Sky Writer

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He knew it was becoming a remarkable work.
He'd made inquiries to publishers, Thomas says, but he was most often met with an, "Are you kidding?"

"I tried a few of the larger astronomical publishers," Burnham wrote later. "Some thought that there really wasn't much of a demand for anything like that. Others said that there was no way to finance such a thing. One publisher said that they would have to hire someone full-time for a couple of years just to check and edit the material. That would be a requirement, they said, if they were to publish. At a cost which would make the project impossible, of course."

Thomas says Burnham was also disappointed by Lowell Observatory's official position regarding the Handbook.

Namely, that there would be no position.
"I think Bob was counting on some promotional help from Lowell on the books, but it never happened," Thomas says. The other astronomers, Thomas says, were concerned about the effect it might have on the observatory's reputation if the books were full of errors.

"I knew him a lot better. I knew how careful he was. Other people didn't know that," Thomas says.

Other Lowell astronomers were also apparently unaware that Burnham had sought outside assistance to check the accuracy of his data.

Giclas, however, saw the books as an irritation.
"The great problem I had with him was his handbooks. I offered to have the observatory personnel here check what he put into them, but he was reluctant and would not do that. And for that reason I told him he could not make it a Lowell Observatory publication," Giclas says.

"We had a great English amateur that published books and stuff, but the stuff he had in it was wrong. His name was Patrick Moore. In later years, he learned enough to at least try to put the facts down straight. But Burnham quoted Moore as many times as he quoted Henry Norris Russell or some other famous astronomer, you know. And that was the trouble; Burnham didn't know the difference between someone who knew something and someone who didn't."

After Burnham finished collating the loose-leaf, typescripted books, Giclas says he gave them a cursory look. "I pointed out several errors in them. He may have changed some. I don't know whether he did or not."

Thomas says Burnham resented his colleagues' reaction. "They were afraid that it would be full of errors, and then it turned out to be better than 80 percent of the stuff [published about astronomy] that comes out. The good reviews quieted some people down. That, and the fact that it became quite famous because of the lack of errors."

No review carried more weight than that in the June 1966 issue of Sky & Telescope, the field's primary popular journal. The reviewer, Robert Neil Stewart, found himself referring to a recent French book with a narrower scope as the only thing he could compare to the Celestial Handbook. While somewhat guarded in his praise (he only had the first, 218-page volume), Stewart did seem impressed by the sheer size of the projected work: "Mr. Burnham's manual promises to be about 10 times more inclusive than its strongest competitor."

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.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega