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.

Both Burnham and Thomas were told not to expect the survey to last longer than three years.

Instead, it would last another 20.
Mostly, that was because of how well Burnham and Thomas worked together. Their success impressed the National Science Foundation, which continued to fund the project.

"Henry [Giclas] was quite good, but he was a little impatient with it," Thomas says, adding that because Giclas wasn't a "blinker" by nature, he wasn't taking the project to its full potential.

To explain what he means, Thomas descends into the basement of one of Lowell Observatory's oldest buildings where thousands of glass plates in white envelopes line the walls of a cramped room.

Against one wall is a contraption called a "blink comparator." The machine held two glass plates at a time, one dating from the 1930s search for Planet X, the other exposed by Burnham or Thomas themselves. Corresponding postage-stamp-size regions from each plate were projected onto a screen, first from one plate and then the other, back and forth, clickety clack, endlessly.

With the plates lined up correctly, the stars in each portion projected on the screen would hold still. Even in the 30 years between exposures, most stars seemed fixed in their positions and showed no movement. But occasionally, in a particular field on the plates, Burnham or Thomas would notice a star make a subtle leap.

Thomas shows how he would mark the star with a dab of India ink, hoping that Burnham had missed it. After Burnham, using another, fresh plate, had made his own search, the two of them would compare notes, tallying up the moving stars, particularly the ones that the other had missed.

"That did provide something fun. Who would miss something really neat. It was a competition," he says.

By the time the program ended in 1979, they would identify 9,000 high-motion stars as well as several comets, 1,500 asteroids and 2,000 new white-dwarf suspects--degenerate stars with incredible densities--as well as thousands of variable stars which they simply had no time to study.

Thomas describes it as a merry-go-round of activities. While one of them blinked during the day, the other would expose new plates at the 13-inch Pluto discovery telescope at night. Plates had to be developed, leaping stars identified and tabulated, and finder charts had to be made for the high-motion stars and white dwarfs so other astronomers could recover them in the sky. Both of them were also expected to help out by giving tours to visitors.

Somehow, the two of them found time in that demanding schedule to spend occasional nights simply touring the night sky with a telescope. Thomas says those nights are among his fondest memories.

"Bob was great to be with. I'd be the student. The stuff he had in his memory was just amazing."

Like others, Thomas describes Burnham as exceedingly shy and reclusive. Only a few times, in their close 20-year collaboration, did Burnham make the trip down from Mars Hill to spend an evening at the Thomas home.

Burnham himself lived in a cabin on the observatory's property. He'd moved into the rent-free home in lieu of a raise after his first year of work, and turned the place into a virtual museum.

Viola Courtney's daughter Donna made frequent trips from Prescott and later Phoenix to visit her uncle. Often she would find him sitting in a rocking chair on pine needles outside his cabin, enjoying silence.

Inside, the cabin was a fascinating clutter. There were rocks that glowed under ultraviolet light. Ancient coins and other artifacts of long-dead cultures. Fossils of trilobites and sharks' teeth. And on nearly every wall, from floor to ceiling, books.

Donna says she was careful to travel alone to see him. With people he knew well, Burnham relaxed and could be quite talkative. If Donna brought someone her uncle didn't know, he'd clam up.

Once, she made a boyfriend wait in the car for a half-hour while she spent time with Burnham.

Burnham overcame his shyness sufficiently to have several girlfriends during his Lowell years. Viola Courtney and Thomas remember one woman in particular who seemed to bring Burnham nearly to the point of sociability.

"I remember that she was blond and curvaceous," says Courtney. "She had visited the observatory on a trip. He would give talks to the tourists, and she was impressed by him. She was so taken, he arranged for her to have a summer job."

Thomas remembers that Burnham was similarly taken, and that one time the shy astronomer gushed: "We're really together on our philosophy." Burnham was so far gone, Thomas says, he didn't mind being seen holding hands with the girl.

The curvaceous blond herself, now Professor Julie Lutz of Washington State University, says she had just graduated from San Diego State University and spent the summer of 1965 at Lowell Observatory as a 20-year-old intern before beginning graduate work at the University of Illinois.

"Bob was very, very, very shy. But he was fascinating. His place was filled with fascinating stuff," she remembers. "He was a pleasant person, but, you know, he didn't talk to too many people at Lowell.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets