A Cosmic Blunder

It played last July like a typical page-three scientific discovery, the slot where daily newspapers normally run the disease of the week or the story about the gene that causes obesity.

The scoop: Phoenix resident and average guy Tom Bopp--truck-parts buyer for a cement company--discovers Comet of the Century.

But there was a twist: Average guy Tom Bopp discovers Comet of the Century in telescope owned by fellow average guy and auto-parts jockey Jim Stevens, just moments after Stevens relinquishes telescope. Miraculously, Stevens not suicidal.

The story runs with a photo of the two average guys in front of the telescope, looking like proud anglers in front of a marlin. Stevens says how glad he is just to be involved in such a great discovery, and it's hard to tell if he's that magnanimous or if it really hasn't sunk in yet that some novice who doesn't even own a telescope has stumbled onto Astronomical Immortality at his expense.

Reading further, we get an answer: Turns out Stevens is the victim of dumb luck. After he turned the telescope over to Bopp, the Earth's rotation brought the comet into the scope's field of view just as Bopp peered in.

In the months that follow, as the comet looks less and less like it will pull a Kahoutek and fizzle out, the discovery story gets replayed and streamlined.

Stevens' part of the tale turns out to have a half-life of about eight weeks. By January, press reports leave him out altogether. It's apparently taxing enough for science reporters to explain that the comet was co-discovered independently by another insomniac in New Mexico named Alan Hale--no relation to the Skipper--thus the hyphenated appellation Comet Hale-Bopp.

As the comet augurs into the inner solar system for a spring 1997 flyby of Earth, the details of its discovery take a back seat to speculation about how it will look--all indications are it will be a monster.

And if those predictions hold true, average guy Tom Bopp becomes historical figure Tom Bopp and makes the index of every comet textbook until doomsday.

Stevens, meanwhile, pulls a Willie Loman and slips back into average-guy obscurity.

But the other sky watchers in the desert that starry, starry night with Bopp and Stevens say the press didn't get the whole story. In fact, they say, the reported story's not only incomplete, parts of it don't make sense--at least to the people who know something about telescopes and comets.

They say the real story would explain how devoted amateur astronomer Jim Stevens missed his golden opportunity to discover--and affix his name to--the Comet of the Century.

This is that story.

Jim Stevens lives alone with his six telescopes in a north Phoenix mobile home. Under the awning outside, there's a workshop containing a drill press and a table saw where he assembles his instruments.

In the living room, where photos of family members might hang, two rows of frames hold awards that his telescope designs have won. Telescope parts lie about like pieces of furniture.

Stevens bends over to pick up a white tube from the floor of his living room. It's the guts of a telescope which won him a coveted Merit Award in an annual competition for telescope builders.

In the driveway sits the Comet Hale-Bopp discovery telescope. It's a huge thing--a boxy contraption of mirrors, laminated wood and peach-picker poles. It sits beneath a blue tarp. The telescope's in better shape than either Stevens' mobile home or his station wagon, but then this is a guy with priorities.

He's had a thing for telescopes ever since 1957, when, as a teenager in Flint, Michigan, he ran across a neighbor who was grinding two pieces of glass together in his backyard. The man was glad to show the curious teenager how telescopes were made. And Stevens has been making his own ever since.

Stevens has been an Arizona resident since 1979, and for the past 12 years he's worked in an auto-parts warehouse, a labyrinth of heater hoses, wheel bearings and ear-splitting PA speakers that go off like gunfire every few seconds. He barely fits in the narrow corridors that are lined with endless boxes of parts.

He's tall--he claims six feet four--and he has enormous hands and feet. For a 54-year-old, he's in good shape. Powering up local mountains with his big feet keeps him that way, he says.

That he's from Flint explains a lot about Stevens: his lifetime in the auto-parts industry, his blue-collar Democrat politics and his wisecracking attitude.

The auto-parts maze is not very conducive to discussions on the contemplative nature of stargazing. Yet it was at the warehouse counter where, 18 months ago, one of his regular customers, a buyer for a cement company, surprised him by bringing up the subject of telescopes out of the blue.

His name was Tom Bopp.
Bopp didn't own a telescope, but he was no rank amateur. He'd used other people's telescopes now and again for years, and he, too, had a thing for a dark, star-studded Southwestern sky.

Stevens gladly offered to share his telescopes, and a partnership was born. Every few weeks, whenever the weather was good and the moon waning, the irreverent Michigan Democrat and his quieter, more conservative Ohio Republican friend would go out to soak up starlight.

Just like an astronomical Odd Couple.

A woman posting on the Internet says she knows the real story of Comet Hale-Bopp. The comet is an alien spacecraft, she says, and the discoverers of this fact--government agents Alan Hale and Tom Bopp--have disappeared into the desert never to be heard from again after trying to warn earthlings of their impending doom.

Another Internet prophet proclaims that Comet Hale-Bopp is an annunciation from God that the Second Coming is at hand. His proof: that "Bopp" rhymes with "hope."

British tabloids, on the other hand, ignore evidence to the contrary and trumpet that Hale-Bopp will slam right into Earth. (The comet is not expected to get any closer than 120 million miles.)

Tom Bopp, whose name actually rhymes with "hop," smiles and shakes his head as he relates these twisted tales about his discovery. He stands in a featureless plot in the desert west of Phoenix while Jim Stevens sets up the discovery telescope in preparation for a clear, dark night ahead.

Bopp's still not used to media attention, and he seems a little relieved that the interview requests have slowed down. Some of the silliness has tapered off as well, but he expects both--media scrutiny and crackpot theories--to rekindle once the comet becomes visible to the naked eye in November or December.

Bopp is shorter, a little rounder, and has less hair than Stevens. He looks younger than his 46 years, with something of a baby face and a tan.

Bopp lets Stevens do most of the talking--it's mostly a series of one-liners--but occasionally, Bopp pipes up with his own sally. He can suddenly be utterly silly, slipping into a song or an imitation.

The two are rarely serious. Especially about the sky. They're out under the stars mainly to blow off steam. They certainly never intended to make history.

The prospect of being astronomy-textbook material for centuries to come leaves Bopp nonplussed. "I just hope it inspires people to go out and look at the stars," he says with characteristic humility.

The product of a Pentecostal Ohio upbringing, Bopp lives in a nicely appointed north Phoenix tract home with his wife, Charlotte, and daughter, April. He sums up his life this way: "I don't do much. I have my work, my family, and I like to look at stars."

Stevens tries to explain the motivation for driving hours at a time to sit under a desert night sky: "Some of the objects are just so magnificent. Seeing 16,000 stars in one spot or seeing galaxies and spiral arms and realizing how far those things are away from you. I never get tired of it.

"The other thing is taking people out--like Tom--to see this stuff for themselves. There's nothing like the moment when someone takes his first look through a telescope."

Finding objects for Bopp to look at had become Stevens' favorite activity. Some of his friends say it had become his obsession. Happy to have found a willing student, Stevens relished the role of teacher, bringing views of distant cosmic shores to a less experienced pupil. And that's just what he was doing when he aimed his telescope at a cluster of stars in the constellation of Sagittarius a few minutes after 11 p.m., Mountain Standard Time, July 22, 1995.

Arizona is a mecca for stargazers, and it's attracted a highly developed subculture of astronomers who represent some of the country's best-known observers, astrophotographers and telescope builders.

The Valley's astronomical community has its share of the nocturnal and noteworthy: One local astronomer, Pierre Schwaar, is locked in a controversy with a Tucson man over who first spotted the thinnest crescent moon ever observed; another, Steve Coe, diligently works on a project to correct and update a century-old catalogue of thousands of celestial objects; and still another, Tom Polakis, recently had an asteroid named after him as a birthday present from a professional astronomer.

Such a group was assembled in the desert near Stanfield, Arizona, on the night of July 22, 1995, when Jim Stevens turned his telescope toward the constellation of Sagittarius. (The astronomers beg New Times not to give away any more details about their observing site.)

That night, to test the newest of his telescopes, Stevens had decided to look at a series of objects called globular clusters which are plentiful in the portion of the Milky Way visible in summer months.

By this time, Stevens and Bopp had worked out a familiar routine: Stevens, who knows the sky well and can locate galaxies and star clusters and nebulae fairly quickly, would move the telescope into position using a low-powered eyepiece to find his quarry. Then he'd quickly exchange for a higher-powered eyepiece and call Bopp over to take a look. Stevens admits that he was often so eager to show Bopp a celestial object, he'd only take the most cursory look at the field of view himself.

One by one, Bopp and Stevens compared the globular clusters in the constellation of Sagittarius. The clusters each contain tens of thousands of stars, but are so far away--many thousands of trillions of miles--that they've been likened to little piles of salt on black velvet.

They're remarkable objects, but for the casual observer, if you've seen one globular you've seen them all. The experienced eye, however, sees slight variations, and when Tom Bopp put his eye to the telescope to see what Stevens had lined up--a globular cluster named M70--he was looking for such subtleties. And that's why he was surprised to see something unusual.

Bopp says that on the extreme edge of the telescope's field of view, he could see a small patch of luminosity just drifting into sight. The Earth's rotation, carrying along Stevens' stationary telescope, was bringing another piece of the sky into view, and with it an unidentified object.

"Hey, Jim," Bopp remembers saying, "is there supposed to be something else by M70?"

Stevens came over for a look. He says that the second he saw that dim speck, he knew.

Four hundred miles away in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, Alan Hale already had had the object in his sights for 15 minutes. Hale, a seasoned comet observer, had also been looking at M70 when he saw the dim patch of light nearby. And even though it was his first discovery of a new comet, he knew just what to do about it. He calmly made a drawing of the object.

In Arizona, near-panic had set in.
Nothing makes an astronomer's pulse race like the thought of discovering a comet. Amateurs make other contributions to the science of astronomy: They measure the fluctuations of stars which vary in their brightness; they monitor the weather on Mars, Jupiter and Saturn; and they discover exploding stars--called supernovae--in distant galaxies. But nothing compares to finding comets.

No other worlds, after all, carry the names of their discoverers.
In amateur astronomy, comet discoverers are royalty. Those with multiple discoveries to their credit are sanctified. Even the general public is familiar with the name of Edmund Halley, who was the first to realize that several of history's greatest comets were actually one object which kept coming back every 76 years.

The incentive to find a comet can turn an otherwise rational stargazer into a gibbering wreck. Amped-up astronomers call in false alarms: They see something that looks like a distant comet and scramble to claim credit for it, only to find that it's a nebula that's been there for millions of years, or a comet which was claimed a few days before.

Attaching one's name to a speeding comet requires a well-defined and long-accepted protocol of verification, notification and luck. Such was the task facing Tom Bopp and the other astronomers who were gathering to help him verify the discovery.

Meanwhile, Jim Stevens' mind raced. Would he get co-credit? It was his telescope, after all, and even if he hadn't seen it first, he'd pointed the scope at the comet. There was no question whose name would go first, but Stevens says at this point, he felt he was working to confirm the existence of Comet Bopp-Stevens.

His companions that night figure he must also have been consumed with another thought.

Why hadn't Stevens noticed the comet himself?

Although Jim Stevens is an experienced observer who can quickly direct his telescope toward numerous celestial objects, he's not a member of an even more specialized, dedicated cabal: comet hunters, the hard-core types who may spend more than a thousand hours at the eyepiece before hitting pay dirt.

A separate breed, comet hunters memorize star charts down to excruciating detail and blanket likely areas of the sky night after night with orderly searches.

With both professionals and amateurs competing in the game, it's unusual today for the casual observer to stumble across an undiscovered comet. But several circumstances conspired to work in Bopp's and Stevens' favor: The unusual size of Hale-Bopp made it visible from an incredible distance and, consequently, in a part of the sky that comet hunters would have thought unfruitful. But even more fortunate was the comet's accidental placement so close to a well-known celestial object--globular cluster M70.

It's hard to think of a more favorable set of circumstances for a casual observer like Jim Stevens.

Yet despite having such a rare opportunity, the prize eluded him. And after the fact, other observers who were present say, Bopp and Stevens may have engaged in a little damage control to compensate for that heartbreaking fact.

Bopp's story that the comet had drifted into view--that Stevens couldn't see it because it hadn't come into the picture yet--is one his fellow astronomers don't buy.

They say the comet was practically right on top of the globular cluster M70, and both easily fit into a telescopic view, even at the magnification Stevens and Bopp were using.

Really, there were tens of thousands of light-years between the comet and the cluster, but they were lined up in the sky so that from Earth, only a small angular measurement separated them--only 13 arc minutes, in fact, or about half the apparent diameter of the full moon.

When Bopp draws a picture of what he saw, he places M70 on the right side of the field, near the three o'clock position. He puts the comet at the extreme opposite edge, with both objects just fitting in the telescope's circular field of view.

But astronomers who were there that night say that isn't consistent with how much sky Bopp could see in Stevens' telescope.

Stevens himself confirms that with the telescope's configuration of mirrors and the particular eyepiece they were using, the field of view would have been about 48 arc minutes across, enough area to show the entire full moon and then some.

Both objects--M70 and the comet--should have fit in that field of view with plenty of room.

"I really believe that Tom has subconsciously--that he wouldn't do it consciously because he's such a nice guy--that he's subconsciously decided that that's what happened, even though some of us--and the orbital elements--say otherwise," says one of the observers who was present, and who asked not to be named by New Times.

If Bopp's widely reported story of the comet "drifting" into the field of view was intended--consciously or otherwise--to save Stevens embarrassment, it didn't address another side of the question: why Stevens didn't see the comet when he first located the globular cluster using a low-power eyepiece.

It was part of the Bopp-Stevens standard m.o.: Stevens had found M70 with a low-power ocular which would have shown a circle of sky well over a degree across. The comet had to have been in that field of view.

"Oh, yeah, it was in there," Stevens admits. But he says he's not surprised that he didn't see the thing, given the small size of the object and the lessened contrast of the low-power view.

Besides, he acknowledges, he was in a hurry. And he can't confirm Bopp's story that when Stevens plopped in the higher-powered eyepiece, the comet had not yet drifted into the field of view. The reason?

He never took a look. Stevens was too eager to get his friend over to use the telescope. And that's how he missed finding one of the largest comets ever discovered.

That night, however, there was little time to dwell on the fact that star-crossed Stevens--telescope builder, astronomy hound--had missed the chance of a lifetime.

There was work to do.
Their first step was obvious: Check star charts to make sure they weren't looking at a nebula or some other permanent feature. None of their maps showed an object near the globular cluster M70.

One more piece of evidence would confirm that they had a comet: movement. Even very distant comets (this one was 577 million miles from Earth that night) show a discernible movement against the background of stars over a period as short as an hour. Stevens says he perceived motion almost immediately, but the rest of the astronomers urged him to be sure. One of them, Bernie Sanden, made a drawing of the comet, using some dim stars nearby to make a quadrangle. An hour later, the quadrangle had noticeably stretched.

They were sure they had a comet.
Now came the most maddening step: notification. Getting credit for the discovery meant getting a message quickly to an obscure office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, a small team of astronomers acts as the world's clearinghouse for celestial discoveries. No discovery is official until that office--the International Astronomical Union, or IAU--says so.

Luckily, Tom Bopp had a cellular phone. He first attempted to call an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, hoping that a professional sky watcher there could verify the observation and then send an e-mail message to Cambridge. Bopp got an answering machine.

His second call was to an operator. But while he was waiting to get IAU's number, his phone went dead.

The astronomers urged Bopp to hit the road. Call Western Union, they told him. (Sending a telegram is the traditional method for notifying IAU, a practice that is quickly giving way to electronic mail.)

Armed with an estimate of the comet's position, Bopp raced east on Interstate 8, looking for a pay phone. He soon found one, and got a Western Union representative on the phone.

But the rep told him that he couldn't find an address or a phone number for IAU. Bopp hung up in frustration.

It was almost 3 a.m. when Bopp rushed into his north Phoenix home. His wife wasn't thrilled when he threw on the light and started rooting around in a closet. In a pile of astronomy books, Bopp found what he was looking for: the IAU address. He called Western Union, sent a telegram, and went to bed.

At 8:15 in the morning, Bopp was called by Daniel Green of the International Astronomical Union.

"Congratulations," Green said, "you've discovered a new comet."
A few hours later, Green called back, Bopp says, this time with another message: "This thing is really a monster."

In February 1998, guests of honor Tom Bopp and Alan Hale will view a total eclipse of the sun in the Caribbean from the deck of a luxury yacht. Another cruise, possibly to Alaska to view the comet next year, is in the planning stages.

Other benefits of celebrity are beginning to roll in for Bopp. His name is already instantly recognizable among amateur astronomers--when Bopp visited a Tucson telescope store earlier this month, the clerk nearly tripped over himself showing Bopp around, and invited him to be a special guest of the local astronomy club.

Not every comet discoverer experiences such treatment. But then, not every comet is like Hale-Bopp.

Bopp says that the latest estimates of the size of the comet's nucleus--its icy core--is a massive 46 miles across. Most are fewer than six miles across; the nucleus of Halley's Comet, imaged by a satellite which made a close approach in 1986, revealed a ten-mile by five-mile potato-shaped lump. Comet Hyakutake, which came within ten million miles of Earth in March, had a nucleus five miles across.

Sublimating like a piece of dry ice giving off vapor, the nucleus is surrounded by a vast cloud called a "coma." It's the coma that we actually see from Earth, not the relatively tiny icy nucleus. The coma of Comet Hale-Bopp is one of the largest ever seen. Already, still hundreds of millions of miles from the sun, the coma is more than a million miles across. There's still some question whether the comet will sprout much of a tail or put on a spectacular display, but regardless of how it performs, Hale-Bopp will be remembered for its giant size: Scientists find themselves reaching back to the Great Comet of 1811 to find a comet of similar dimensions and orbit.

Yet despite the accolades of scientists and the hospitality of cruise directors, Bopp says he can't help having mixed feelings. He admits that he continually feels a twinge of sorrow for his friend Stevens.

Both of them are unhappy that Stevens' name wasn't also attached to the comet. They point to comets which have carried three names in the past: 1975's Comet Kobayashi-Berger-Milon, for example, or 1983's Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock, for which two human observers shared credit with IRAS, an orbiting satellite.

But IAU, reacting to sophisticated comet-searching programs developed by professional astronomers, has in recent years followed a stricter set of criteria for adding the names of co-discoverers. Bopp and Stevens complain that IAU, determined to limit the names on a comet to two, has unfairly kept Stevens from his chance at cosmic glory.

Brian Marsden, the IAU's (and the world's) arbiter for discovery credit, scoffs at the notion that it was the IAU's stricter standards which put the kibosh on Comet Hale-Bopp-Stevens. In fact, Marsden says, Bopp is lucky to get any credit at all.

The Sunday morning Bopp's telegram arrived at IAU, a graduate student happened to be there--normally, the office is empty. Since Hale had e-mailed his observation the previous night, Marsden had been able to act on it right away. Confirmation of Hale's discovery came quickly, Marsden says. And if that graduate student hadn't made IAU officials aware of it, credit would have gone to Hale before they'd ever seen Bopp's Sunday telegram.

"Bopp was lucky that Hale reported the comet," Marsden says, pointing out that Bopp's telegram didn't meet IAU protocols in several ways.

And even if the telegram had been more timely and closer to IAU standards, Marsden says, there's still little chance that Stevens would have received co-credit: There's only one name on the telegram Tom Bopp sent. And that's his own.

Stevens still doesn't seem aware of that fact.
"The third name would have been mine," he says, still under the impression that his name was on the telegram, but was left off the comet by a stingy IAU.

Despite the lack of credit, however, Stevens has expressed only elation to be associated with the event. To the point of unbearability, say some of his friends, until the reality started to sink in that reporters were calling for Bopp, not Bopp and Stevens.

Meanwhile, sudden fame has a bittersweet taste for Tom Bopp.
"I feel bad about the discovery circumstances, that [Stevens] is not getting credit," Bopp admits. At least, he points out, the telescope is getting Stevens some attention.

Kevin Gill, who helped Bopp and Stevens estimate the comet's position that night, says Bopp deserves every bit of the credit he's received. "I understand that Tom feels bad that he discovered the comet with someone else's telescope. But without Tom Bopp, one of us might not have discovered the comet at all. He was the first person in the group who saw the object and decided it was an object worth identifying."

Stevens doesn't begrudge his friend the attention and the all-expense-paid trips. "That's fine! What can I say? As long as they say he has to bring his telescope," he says, and he tries his best to give the impression that the three of them--Bopp, Stevens and the discovery telescope--are a package deal.

At this Memorial Day weekend's telescope makers' conference in California, Stevens is looking forward to the attention the telescope will generate. Bopp has been asked to give a talk on the comet's discovery, and he'll be taking part in a panel discussion.

He'll be sitting on the panel with Alan Hale, as well as two of the country's most prolific comet hunters, Don Machholz and David Levy. Astronomical royalty. And Bopp will be sharing the throne.

He wears the crown uneasily, an average guy who finds himself suddenly thrust into prominence.

Stevens and Bopp and the boxy telescope have returned to the exact spot where they discovered the comet. They're cracking jokes, waiting for the gathering darkness, although clouds are threatening to ruin a night of observing.

Stevens is antsy; the New Times photographer who has just finished taking his portrait has never looked through a telescope, and Stevens can't wait to get him to the eyepiece. It's what he lives for. He jokes that he's going to have to be more careful, though, now that his excitement for indoctrinating others has cost him the discovery of a lifetime.

His friends sympathize. Fellow astronomer Tom Polakis says he hopes he'd be so big-hearted if the same thing happened to him. "I think I'd react that way, that I'd be glad just to have been a part of it," he says, but then adds: "On the other hand, I would be bummed if somebody who didn't even own a telescope took a look in mine and said, 'Hey, what's this thing you missed?'"

Stevens, however, is philosophical: "There's nothing I can do about it . . . I might as well just not have been there," he says. "What I really get ticked off at is the fact that they're only using two names on them and they were using three and four . . . That's what ticks me off, not because I didn't see it. You know, this is one of those things that happened, you know? It happened that way. I can't change history."

There's also nothing he can do about the weather. After picking out a few objects through the rapidly disappearing holes in the cloud cover, Stevens and Bopp give up for the night. They tear down the telescope, load it into Stevens' tired station wagon, and start the long drive home.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega