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.