Sky Writer

Page 15 of 15

Thirty years after its first publication, the Handbook remains a popular work. But the ineluctable shift of the Earth's axis in space has made the positional data in the book sorely out of date. Other material is well behind the latest scientific understanding.

A year ago, a talented astronomer who has worked both as an amateur and a professional began considering taking on the task of updating Burnham's massive work.

His name is Brian Skiff, he works at Lowell Observatory, and he knows the night sky about as well as anyone in the world.

He says that before taking on the challenge of producing a new, improved Celestial Handbook, he decided he'd better take another look at the old one.

"I was amazed. I think it's just fantastic," he says.
It was also daunting. Skiff thought better of the idea, and has put the task aside, at least temporarily.

He has enough work to do investigating asteroids. And when he's done with a night's observing, he retires to his home: Burnham's old cabin.

On a recent afternoon in Lowell's library, he talks with Norm Thomas about the few times he met Burnham.

Thomas grins when Skiff says that the most important work ever done on the 13-inch Pluto telescope was the proper-motion survey.

"I like to hear that," Thomas says.
Later, walking across the grounds of the century-old observatory, Thomas talks about the nights when a high-school-educated shipping clerk took him on journeys to distant celestial realms. And then, with characteristic restraint, he sums up his feelings about Robert Burnham Jr.

"He is an amazing person who I value my acquaintance with," Thomas says.

The asteroid Bernheim is currently 260 million miles from Earth, moving slowly eastward in the constellation of Leo.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega