Sunday, March 23, 2014



Unless you are the greenest of greenhorn astronomers, the wettest behind the ears novice imaginable, you know what I mean by “Burnham’s.” Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, muchachos. The three volume book once considered amateur astronomy’s premier guide to the deep sky.

Naturally, as the years have rolled on following the Handbook’s publication in 1978, books that go deeper and have more deep sky objects in their pages, like Kepple and Sanner’s The Night Sky Observer’s Guide and Skiff and Luginbuhl’s Observing Handbook and Catalogue of Deep Sky Objects, have displaced it.  As the 21st century bumbles on, even those guides have been somewhat replaced—by computer programs, naturally.

The situation with The Night Sky Observer’s Guide and the Skiff – Luginbuhl book, is analogous to the one with printed star atlases. The deepest print atlas, The Millennium Star Atlas, shows one million stars and over eight thousand deep sky objects. But… The freeware planetarium program Cartes du Ciel not only prints charts that are legible and usable, if not nearly as pretty as those in Millennium, it blows the doors off the printed atlas in object counts. A basic CdC installation might contain one million deep sky objects and tens of millions of stars. A book of printed charts can only go to deep and remain practical to use.

So it is with observing guides as well. Deep sky “planner” programs like SkyTools 3, Deep Sky Planner, Astroplanner, and Deepsky offer millions of objects, and go beyond the bare facts of names, sizes and magnitudes. SkyTools 3, for example, says this about M13 in addition to the “just the facts ma’m” data:

On this night NGC 6341 is best visible between 03:35 and 06:47, with the optimum view at 06:14. Look for it in Hercules, high in the sky in moonlight. It is detectable visually in the Celestron Nexstar 11. Use the Panoptic 22mm for optimum visual detection.

In the following 30 days this object is easy visually on March 23 through April 13, with the best view coming on March 31. NGC 6341 passes high overhead at Chiefland, Florida. It is best viewed from mid May through late October, with the best evening viewing in early August.

Most planning programs also offer images and charts for every object in their libraries (you may have to download the pictures of all but the brightest objects, but that is easy). Deepsky, even has extracts from the logs of renowned amateur observers like Barbara Wilson. Overall, there is not too much even the best book can give you that a planning program can’t. Well, that is almost true. There is an exception:  Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. It’s different, going beyond facts and appearances and offering a unique, aesthetically - oriented take on the sky that has yet to be duplicated by any computer program or book.

Burnham’s is different because its author was different. There is no doubt Robert Burnham Junior was a genius at observing and telescopes. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with people gifted for a particular thing and also obsessed by that thing, that got in the way of a successful life and career.

That isn't always true, of course. Clyde Tombaugh was probably an even more gifted observer, but he was a different kind of cat, a down-to-earth farm boy who, in the fashion of young Americans his time, the 1930s, was dead set on improving himself. His exploits as a teen amateur astronomer got him a job at Lowell Observatory, where he went on to discover Pluto, but that was just the beginning. He soon got himself Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Kansas, went to work at White Sands Missile Range, and had a long and distinguished teaching career at New Mexico State University.

Bob Burnham was, yeah, different. Today, we’d probably call him “borderline autistic.” He was extremely shy. Despite being a huge name in amateur astronomy, he was almost completely unknown to us amateurs. His reserve wouldn’t allow him to associate with us, much less speak at clubs or star parties. Other than his writing in the Handbook, all most of us knew of him came from a sad letter he wrote to Sky and Telescope in 1982 bemoaning his treatment by his publisher.

Like Tombaugh, Burnham came to the attention of Lowell Observatory as a young man—after discovering a comet at age 26. He was hired to assist in a particular project, the Proper Motion Survey, beginning in 1958. In addition to his work obtaining and blinking images for this massive study of stellar proper motion, Burnham busied himself with several subsidiary and (natch) esoteric interests, like collecting ancient coins. Shortly after coming to Lowell, he even discovered another comet (with his own 8-inch scope). Lowell was his life, with the observatory even providing him with humble living quarters.

Bob Burnham would probably have remained an unknown save for his Big Idea. He would write a great guide to the constellations, to their stars and deep sky objects, for amateur astronomers. Something like what Admiral Smyth and Reverend Webb did in the 19th Century. It would go beyond anything that had come before, however, covering deep sky objects, especially, in meticulous detail. The idea for what Burnham originally called his “celestial survey” came to him before he moved to Lowell, but as he settled in there, he began to work on it furiously.

Thus began Burnham’s life’s work. His Celestial Handbook eventually went on to comprise three fat volumes totaling over 2,000 pages. It was originally self-published in the form of loose-leaf pages beginning in 1966. You subscribed to the Handbook and got pages as Burnham finished them. This “book” wasn’t typeset; it looked as if it came straight off Burnham's typewriter.

Most people in the astronomy community, amateurs and professionals, immediately recognized Burnham’s Celestial Handbook as a classic. Not everybody was completely thrilled, however, at least not Burnham’s boss, Dr. Henry Giclas, who had hired Burnham and who was in charge of the Proper Motion Survey. Some amateur astronomers want to paint Giclas as the villain of the piece, but he really wasn’t. By all accounts, he had a basically kindly disposition and was well liked by his colleagues and the people of the community. He doesn't seem to have had a very high opinion of amateur astronomers, but that wasn’t an uncommon trait among professionals of the time.

Giclas was irritated Burnham wouldn’t allow the Lowell staff oversight concerning the Handbook. It was Burnham’s baby, certainly, but Giclas knew it would become associated with Lowell Observatory, even if it didn't become an official Lowell Observatory Publication, and he worried that any errors and misconceptions it might contain would reflect poorly on Lowell.

The staff was touchy in that regard, since Lowell Observatory had always had a reputation for being a slightly goofy place.  Actually, while Bob’s book wasn’t perfect, it probably had no more errors than the average undergraduate astronomy textbook of the day.  Anyway, the Handbook was published in book form without support from Lowell in 1979, and Burnham should have lived happily ever after.

He didn't, and the rest of his story borders on the tragic. Who was responsible for Burnham’s downfall? In the end, Burnham. He knew from the beginning that the Proper Motion Survey would eventually be completed. The friends he made  at Lowell urged him to get an education while he still had a job—he had never attended college—but he was so wrapped up in his Handbook, his old coins, and the observatory’s telescopes that he made no plans for the future that was rapidly approaching.

The Proper Motion Survey was done in the spring of 1979, and there was no money to keep Burnham on as an observer or assistant. He was offered what was supposedly the only job available, that of observatory janitor. Not surprisingly, he refused and left. How would he support himself? With royalties from the Handbook, of course.

Should Lowell have found something else for the man who’d worked for them for 20 years? Yes. There is no indication Burnham was anything but a good employee who did what he was told for two decades. Yes, I know Lowell had a history of money problems, and I know the NSF grant that funded Burnham ended with the Proper Motion Survey, but I still refuse to believe something better than fraking janitor couldn't have been found for the man.

On his own and jobless, Burnham was unrealistic about the amount of money the Handbook would bring in. As with any hardcore amateur astronomy book there was a limited audience for it, no matter how good it was, and thus little money to be made from it. Even today, with there being considerably more amateur astronomers than there were in the 1980s, few of us astronomy writers—if any—can support ourselves with just our writing. Also, not only was the Celestial Handbook what the publishers call a “specialist book,” it was huge and not very pretty—Burnham’s publisher did not typeset or redesign it; apparently they just printed it from dupes of Burnham’s original pages.  

There was likely no way the Handbook’s royalties could have supported its author for long, even in modest fashion. Not even if it had been in the hands of a mainstream publisher, which it wasn’t. Unfortunately, apparently the only outfit who would take on the book was Dover Publications, who specialized in reissues of other publishers’ unwanted books and books in the public domain.

Dover actually sold quite a few Handbooks at first, a surprising number, and Bob received some reasonably fat checks for a while. As they inevitably do, however, the royalty checks began to shrink. Despite that, he wouldn’t even consider looking for non-astronomy work. He lived with a sister for several years; always hoping his book would break big—maybe in international editions—and bring him the money and recognition he craved.

The opposite happened. Dover decided the way to move Burnham’s Celestial Handbook was through the old Astronomy Book Club, who offered it for years, usually as part of their membership sign-up come-on:  you could get the three volumes of Burnham’s Celestial Handbook for five bucks if you joined the club.

Not unexpectedly, the book club deal further reduced Burnham’s royalties and he began to sink further into poverty. The Astronomy Book Club did keep the book and Burnham’s name before the amateur astronomy community, however, and that could have been a big help if he had continued writing. In an ideal world, Bob would have followed the Handbook with another astronomy book, piggybacked on the popularity of his original work, and kept on trucking.

Unfortunately, Burnham didn't have another book in him, at least not another astronomy book. As far as I know, he never even contemplated a follow-up to the Handbook. He did begin a Lord of the Rings-style epic fantasy novel, The Chronicles of Deriyabar, but it’s unclear how far he got with it, and Dover certainly wasn’t interested in such a thing.

I believe Bob Burnham could still have been helped at this stage. There is no doubt in my formerly military mind that he could have got work with the astronomy magazines, done the star party circuit, and begun to enjoy the accolades due him from his fellow amateurs. All that could have happened and would have improved his life immeasurably, but Burnham was too shy and isolated to reach out to anybody. He did the best he could, but was just too dysfunctional to help himself.

He did do an interview for Astronomy Magazine in the early 1980s, but it had to be a self-interview; he couldn’t face talking to a stranger from the magazine. The result was odd but nevertheless touching and occasionally perceptive.

In 1986, following disappointing returns from the Japanese edition of the book, which he had counted on to turn his finances around, Burnham, whose physical and mental health seemed to be deteriorating rapidly, left Arizona. Nobody much had any idea where he was, what he was doing, or even who he was. Most of us amateur astronomers just naturally assumed the author of the book we loved so much was the Robert Burnham who followed Richard Berry as Editor of Astronomy Magazine (a different and unrelated person). Not hardly.

Bob wound up in San Diego selling his paintings of cats in Balboa Park to survive—barely. He was still receiving royalties from Dover, but he’d taken enough advances to reduce his checks to truly  minuscule amounts. He was just another troubled semi-homeless drifter hanging out in the park.

Despite his circumstances, Burnham never lost his love for the night sky, and would occasionally visit the lectures and other events held by the San Diego club, the San Diego Astronomy Association. No one there had any idea who he was, of course.

The denouement was that Robert Burnham died on March 20, 1993 at the age of 61, just another charity case in San Diego’s Mercy Hospital, after being found in distress in the park. His death was basically due to years of privation and neglect.

It was years before even his family knew of his passing, and more years before amateur astronomers learned the man who wrote Burnham’s Celestial Handbook was gone. Most of us didn't know a dadgum thing about Bob Burnham till an Arizona New Times (newspaper) article by Tony Ortega, “Sky Writer,” appeared in 1997 and slowly got passed around the community.

How about Unk and the Handbook? What’s my history with it? I’d noticed the little ads for Bob’s loose-leaf version in the magazines, but I didn't get around to buying his book until it had been out in three-volume form for a few years, in the mid-1980s. How did I buy it? I am embarrassed to say it, but I did the “Burnham’s for Five Bucks” thing with the (now long gone) Astronomy Book Club. I plead innocent, since in them days I didn't know pea-turkey about book clubs and publishers and the rights authors ought to have.

What did I think? The minute I opened Volume I, Andromeda to Cetus, I was hooked and knew this was a different sort of astronomy book. The Handbook is inscribed, “The CELESTIAL HANDBOOK is affectionately dedicated to all the young friends who have traveled with me to the far reaches of the Universe.” Then comes a poem, a poem by Robert Burnham, “Midnight,” overlaid on a nice black and white comet photo (no color inside the Handbook anywhere).

I’ve sat in enough graduate English courses in the years since to know “Midnight” really isn't much of a poem. The verse is awkward and the syntax and vocabulary antiquated, but to me it is good—maybe even great—nevertheless: “Look skyward now…/and see above…INFINITY/Vast and dark and deep/and endless…/your heritage/Silent clouds of stars.”

That is what Bob’s Handbook is all about; he strives to go beyond the nuts and bolts of observational astronomy to deeper layers of meaning beyond. That is only half the equation, though.  What makes it useful not just for contemplation in a warm den, but for observing on a cold field, is that it is simply and sensibly laid-out and filled with information about its objects.

After an introduction and a couple of chapters outlining the then-current state of knowledge in the science of astronomy, we are given the night sky constellation by constellation. Each constellation “chapter” begins with a list of notable double and multiple stars and a similar list of variable stars. For the larger constellations, these star lists can obviously run on for quite a few pages. What comes next is the meat of the book, the good stuff, beginning with a list of the constellation’s best star clusters, nebulae and galaxies. Don’t expect tons of objects. What you will find are brighter NGCs with a few ICs and a few representatives from other catalogs thrown in. Andromeda, for example, has a measly twelve fuzzies.

If that were all there were to the book, relatively short DSO lists that include only object designations, types, a description code not unlike that of the NGC, and an RA and declination (1950), there’d be no reason to pick up Burnham’s today. The simplest planning program would smoke it. What makes the Handbook valuable still is the descriptive notes that follow the lists. These “notes” are discussions of the constellation’s most prominent objects.

Each set of notes includes not just a description of a star or deep sky object, but its observational and cultural history, some of the science behind the object as it was known to Burnham, and usually an idea of what it looks like in amateur telescopes (which back then were often of 6 – 8-inch aperture). The notes on the showpiece objects can be extensive, with M31’s going on for 22 pages.

While Burnham usually (but not always) gives a good description of what an object will look through your telescope, that is only part of the draw. In the descriptive notes for Antares, Alpha Scorpii, for example, Burnham pulls together not just the threads of ancient Chaldean and Egyptian astronomy, but of literature, quoting Byron, “The mind that broods o’er guilty woes/Is like the Scorpion girt by fire.”

Even if I don’t always get a clear picture of what Burnham’s favorite objects will look like in my eyepiece, I always learn something from him, and often as much about life down here as about the objects up there. Bob Burnham tended to cut himself off from his fellow humans, but it seems his love for the stars gave him real insight into humanity.

What else? There are pictures. You hear complaints about reproduction quality, but it is actually pretty good. Black and white, yeah, and on paper just this side of pulp, but clear and most often useful. Many of the images were taken with the Lowell 13-inch camera, but there are other sources as well, including numerous shots from Mt. Wilson/Mt. Palomar instruments. In general, the astrophotos, including the amateur pictures, in the Handbook are state of the art for the 1970s. There are numerous other illustrations, too, most of them good. Finally, there is an index at the end of Volume III, but it is clearly an afterthought and not very extensive or useful.

Many was the cloudy night in the 1980s and well into the 1990s your old Unk spent with Burnham’s, a pencil, and a steno pad making my low-tech observing lists and hoping for clear skies. Burnham’s was more than that to me, though, much more. It was a friend who saw me through hard times. Like when Daddy, The Old Man, was in the hospital for the last time battling the cancer than took him way too early. I sat in the waiting room reading Burnham’s, taking solace somehow in that lonely man’s love for the eternal stars.

Today, Burnham’s Celestial Handbook has many fans in a small amateur astronomy sort of way, and some of them keep hoping it will be updated. (Lowell astronomer) Brian Skiff was, I understand, willing to take on that task at one time. Problems concerning the book’s publication rights scotched the idea, however. Burnham’s doesn't need to be updated, anyway. The science section at the front of the book was always its weakest part and is easy to skip. Some of Burnham’s object information in the Descriptive Notes sections is also outdated, but usually doesn't cause much harm for the observer. Finally, while the object positions are for Epoch 1950, it’s easy enough to get right ascensions and declinations elsewhere.

To be honest, I don’t want to see the Handbook updated. This special book has meant the world to me over the years, and I want its look and voice to remain the same. Which doesn't mean I’d been using the Handbook frequently of late. Until recently, I thought I’d outgrown it. Hell, it don’t even have the PGCs. Until I picked it up again the other day and started leafing. I ain’t outgrown it. Not hardly. How could you outgrow Shakespeare? Or Melville? Or Cervantes? And Burnham’s Celestial Handbook is our, amateur astronomy’s, Shakespeare and Melville and Cervantes.

What of Robert Burnham Junior? He is known and admired by far more amateur astronomers today than when he was alive. There’s a memorial, a small plaque, at Lowell Observatory, and an asteroid, 834 Burnhamia, was named in his honor. But his true memorial is his Handbook, muchachos, which I believe will live on just as The Cycle of Celestial Objects and Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes have lived on—and Burnham’s is a far better book than either. Do I have to tell you to go out and buy a copy if you don’t have one?

Next Time:  Down Chiefland Way…with the Mallincam Micro EX...

Certainly one of your best!
The modern successor to the style (or purpose) of the most important part of Burnham (and Smyth) is probably O'Meara's Deep Sky Companions series.

The three-digit Burnhamia is not named after this Burnham; the four-digit Bernheim is! Wikipedia says so, and I believe it just based on the numbers.
I too got Burnham's through the old Astro book club in the early 80's when I was a teenager. It and the Webb Society volumes will always be part of my library. Burnham's story is a sad one, but like you, I treasure his handbooks and the impact they had on my astronomy trek.
Burnham's is indeed a true classic. I had the privilege of accepting, editing, and publishing the self interview, and later of helping Tony Ortega's efforts to aid Burnham. At ASTRONOMY, we would have been delighted to publish (and pay for) regular contributions from him, but I think that, having completed the Handbook, he wanted to move on to other things.
HI Richard... I guess he was mainly interested in doing his fantasy novel. Wonder what happened to the MS?
Hi Rod. Great article. I've had a copy of Burnham's around since I was in the 7th grade. There was nothing else that came close to it. Sadly, I vividly recall seeing a scruffy-looking man selling paintings of cats, set up around the corner from the Reuben H. Fleet planetarium in Balboa Park. I was shocked when I later realized this was probably Burnham. It's a strange world indeed.
Unk, this is one of your best articles.

I, too, have a copy of "Burnham's" three volumes that I bought in that "buy for $5" deal. So sad to hear his life was so awful. I learned a vast amount from those three volumes.

Just now I walked over to the bookcase and, for the first time in maybe 15 years, opened one of the volumes. I found a "Herman" cartoon -- "Herman is an astronomer," with Herman with his head permanently back and looking up -- that I used as a bookmark.

The presentation isn't the most modern, but the information is there.

I'll try to find a link to that news story.

Best regards,
Wow, Greg, amazing...

I hardly have need for any more astronomy books, but your article sent me straight to Amazon for a mint, 3 volume hardcover set.

I looked up the "Sky Writer" article and was totally fascinated by the story.

Sad ending indeed. However, not an uncommon one amongst persons with genius minds.
I have all 3 original volumes i purchased new many years ago. I reread them about 2 years ago after i bought a very old refractor to restore. They have always been in a place of honor on my book shelves.

james in NC
I read the "Sky Writer" article in 1998 and, like most, learned the true story of Robert Burnham. I urge everyone to look up that article, it is one of the finest examples of journalism you would hope to find.

Excellent post, Unk. I'm coming to this thread VERY late, but just wanted to note that a couple of versions of the observing list from Burnham's are available for people who want to follow in his footsteps. I had nothing to do with compiling them, but thanks to the generosity of some fellow Cloudy Nights members I got permission to post them here:
I have Volime 1 of The Celestial Handbook,printed by Mr Burnham. No.1-3588. It is a true treasure. What a beautiful gift he gave to the world.
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