Longform

A Cosmic Blunder

Page 2 of 6

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.)

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega