Lost in the Stars - Remembering Robert Burnham, Jr.

  • By: Doug Stewart
  • Jul 21, 2000

Staff members at Frosty Drew Observatory are often asked by guests, students and new members to recommend some good books about observing the heavens. This question usually follows another one: "What kind of telescope should I buy", or "Can I get a good telescope for $200? We take these questions very seriously, because the first steps a budding astronomer takes are crucial to determining his or her enjoyment of the hobby.

The telescope question is addressed in another essay here at the Frosty Drew website. Here I would like to talk to you about what most amateur astronomers believe is the finest set of guidebooks available anywhere: Robert Burnham's Celestial Handbook - An Observer's Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System (referred to in this essay simply as Burnham's Guide). Although this is not the guide that I'd advise new observers to buy first, it may very well be the last one that they will ever need. After reviewing the many strengths of this classic treasury of background information I would also like to talk to you about the remarkable (and very unusual) man who wrote the guide - astronomer Robert Burnham, Jr.

Published as a three volume set in 1978, the massive Burnham's Guide runs an impressive 2,138 pages. It lists over 7,000 celestial objects, contains over 250 photographic plates, as well as hundreds of charts, diagrams and useful tables. Although intended largely for the serious amateur astronomer, with access to a telescope of at least six inches in aperture, Burnham is careful to include much general and background information that is very useful to the beginner. As an example, volume one begins with a 102 page section that introduces the universe to the general reader and then moves on to more fundamental knowledge for the observer. Relatively complex concepts are carefully explained in layman's terms, so that by the time the reader reaches the section on the first constellation (Andromeda) he or she will be comfortable with the terminology and basic knowledge required to enjoy the entire set.

An amateur, as Burnham points out, is someone who pursues an interest out of love - for the pure enjoyment. And in no other field is "the real thing" so available. Everyone has access to the heavens - yes, those cloudy skies do eventually clear! And it's all "the real McCoy" up there above us - just waiting to be explored. At first, the sheer number of stars and other celestial objects tends to overwhelm the beginner. Our first view of the summer Milky Way through binoculars, for instance, can be mind-boggling. Where to begin? What to look for? It can be challenging, even intimidating, if the observer hasn't done a bit of "homework" first.

A useful way to get started in astronomy is with a trip to a planetarium, such as those at Mystic Seaport, Roger Williams Park, or the Boston Museum of Science. Planetariums can provide a very realistic introduction to the night sky, and are particularly helpful to the young, who may never have looked overhead after dark - except perhaps to gaze at the moon. These facilities often have useful beginner guides available in their gift shops (don't be afraid to ask the planetarium staff for their recommendations). Next, it makes great sense to go out to a real observatory (like Frosty Drew) to meet experienced amateurs and to see some of the wonders of the heavens through a quality telescope. Here you will receive invaluable advice on equipment, observing techniques, and good reference books. Note: the Frosty Drew website, www.frostydrew.org, is chock full of useful information for the amateur.

This leads us back to Burnham's Guide. All eighty-eight constellations of the northern and southern skies are covered in individual "chapters". Some merit just a few pages; others, like the incomparable summer constellation Sagittarius, run nearly one hundred. Virtually every object of interest to the amateur using a modest telescope is covered in considerable detail. But it's not just the facts and figures that set Burnham's Guide apart from all the others. Many reference books are crammed with similar information; some present it logically and clearly - others do not. Burnham uses his lifetime of experience to guide us on a journey. Yes, the facts are all there, clearly presented. But there is also narrative - literally, the telling of a story. Whether he's discussing the derivation of a star's name, traced back many centuries into the past, or conveying the appearance of a delicate wisp of nebulosity in a remote stellar nursery, Robert Burnham illuminates his subjects as few other astronomy writers have, before or since. Consider his thoughts on what it would like to travel to the center the great globular cluster M13 in Hercules, one of the finest showpieces in the heavens (which itself is covered in 26 pages):

"The appearance of the heavens from a point within the Hercules Cluster would be a spectacle of incomparable splendor; the heavens would be filled with uncountable numbers of blazing stars which would dwarf our own Sirius and Canopus to insignificance. Many thousands of stars ranging in brilliance between Venus and the full Moon would be continually visible, so that there would be no real night at all on a planet in a globular cluster. Inhabitants of such a planet would probably know nothing of other clusters, of the Galaxy , and of the other galaxies, as their view would be completely blocked by the brilliance of their own skies. To them, the Hercules Cluster would be "the Universe."

Or listen to his introduction to Volume I:

"We are beginning a journey. It will be a journey both strange and wonderful. In our tour of the Universe we will travel the vast empty pathways of limitless space and explore the uncharted wilderness of creation. Here, in the dark unknown immensity of the heavens, we shall meet with glories beyond description and witness scenes of inexpressible splendor. In the great black gulfs of space and in the realm of innumerable stars, we shall find mysteries and wonders undreamed of. And when we return to Earth, we shall try to remember something of what we have learned about the incredible Universe which is our home."

If you think that this sounds a bit "over-the-top", I simply suggest that you drop by Frosty Drew on a clear Friday night in winter to behold M42, the Great Nebula in Orion, through our 16" reflector. I promise you that you will leave the eyepiece speechless, and that you will immediately understand what Burnham felt in his heart throughout his long career. Countless similar sights await the interested observer, and Burnham serves as the perfect tour guide. Amateurs around the world turn to his guidebooks time after time, wearing each volume ragged and dog-eared with use. (I myself am on my second set!) There is simply no better compilation of useful information and enthusiastic commentary anywhere, at any price, and I highly recommend it to all those who desire more than just a basic introduction to observing the heavens beyond the solar system.

"Look skyward now...
And see above... INFINITY
Vast and dark and deep
And endless... your heritage:
Silent clouds of stars,
Other worlds uncountable and other suns
beyond numbering
And realms of fire-mist and star-cities
as grains of sand...
Across the void...
Across the gulf of night...
Across the endless rain of years...
Across the ages."

Robert Burnham, Jr. was, quite literally, a man "lost in the stars". Born in Prescott, AZ in 1931, he progressed no farther than high school, graduating in 1949. A shy, retiring type, he had few friends, fewer romantic relationships, and spent most of his time under the stars with his homemade telescope. Little of consequence happened in his rather closed world until the fall of 1957, when he discovered his first of six comets, and attracted the attention of the media, local politicians, and the staff of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. They were all impressed that a man with no professional training, and a very modest telescope, could have achieved what astronomers in the world's great observatories had failed to do. Ultimately he was offered a job at Lowell for the not embarrassing salary of $6,000 per year (this was 1958, remember). His specialty was proper motion studies of the stars, a tedious and time-consuming process of measuring the infinitely slow crawl of stars across the sky over periods of many years.

What all the tedium brought Burnham was an intimate knowledge of the celestial sphere that was matched by few, if any, observers - at any level. It was this uncommon familiarity that enabled him to launch the beginning of his handbooks, originally published simply in loose-leaf form in 1966. He worked tirelessly on them, spending virtually all of his free time on their compilation. It certainly didn't hurt to have at his disposal all of the resources of Lowell, a world famous observatory (where the planet Pluto had been discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, using some of the same photographic plates that Burnham used years later).

Unfortunately for Burnham, he was a bit too confident about his position at Lowell, and always felt that the observatory would sponsor, or at least professionally endorse, his publication. The observatory management, however, was actually irritated by the initial and growing success of Burnham's Guides. He was not a trained professional, after all, and so the observatory was reluctant to grant its stamp of approval. Nor would it help Burnham get the work published for a larger market. So Burnham set about getting his masterpiece published himself, finally striking a deal with Dover Publications in New York for a three volume paperback edition, released in 1978. The series was a near instant success, helped along by glowing reviews in Sky & Telescope magazine and others. It quickly found its way into the libraries of tens of thousands of enthusiastic amateurs, becoming for some one of their most prized possessions. Royalty checks amounting to $10,000 to $15,000 per year supplemented Burnham's modest salary at Lowell. But as his two decade long proper motion studies were finally coming to an end, and there was no funding for additional work (the observatory was actually broke), Burnham was fired in 1980. Despite 22 years of service, and a knowledge of the heavens surpassing that of his professionally trained peers, the Lowell directors offered him nothing other than a caretaker's position. So Burnham left in disgust, his spirit broken and his nightly link to the stars he loved severed.

The ensuing years found Burnham struggling to get along on his now meager (and unpredictable) income. He was in constant battles with Dover, his publisher, over sales of his guidebooks, translations into other languages, special editions, etc. He worked sporadically on a fantasy novel - which he never completed. And yet his Celestial Handbook continued to grow in popularity. Had Burnham been a more astute businessman he might easily have parlayed his justifiable fame into a comfortable income. He would have been in great demand on the speakers' circuit, and could have held a top post in any planetarium in the country. He was actually quite a skilled speaker before such groups, a skill honed in over twenty years of observatory tours at Lowell.

But this was not Robert Burnham, Jr. He continued to shy away from publicity, at the same time that he sought recognition for his work. His small income became less and less reliable, even while Dover's success with his guide increased (it was, and remains, a featured offering of the Astronomy Book Club). Never married, living alone, he was eventually overcome with bitterness and depression, while slipping farther and farther away from family and the few friends he had. Finally, in 1985, with his guide books still enjoying great success, he disappeared from his humble Flagstaff apartment. Seven weeks later police found him wandering aimlessly near the ocean at Newport Beach, CA - disheveled and confused. Apparently the victim of some sort of mental breakdown he was taken in by his sister in her Phoenix home. But she wanted him to accept psychological counseling - something that he steadfastly refused. Then, in late May, 1986 he disappeared from Phoenix without a word and was not seen again (by anyone who had known him previously) for five years. His sister never did see him alive again. It turns out that he moved to San Diego, lived in a run down apartment building for elderly men, and sold paintings of cats in Balboa Park. He was seen there once or twice by an old associate from Lowell, but little else is known of his existence during the years from 1986 onward. In March of 1993 he entered Mercy hospital, suffering from complications of heart failure. His foot was gangrenous, he had pneumonia in one lung and he was malnourished. On March 20th, with the doctors deciding against surgery, he died - totally alone. His sister didn't learn of his death for over two years. And amateur astronomers the world around, who continued to be enthralled by Burnham's Guide, knew nothing of the lonely author's fate. Many believed that another Robert Burnham, formerly an editor of Astronomy magazine, was actually the same man. I myself wondered about that more than once during those years.

Burnham's Celestial Guide continues to enjoy great success in the world of amateur astronomy. This despite the fact that its object positions are now outdated (due to a gradual wobble of the Earth's axis about the celestial pole called precession), and even though our scientific knowledge has advanced markedly in many areas. Several authors have entertained the idea of preparing an updated and revised edition, but have been turned back, I suspect, by the sheer immensity of such a project. Nonetheless, the Burnham's Guide remains an indispensable tool for the serious amateur and will certainly remain popular, in one form or another, for generations of young astronomers.

The irony, of course, is the man. The author who touched so many lives and yet remained virtually invisible to the world around him. The untrained, but eminently professional astronomer who could have had so much - but who accumulated so little. Loneliness, bitterness, despair... these words characterized the latter portion of Robert Burnham's life. It will remain a mystery for amateur astronomers everywhere that a man, so attuned to and absorbed by the countless wonders and beauties of the universe, could have come to such a tragic and ignominious end. His legacy is intact, and we are all the better for it. But as I thumb through the pages of Burnham's masterpiece, as I do so very often, I can't help but feel saddened - and perhaps a little guilty - that as a member of an admiring public I didn't take more of an interest in the life of this fascinating and yet inscrutable man. Yes, he may have been "lost in the stars", but he continues to help thousands of us chart our way through the cosmos.

A very well worn copy of Burnham's Celestial Guide can be found in the Frosty Drew Observatory - we refer to it constantly. New copies are available in larger bookstores everywhere, or through mail order companies like Amazon.Com. And you can read more about the life of Robert Burnham, Jr. at the website of the Phoenix New Times .

Doug Stewart
Entry Date:
Jul 21, 2000
Published Under:
Doug Stewart's Columns
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