We Observe by Anthony Mallama
The Observing Dynasty
Updated January 18, 2002
The 16" Stokes Reflector
THE OBSERVING DYNASTY
The experiences gained from meteor observing, photometry at Larry Lovell's observatory, and visual estimates of Nova Delphini prepared the club for its major foray into the world of serious scientific research. Even during the low period around 1970, the potential was developing, as Bruce Krobusek and new member Chris Stephan were finding their way around the night sky.
A little-known influence on the club was a young college professor on the staff of Dyer Observatory at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Dr. Douglas Hall was special because of his involvement with amateurs. I'm not sure whether I was the cause or the effect of this interaction, but I am sure that he has since then become one of the most important professionals who involves amateurs in his research on a regular basis.
Dr. Hall's specialty was variable stars, eclipsing binaries in particular. His technique was photometry, a field ideally suited to amateurs because it is not too costly. One of the first stars that I helped Doug with during my student days at Vanderbilt was BS Scuti, a 10th magnitude eclipser in the same field as M-11. Not only was it a treat to observe at the telescope, but some of the other data we were using was made visually! I could hardly believe it, here we were preparing an article for a professional journal, and we were basing part of it on visual observations made by a group of Swiss amateurs who were timing the eclipses of this star with small telescopes and their eyes.
In science you do not pick and choose your data, you use ALL the available data that is good. In the field of astronomy where there are many more stars than there are scientists, amateurs with or without photometers are providing good data.
The Start of Something Big
When I was elected Director of Observations for 1973, I was already making visual observations of eclipsing binaries on my own. It only remained to impart that knowledge and enthusiasm to a few others in the club and we were on our way to an observing dynasty. My method was to provide personal or group instruction in variable star observing to anyone who would listen. Some of the members took right to it, and others did not. The fastest learners were Bruce and Chris. Both were already avid observers when I met them and needed only a gentle shove in the right direction. In fact, within just a few years both of them were publishing their own observations in professional journals. All of us were very good at making observations of long period variables for the AAVSO, but our specialty was eclipsing binaries. During an eclipse, a practiced visual observer can make observations at ten-minute intervals and record the 'light curve'. At a later time, the observed light curve can be plotted on paper and the time of minimum light or mid-eclipse can be determined with good accuracy. These timings are important because the orbital periods of many binaries are unstable, and the only way to track and understand the dynamics of these stars is to time the minima.
The news media made Comet Kohoutek into a front-page story because it was predicted to be bright enough to be seen in broad daylight. It did not live up to its expectations, but it did provide another object for eager club observers to focus on.
One of the fascinating things about comets is their unpredictable brightness. Undoubtedly, it is related to the vaporization of cometary ices and the subsequent chemical changes. This process was not well understood at the time and is still not completely known.
By late in 1973, I was a graduate student at Toledo University. I met Dr. Armand Delsemme, an internationally known comet expert, and had an experience that was almost a repeat of the one with Dr. Hall. Specifically, Dr. Delsemme was very interested in amateur visual magnitude estimates of comets. He did not collect them himself, however, he was firm in his conviction that such observations were of great scientific value. He encouraged me, and I in turn encouraged the club to observe.
As Director, I made charts of the path of Comet Kohoutek, which included stars with known magnitudes plotted alongside. The variable star observers were thus able to find the comet in their telescopes, throw it out of focus and compare it to the stars in order to make brightness estimates. Many other detailed observations of the comet, such as tail length and orientation, size of coma, brightness of nucleus, and description of the overall appearance were recorded and submitted to the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO).
Observation of the planets was nothing new to club observers. Jupiter had been the favorite over the years, because it is so large, and its features change so markedly. Likewise, meteor observing went back to the club's beginning. The new emphasis on variable stars focused attention on the sky and swept along planetary, meteor, and even solar observers, in a coattail effect. These observations were eagerly collected at the meetings and sent into the appropriate organizations.
Bigger telescopes were also a factor at this time. We were no longer little boys who were impressed by 6-inch 'scopes. I rebuilt Don Henning's original 10-inch in 1971 making it the biggest telescope in the club. George Gliba came home from the Air Force in 1973 with a brand new Celestron-8 (Click for Picture), our most sophisticated instrument. Soon afterward, Denny Jefferson built the club's largest instrument, for the second time. This time it was a 12 1/2-inch. Shortly thereafter, Chris Stephan built a 14-inch RFT. We were deeply impressed by the Pioneer-10 and 11 flybys of Jupiter, however, we knew we had a very fine view ourselves from Earth.
Observer's Round-Up and Calendar
Another factor that aided in club observing was the regular reporting of results in the Valley Skywatcher, which was published religiously every second month in those days. There was a friendly rivalry among observers, and you could follow the races between Krobusek, Stephan, Gliba, Mallama, Rehner, Jefferson, Szeczak, Yanulaitus, Quesinberry, Mallion and others to see who could report the most variable estimates, or planetary drawings. The Observer's Round-Up and Calendar gave the observer's totals every issue and a special summary at the end of each year. In 1975, when I stepped down as Director because of my move to Maryland, Bruce stepped in for the next three years. Tom and George followed Bruce, and Dan served in the post for 1979 and 1980. Each of these Directors continued to publish the Round-Up and Calendar. These articles provide documentation of our activities at that time. The club totals are still interesting too, and should serve as an example of what can be done:
Club members were primed for observing by the mid-1970's, and were treated to three of the finest sights of the past several decades. The first appeared on a warm summer evening in 1975. I found out about it through an urgent phone call from a local AAVSO amateur in Maryland. It was a new second magnitude star in Cygnus, Nova Cygni 1975. When it peaked at magnitude 1.9, it became the brightest nova in 33 years. Nova Cygni faded quickly, but will be long remembered.
Comet West burst into the morning sky during March 1976. With a first magnitude head and a pair of 25-30 degree tails waving toward zenith, Comet West looked bigger than life for the first few days of the month. The intensely bright coma bore magnification well, and revealed prominent concentric bow-shock-like features. The nucleus was even brighter, and telescopic followers were startled to see it fragment into 3 large pieces and 1 small one during the second week of March.
The third spectacular was discovered by an amateur viewing M-100 on the night of April 18, 1979. It was one of the brightest supernovae in recent years, and was widely observed by club members including Director Dan Rehner who saw it in his 6-inch.
As the main observers of the 1970's moved on to other locales and other interests, the observing dynasty waned. A leader emerged briefly in 1982 when Randy Phelps became Director of observations. Randy made same excellent star charts for observing variables. However the momentum had already been lost and no one took up his call to observe. A great era in the club history had ended.
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