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The Man Behind the Bu (β) Prefix

As I’ve sorted through the many intricacies and surprises associated with double stars over the last several years, I’ve accumulated a stellar amount of respect for the remarkable efforts of our 18th and 19th century forerunners.   They not only literally labored in the dark, but figuratively as well.

Consider William Herschel‘s mirrors with speculum coatings, the 3.9 inch refractor used by James South and John Herschel in the heart of smokey London for their 1824 catalog, the bifilar micrometers used by all of them to measure position angles and separations that were illuminated first with candles and later with kerosene lamps, the absence of comprehensive printed double star catalogs, and of course, lengthy communication times, limited research facilities, and no fancy electronics.  Nevertheless, they persisted out of sheer dedication and love for the endeavor, coaxing unbelievable performances from crude instruments — performances that many of us have great difficulty coaxing from vastly improved instruments.

The one 19th century observer I consistently run into time after time during my double star excursions is Sherburne Wesley Burnham, whose name is associated with approximately 1500 double star discoveries.   I’ve learned not only to respect and admire his observations, but I repeatedly turn to the many publications he left behind when I’m searching for information about observations made by his predecessors or associates.   So when Neil English, author of numerous books on astronomy, recently asked if I would like to join him in writing an essay on Burnham, I didn’t hesitate.    You can read our combined effort on his web site, which can be found at this link.

Enjoy the essay, and Clear Skies!   😎

Map of Distribution of Stars Discv'd by Burnham


5 Responses

  1. John; fine write once again! I still have the tab open to go back and re-read the essay again a few more times. It peaks my curiosity as to what else influenced Burnham is his early life to allow him to gain entry to the great instruments he was privileged to use. As was probably no different than now, one needed more than a high school education! I’ll see if I can do more research into his private life… I found this Harvard University article: http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu//full/1921PA…..29..309B/0000310.000.html

    There doesn’t seem to be a lot about his personal development. Its another example of the “go-to-itive” nature of rare individuals who make significant contributions to science.

    So, my interest has been rekindled!

  2. Thanks for the link, Terry!

    It came through garbled for some reason on this screen, but the email message I received from WordPress had the correct link. I replaced the garbled link with the title of the article and added the correct link in the edit screen.

    This is an article from Popular Astronomy of June-July 1921 written by Burnham’s sidekick at Lick Observatory, E.E. Barnard. I knew it existed, but had never been able to find it, so it’s a great find.

    It’s a nineteen page .pdf document, so it will take a bit of time to download.


  3. Hi John!
    What a wonderful read…the links to the life and times of S.W. Burnham. If you have an opportunity, could you add them to the links section in our double_star_imaging group. I am sure others, there, would find it interesting.

    Cheers, Chris.

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