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.

"He was like Tutankhamen's tomb. Once you got to know him, you opened a passageway and then a lot of treasures would appear."

She laughs when she's told of Burnham's comment about his philosophical girlfriend.

"I am a big reader of books. At that time, I think I'd read a lot of philosophy and history. I was probably pretty intellectual for my age. He was probably impressed that he could talk to me."

She lived in a cabin near Burnham's, and remembers walking hand in hand through the woods with the astronomer.

"Yeah, and that was about it," she says with a chuckle.
Their fling ended with the summer.
But by that year, 1965, Burnham's true love--the Celestial Survey he'd started 10 years earlier--was finally near completion.


Donna Courtney remembers walking around and around a long table at Lowell Observatory which was covered with papers.

The year was 1966. She was only 6 years old, but like the rest of the family, as well as Norm Thomas and his children, she had been enlisted by her uncle to circle the table with pages in her hands.

Collating hundreds of copies of the first of what would be an eight-volume, 2,000-page book seemed like an eternal task, and sticks in the memory of everyone who helped.

Burnham had decided to publish his Celestial Handbook himself.
He would write later that the idea of self-publication had come to him gradually, particularly after he began working at Lowell Observatory.

His employment there gave him access to the mountains of information in Lowell's library, as well as the images on the thousands of glass plates he worked with every day.

His survey quickly became more than simply the observational notes of an amateur astronomer. Burnham could now include more scientific depth and thousands of intriguing photographs. He also injected material related to his other interests, including photographs of ancient coins that carried astronomical themes, discourses on the lore of constellations, even thousand-year-old Chinese poetry about the sky.

He knew it was becoming a remarkable work.
He'd made inquiries to publishers, Thomas says, but he was most often met with an, "Are you kidding?"

"I tried a few of the larger astronomical publishers," Burnham wrote later. "Some thought that there really wasn't much of a demand for anything like that. Others said that there was no way to finance such a thing. One publisher said that they would have to hire someone full-time for a couple of years just to check and edit the material. That would be a requirement, they said, if they were to publish. At a cost which would make the project impossible, of course."

Thomas says Burnham was also disappointed by Lowell Observatory's official position regarding the Handbook.

Namely, that there would be no position.
"I think Bob was counting on some promotional help from Lowell on the books, but it never happened," Thomas says. The other astronomers, Thomas says, were concerned about the effect it might have on the observatory's reputation if the books were full of errors.

"I knew him a lot better. I knew how careful he was. Other people didn't know that," Thomas says.

Other Lowell astronomers were also apparently unaware that Burnham had sought outside assistance to check the accuracy of his data.

Giclas, however, saw the books as an irritation.
"The great problem I had with him was his handbooks. I offered to have the observatory personnel here check what he put into them, but he was reluctant and would not do that. And for that reason I told him he could not make it a Lowell Observatory publication," Giclas says.

"We had a great English amateur that published books and stuff, but the stuff he had in it was wrong. His name was Patrick Moore. In later years, he learned enough to at least try to put the facts down straight. But Burnham quoted Moore as many times as he quoted Henry Norris Russell or some other famous astronomer, you know. And that was the trouble; Burnham didn't know the difference between someone who knew something and someone who didn't."

After Burnham finished collating the loose-leaf, typescripted books, Giclas says he gave them a cursory look. "I pointed out several errors in them. He may have changed some. I don't know whether he did or not."

Thomas says Burnham resented his colleagues' reaction. "They were afraid that it would be full of errors, and then it turned out to be better than 80 percent of the stuff [published about astronomy] that comes out. The good reviews quieted some people down. That, and the fact that it became quite famous because of the lack of errors."

No review carried more weight than that in the June 1966 issue of Sky & Telescope, the field's primary popular journal. The reviewer, Robert Neil Stewart, found himself referring to a recent French book with a narrower scope as the only thing he could compare to the Celestial Handbook. While somewhat guarded in his praise (he only had the first, 218-page volume), Stewart did seem impressed by the sheer size of the projected work: "Mr. Burnham's manual promises to be about 10 times more inclusive than its strongest competitor."

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