A Cosmic Blunder

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"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