Modest Equipment + Dedication

Jack Kramer

It's been said that enjoyment of astronomy does not depend so much on what sort of telescope you own, but rather on how well you use it. Astronomers of the 18th and 19th Centuries had telescopes that were often crude by today's standards, yet they greatly advanced the science of astronomy. Today the leading edge is driven by well-equipped professionals. But throughout history, contributions have also been made by amateurs - those without formal training who pursue astronomy purely as an avocation. Considering their achievements, we sometimes find that dedication trumps technology. You are probably familiar with the story of how Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, got his start with homemade telescopes using mostly "found" parts. Here are three more contemporary examples.

You may have seen or at least recall comets named "Bradfield". At 78 years of age, Australian comet hunter William Bradfield is still out there looking for comets, and he's discovered quite a few - eighteen, to be exact. He found fourteen of his comets using a rather shabby-looking 6-inch refractor. Around the eyepiece is foam rubber held in place with electrical tape to keep out stray light. He also has a 10-inch Newtonian that is homemade, except for the mirror. The altazimuth mount is made of pipe fittings and is counterbalanced by what look to be cement paving blocks. The tube of the scope is made of old wooden boards rescued from a junk pile. I'm guessing that most of us would be embarrassed to take either of those telescopes to a public star party. But here's a dedicated observer doing real science. To see pictures of his telescopes, check out:

Another famous Aussie amateur is Reverend Robert Evans, who at last count has visually discovered forty supernovas in other galaxies. He uses pretty basic 12 and 16 inch Newtonians - the sort any one of us could lay our hands on without breaking the bank. How he has attained his record is an amazing story in itself. He has memorized the appearances of hundreds of galaxies, and then by observing them night after night he can tell immediately if an exploding star has made its appearance. What a feat of memory! To illustrate, in 2005 he made 6,814 galaxy observations during 107 hours and thirty minutes of observing, thus averaging just over 63 galaxy observations per hour.

George Alcock was a British schoolteacher who hunted for comets and novae with nothing more than 12x40 binoculars. He discovered five comets and five novae. His most famous discovery, Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock, holds the record for the closest approach of a comet to the Earth during the past two Centuries. Remarkably, he discovered it by just looking through his kitchen window with binoculars while warming up one night. Eventually he acquired surplus 25x150 German military binoculars, of the type used in WWII for scanning the Cliffs of Dover during the Battle of Britain. That was the extent of his optical arsenal right up until his death in 2000. (After reading an article on Alcock, I was inspired to go out and do a little binocular stargazing myself!)

Messrs. Bradfield, Evans, and Alcock made their marks in astronomy using just their eyes and simple equipment, along with a healthy dollop of dedication. They put to good use whatever they had. Today most discoveries of comets and supernovae come from satellite-borne instruments, automated searches, or astrophotos. But dedicated visual observers like the three portrayed here still buck the trend. I dare say that few amateurs - even those with modern, sophisticated equipment - will ever leave a comparable mark on the science.

Published in the May 2007 issue of the NightTimes