Astronomy Bio...Charles Kowal

Jay Bitterman

In last month's almanac (November 1998), we included Charles Kowal as the discoverer of the object Chiron in 1977. Due to its characteristics, astronomers were not sure whether this object should be classified as a comet or an asteroid. Since Mr. Kowal is still very much alive, I thought it would be interesting to provide a more in-depth profile of his early work. The information comes from an article in Time Magazine of October 27, 1975. Kowal exemplifies the zeal of amateurs-turned-professional, such as Clyde Tombaugh ... even to the point of using the same time-honored technique that was used to discover Pluto.

The U.S. Naval Observatory needed a new survey of Jupiter's moons as a navigational aid for space probes. To assemble the vital data, it did not turn to a top-ranked astronomer but to an unassuming Caltech research associate who had no Ph.D., had published no papers and had no academic achievements to his name. "I know nothing about astrophysics or electrodynamics," said Charles Kowal, "All I'm good at is using a telescope."

As the Naval Observatory was well aware, that was more than good enough. In the course of his survey with the big 48-inch Schmidt telescope atop California's Palomar mountain in 1974, Kowal discovered Jupiter's 13th moon, the first new satellite to be found in the solar system in eight years. So it was no surprise to the Naval Observatory astronomers when Kowal repeated his triumph, discovering the 14th Jovian satellite -- a moonlet only a few miles in diameter. "It's not like the discovery of America" Kowal insisted. "It's more like the discovery of Catalina Island."

Not quite. Finding so tiny an object at such a great distance (400 million miles) demanded extraordinary perseverance and precision. "I wake up and eat breakfast with the moon" says Kowal of his topsy-turvey life at Palomar. "Dinner comes at midnight and lunch is at 5 AM." Before each exposure with the telescope, he baked the film in a nitrogen-filled oven to make it highly sensitive. Afterward he sat eight to ten hours at a stretch in a darkened room before a blink microscope. One after another, in rapid succession, the microscope gave him glimpses of two plates each showing the same section of the sky at different times. When a speck on one of the star-filled pictures seemed to move against the background of fixed stars as the device shifted back and forth, the change indicated the presence of a moving object in the solar system - an asteroid, comet or in Kowal's case, a Jovian moon.

Kowal has been infatuated with astronomy since, as a six year old in Buffalo, he read a book titled The Stars in Myth and Fact. Soon he was building his own telescopes out of pieces of pipe, cardboard tubing and home-ground mirrors. After graduating from the University of Southern California in 1961, he decided to apply to Caltech's astronomy department for a job. He had no taste for graduate studies. Explains Kowal, "I enjoy learning things, but a University is the last place in the world to learn anything."

As his first assignment at Palomar, which is owned by Caltech, Kowal searched for supernovas -- the explosions that mark the death of giant stars. At the time, none had been observed in the Milky Way Galaxy since 1604, but the sharp-eyed Kowal soon found 77 supernovas in distant galaxies. He also participated in an international search for "lost" comets that had shifted their courses. Kowal had spotted three such cosmic strays by 1975.

For all his achievements, Kowal remained largely ignored by his more illustrious colleagues, who prefer to focus on more exotic objects like pulsars, quasars and black holes. Still, the obscure research associate moved up in the organization. In 1973, his office was in the third basement of a Caltech physics building, but by 1975, he was elevated to the sub-basement. Kowal was not particularly impressed. "This building is like an ocean liner", he said wryly. "All the professors are up there on the promenade deck promenading. This is the engine room where all the work gets done."

Published in the December 1998 issue of the NightTimes