that he'd made with a homemade telescope. Lowell astronomers were sufficiently impressed that they hired the young man, named Clyde Tombaugh, to help with an ambitious, but tedious, project.

The search for Planet X.
The observatory's founder, Percival Lowell, had predicted that a massive ninth planet might be found beyond Neptune. Lowell had died in 1916, but his colleagues were eager to validate his Planet X theory. It might help counter the observatory's association with Lowell's more well-known legacy, his infamous and illusory Martian "canals," and rescue the observatory from a second-class status.

Fortunately, Tombaugh proved to be more than simply a hired hand. On February 18, 1930, Tombaugh brought glory to Lowell Observatory by discovering the only major planet found this century.

It was named Pluto. (But Lowell was not vindicated: Pluto was much too small to be his predicted Planet X.)

Now, in the late 1950s, with Tombaugh no longer associated with the observatory and his planet search long over, Henry Giclas had conceived of a way to make additional use of Tombaugh's labors.

He would take a series of long-exposure photographs of the sky, each on a glass plate corresponding with one taken by Tombaugh 30 years earlier. In that time, some of the stars would show movement. The closer ones would, anyway, just as when motorists see objects that are closer whiz by faster than distant ones.

Identifying that movement--called "proper motion"--was the best way to determine which stars were closest to the sun, valuable data for scientists who wanted to know what kind of stars a typical portion of the galaxy--namely our own--contains.

Soon after the project got under way, Giclas learned about the Prescott amateur who had discovered a comet, and decided to hire him.

But only, Giclas says, after Burnham's mother apologized to the observatory for writing the unsigned article in the Courier.

"I couldn't hold it against Burnham," he says.


In 1959, with the continuation of his graduate studies in astronomy jeopardized by a lack of funds, Norm Thomas packed up his family of four and left Berkeley, California, for a job at Lowell Observatory.

There he was paired with Robert Burnham Jr., who for the past year had been working on the proper-motion survey with astronomers Giclas and Charles Slaughter.

Day after day, Thomas tried to trip up his taciturn and brilliant partner.
Sometimes he succeeded. Other times, Burnham came out on top.
Their competition would produce the most widely cited proper-motion survey in history.

Now that the project was running smoothly, Giclas and Slaughter turned it over to the two young men who lacked advance degrees in the field.

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