James Paulson's roll off roof observatory at the Sunridge Observatory site, taken in the summer of 1986, housing a 10 inch f/5 Cave Astrola Newtonian reflector telescope

Friday, September 17, 2010

An Unglorius Ending

How many times have you walked past a man who appeared practically homeless and aged and never thought twice about it? Yet behind every face is a story, and such was the case with one of the most famous amateur astronomers of the past century, a man whose works still are revered by many as the finest volumes on deep sky objects. I am speaking about Robert Burnham Jr, a man who discovered 6 comets, wrote the three volume set called "Burnham's Celestial Handbook" and spent 20 years of his life working on the same telescope that Clyde Tombaugh used to discover Pluto at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. And yet in his final days, he wound up selling paintings of cats in Balboa Park in San Diego just to stay alive. I wish this wasn't a true life story, but Tony Ortega does an excellent job documenting his life story in the article called Sky Writer.

I greatly admire the man for what he did and what he stood for, both professionally and in his life. Yet it is a tragic ending to what may well be one of the greatest men in his field as well, to see him withering away in poverty with such famous works and so much social injustice. Robert Burnham held a perspective much higher than our own earthbound existence, and his work will live on famously. Like so many, I was one of those who assumed he was the man who worked at Astronomy magazine all those years, and I remember the Astronomy Book Club discounting his works.

Only recently was he recognized for his efforts, and for that we should all be grateful.

1 comment:

  1. Robert Burnham Jr. was perhaps the greatest amateur astronomer to grace the Earth. I remember using (and still use) his Celestial Handbooks when I was starting out on what has been a long road as an amateur. It was as if a friend was guiding me in my journey. I am so greatful for his life. It was so sad to read of his demise. I had read Tony Ortega's article over ten years ago. It was the first I had heard of his death and I remember weeping that day. Such was his impact.