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 it was in English, to boot. "The greatest merit of the Celestial Handbook is its up-to-date and detailed physical information. . . . I know of no other place where all this information can be so readily obtained." Yet, as Stewart and later reviewers noted, the Handbook was much more than an assemblage of data. He complimented Burnham for his frequent essays and other written interludes.

Thirteen years later, the same magazine would review the books again, and this time the writer's tone would be less restrained.

Burnham's Celestial Handbook had become a classic.


By 1976, Burnham had secured a deal with Dover Publications, Inc., in New York to republish the Handbook in three paperback volumes. Two years later, the books appeared.

As Sky & Telescope's second reviewer, Kenneth Hewitt-White, noted in 1979, wherever people dedicated to exploring the night sky gathered, they would solve riddles about what they saw with a simple question: "What does Burnham say about it?"

Owners of small telescopes found it difficult to go where Burnham had not gone before.

The Handbook could guide the enthusiast from his or her backyard to the far reaches of the galaxy, explaining such concepts as stellar evolution en route.

The Handbook looked different from other books, with its many hand-drawn diagrams and the typescript pages preserved from the self-published edition.

It also contained passages that were pleasantly out of place in a book of science, such as the following statement in a section on cosmology, which tries to explain what our universe is doing here:

"Oriental philosophers speak of the 'Tao,' the all-pervading intelligence of the Universe, never personified or regarded as a 'being' of any sort; such a concept seems vastly more appropriate to the Universe we actually live in than do the grossly anthropomorphic and marvelously tortuous theologies of Western thinkers."

Burnham knew that such passages would draw scorn from astronomers who held more mechanistic views. He would write later that he expected to come in for criticism for including them. But he was determined, he wrote, to make the books more than a dry list of data.

Courtney, who is now executor of her brother's estate, says that the 1966, loose-leaf Handbook edition had eventually paid for itself, but Burnham was happy to be done with publishing the thing on his own.

Burnham wrote in 1982, "The memory of those days still causes me to leap forth from my pillow with a loud cry. I have this nightmare, you see, where I'm trying to publish the Britannica from my kitchen table. . . ."

But even as he began to enjoy the benefits of wider publication--and regular royalty checks--Burnham learned that Lowell Observatory planned to fire him.

Norm Thomas says that by 1979, one of the proper-motion survey's goals had been met: After photographing small patches of the sky year after year, they had eventually worked their way to the north celestial pole, near the star Polaris.

There was still some sky near the southern horizon that they hadn't gotten to yet, Thomas says, but the National Science Foundation refused to fund the project for an additional three years.

Burnham and Thomas had blinked their last plate.
By that time, Thomas had completed a master's degree in geology at Northern Arizona University, and it wasn't difficult for the observatory to find other work for him studying asteroids. But Burnham, despite his almost 22 years of service, wasn't so easy to reassign.

"The only thing the observatory could offer him would be, well, a janitor's job or something where he was supervised. And he didn't want that kind of a job, so that was that. That's all that was left that he was capable of doing," says Henry Giclas.

Norm Thomas' son Bruce, who was in high school at the time and had become close to Burnham, says that Burnham's decaying relationship with Giclas also played a part in that decision.

"There was a building resistance between Burnham and Lowell [Observatory], partly because they felt he was using their resources for his Handbook. As it became more popular and people talked about it, Henry Giclas got more standoffish about it. There was a big lack of communication about the use of Lowell's resources. Perhaps if Bob had been a better communicator he could have convinced the observatory that it was a positive thing for it.

"As the years went on, he was fighting with Lowell. He wanted to add to the public tour. He wanted a sound system and a choreographed slide show. He wanted a gift shop. But Giclas and others felt that it was a research institute that didn't need to give tours."

Thomas says Burnham wanted to take on more of those responsibilities, and hoped that he could make it a full-time job.

"Burnham brought his own stereo system. He brought blinds for the rotunda so a slide show could be put on, all on his own time and money. He felt, as the years went on, that Lowell didn't care about that. Yet, ironically, 10 years after he had left, they adopted all those ideas."

In April 1979, Burnham received official notice that his employment would end. The observatory gave him plenty of time to prepare: His job would not end until December of that year, and Lowell offered help finding him further employment.

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