This article originally appeared in the Fall 1981 issue of the local astronomy club's publication "Inside Orbit."
with G. M. Ross
In recent years, my feelings for Robert Moler have changed from mistrust to the warmest admiration. As time has passed and he has won the struggle for many bar tabs, I have come to regard him almost as a friend. Moler has an assertion, to which I wholeheartedly subscribe, that when it comes to interpreting things seen in the night sky, John Q. Public doesn't know apples from avocados One might say that is because I am what is called nowadays an "elitist," to which I quickly agree. Yep, just me and Isaac Asimov against the world Nonetheless, this is true about casual interpretations of natural phenomena about which the observer knows nothing, and prior to the moment didn't even pretend to know anything. Moler has noticed this problem in his years as radio celebrity and hanger-on at the Leelanau Observatory, people who for their entire adult lives have never viewed nature at night through anything but a 24 inch screen, suddenly see an Unidentified Flying Object.
Please do not mistake the above pejorative as a sign that we should dismiss the UFO question as Menzelian rubbish Not at all There is probably much to be learned by its study, as Dr Hynek can attest But today as much as in the 1950's, the flying saucer question is served up in vast amounts in forms of varying quality. On the best end of the spectrum is the film "Close Encounters," truly a masterpiece with a message, while on the other end is the all too seductive notion of "Science-doesn't-know-everything-so-leave-me-alone-with-all-this-rationality I-just-want-to-be-with-my-Feelings" Astrology, mood rings, Psychology Today, and the "Me Decade," are part of the same bit There is something really fascinating about the notion of nocturnal will o'wisps squirting or lazying across the sky in defiance of Newtonian physics, the Royal Air Force and the Harvard astronomy faculty. So everybody's seeing 'em In fact, I actually believe that we have passed the point that solid citizens shuffle and mumble as they report a UFO experience. Now there is a certain assurance, even eagerness that comes with positive social sanction. In a way assurance is good - at least witnesses are willing to step forward. In a way it is bad - a lawyer might call it a "homogenization" of witnesses, the wheat with the chaff.
So we live in the age of the UFO, at least for a while Dreadful is it that respectable planetaria spend much program time on the question "Yessir, right here in River City!" An abomination that our finest minds, which used to be occupied in lunar and planetary studies, now purchase books on Mysterious Mysteries found next to the National Inquirer. An atrocity that even the Detroit Observational and Astrophotographic Association, gin soaked bastion of 18th Century rationality, should devote a section of its 1977 slide show to strange lights in the skies, and among the Juniors of the GRAAA, the Hope of Tomorrow, we only occasionally hear mention of the "MOON."
Now let us return to Bob Moler. Moler too, beneath that country boy of an exterior, is an elitist one can tell by his mistrust of the observations made by the masses He is like Thomas Jefferson, who declared that he would rather believe that Yankee professors had lied, than believe that stones fell from the sky. (At around the same time, the French Academy issued a similar scathing denunciation of meteorites). If his own mother told Bob that the sky had split in prelude to the Second Coming, he would dismiss her as a wino But he would believe me Of course he would Not only do we share a deep spiritual communion, but I am a Man of Science - meteorologist, limnologist, botanist, psychologist, and naturally - astronomer I could tell Bob anything and he would be the first to suggest that we publish, so deep is our mutual admiration.
Well, even the mighty can stumble, and now for the first time in print anywhere is the full story of the triumph and tragedy of what happened It should be noted that the Statute of Limitations just expired on this incident, so do not even think about calling a grand jury. We will take a brief trip down memory lane, back to a time when Nixon still clung tenaciously to the White House, when the man-in-the-street had never heard of Saudi Arabia, or for that matter James Earl Carter. It was Our Year of Grace 1973.
The night of 22 September was a deep transparent one, with the exception of some occasional roving fields of cloud. It was certainly good enough for me to make a journey early that evening into southern Mecosta County for the first of my history making (at least GRAAA history) photographs by starlight. That business is another story. After returning from the north somewhat before midnight, I stopped at the Marron's where I partook nonalcoholic refreshment, and as they were nodding asleep into their coffee cups, thought it advisable to leave. I drove up Kissing Rock Hill to the Veen Observatory where T.M. Ross was practicing classical guitar. It should be mentioned that Maestro Ross is no stranger to astronomy, and even is the instigating force behind my investigation of the oboe as a possible astronomical instrument. (See "Over the Hill" in this journal, 1977) Since 1973 was some years in advance of the oboe experiments, Maestro Ross' credibility was still intact.
The Moon would not rise until the small hours. It was a beautiful night, so I went to work in the 12 1/2" Borr telescope dome doing something that has been lost in the mists of time because this was in the Dark Ages of my astronomy when few records were kept. Even though a Saturday night, the Brothers Ross had the joint to themselves - perhaps it was the Dark Ages of others' astronomy, too.
It was after a point getting late. Large fields of high cloud started to bedevil the sky, necessitating a wait until they cleared. Gemini was in the east, with Saturn in the western foot of the twins near M 35. Since this was the first time in '73 that I had had a chance to observe Saturn telescopically, I did so. My previous trip in late August put it too low in the eastern sky from the vantage of the Veen Observatory. Gradually it began to occur to me that something was wrong up there, something misplaced, with my mental star map of the area strangely out-of-joint. I cannot now recall what I was using for a star chart, probably the Atlas Becvar in the large dome, because there was some reference to a map. A star was missing. That was the problem - a star was not where it should be, or it had taken a decrease in magnitude. or something. Eta Geminorum was gone.
My mind groped for some explanation of what might have happened. It was significant to me that Eta was a variable star of very small amplitude, mag. 3.5, class giant M 3. Perhaps it took a plunge? That was possible but unlikely I was not sure of the variable type it was, probably irregular, but I racked my punchy brain trying to recall anything I had read about abnormal behavior by Eta Geminorum itself, or by a class of variables of which it was a member Certainly it was no R Coronae Borealis. The fact that the plotting on the Becvar Atlas gave no hint of a sub-naked eye minimum meant nothing - the astrography was done many years ago. But what about an occultation by Saturn, or a near miss which would render the fainter star lost in the planet's glare? Like a man possessed, I swung the large reflector around, in which had been inserted a low magnification eyepiece, and there swam the familiar "ringworld." A bright star was not to be seen nearby. Now obviously an occultation of Eta Geminorum by Saturn would be a major event, or even a very close conjunction, so I went down to the library to search the literature, just to be sure. Sky and Telescope, the American Ephemeris, the Harvard Announcement series. Nothing. That is no current astronomical periodicals were in our Observatory library I almost went berserk. This was during a period when the GRAAA did not subscribe to such things.
They came to the Observatory from the Planetarium after they were no longer of current interest I tore up the stairs, verging on apoplexy My brother was so startled, he almost put his foot through a lute I was sure that no occultation was at stake, but I was raving with disbelieving rage There was only one thing to do - get confirmation - always get confirmation I showed my brother lower Gemini; he acknowledged the pattern of planet and stars in the foot.
Not bothering with the usual ritualistic run down the Glory Road, I melted the pavement to the Marron house with my Renault They had to have a current Sky and Telescope and I had to show Jim that Eta Geminorum had gone crazy and taken a plunge in magnitude. I have no idea what time it was. I pushed through the darkened house to the hall lights; dogs were going complete bananas. Cursing and placating all the way down the hall, I must have sounded like the Bonus March and the Hound of the Baskervilles. Without ceremony I burst into the Seat of Power - the master bedroom "Jim…Eta Geminorum has fallen to below visual!" (or something to that effect; it has been seven years.) He didn't say anything, just stirred. Evie was wide-awake and probably fumbling for the stiletto under the pillow. "Jim! Something has happened to Eta Geminorum!" And do you know what he said? "Oh, you're drunk" Here I am at some incredible, ungodly hour standing in his bedroom with my brain turning somersaults about the event-of-the-year in variable...and this beat-out thespian, this crypto-Nazi tells me I'm DRUNK!
Seeing it's no use, that the creator of the over-rated Marron Refractor is just a slugabed and a cretin, to boot; I retreat down the hall, turn out the lights and go into the living room. There I attack the world famous Marron Magazine Pile looking for a current Sky and Telescope. They have issues of Popular Mechanics from the bloody 1950's, but no current issue of anything astronomical. Oh my achin' eyes!
The Renault practically flies back up to the Observatory. At this point, noble reader, I will admit that my actions were no longer rational. A witness for the Warren Commission could have been doing no worse, but life is to live, right? What is existence but pallid without one bout with AA, one trip to Lexington, one attempt at public office...kapeesch?
I got on the Observatory telephone. In no way was I to make the same mistake that a certain DOAA'er and I made with Nova Cygni in 1967 (another story). I had to call Mark John Christensen in Detroit, but wouldn't you know it, the stupid fool had an unlisted number. A Big Professor already, and he thinks he's a talk show host or something. So I called his parents. Mrs. Christensen answered because they figured that it was just some nut at that hour. She, of course, understood the situation, being one of the most urbane women I know, in fact telling me that I was her favorite Midnight Caller. Now there's a Woman! So I called Mark, and he was not really coherent on the line, but like a super sport he would go outside with his little telescope and look around. (And he subsequently did.) Now there's his mother's son.
Then I called the residence of Gerald Persha, now of Lowell...you know, the OPTEC Pershas...but then of Royal Oak, the town Father Coughlin made hum. His father answered. When I asked to speak to Boy Genius, Nick answered with amazing courtesy that he was not in his chambers, but was spending the night at the observatory of the Warren Astronomical Society. What bloody bull. W.A.S. observatory my eye! He was out romancing somewhere and this "observing party" stuff was a smoke screen, but naturally I was too decent to make an issue of it. I know Jerry Persha. I have seen the REAL Jerry Persha. We even have pictures to prove it. I thanked Mr. P. and hung up, thinking that the founder, owner and president of DOAA Enterprises was just like the proverbial policeman: never around when needed, but when one is least prepared - there he is, rummaging about in the refrigerator in search of a beer.
Satisfied now that I had at least attempted all astronomical authorities who counted, I now sat back to contemplate a stellar event that was truly unique: a mediocre variable star like Eta having catalepsy and plunging several magnitudes, in this case below naked eye visibility. It would be interesting looking up the particulars on this star in Detroit and Ann Arbor. I, of course, probably did not discover this phenomenon, but was one of the first to notice the anomaly in Gemini. Certainly the first in the GRAAA, but then who else has my prowess?
My brother took all this fairly much in stride, being not familiar with variable star astronomy. He consulted no charts, but after a look at lower Gemini, went back to transcribing Vivaldi for the lute and recorder. Whenever he accompanies me to Kent County, the artistic center of mass for the region is displaced measurably in his direction. Perhaps that set up an additional slight deflection in the Earth's magnetic field, which then in turn somehow affected the sky's transparency to long wave radiation, which then proceeded to affect my brain...how can I explain my shock, my dismay, my mental coventrization...when I finally realized what really was going on up there.
Oh no. What a debacle. Nothing had happened to Eta Geminorum, nothing at all. Everything in that part of Gemini was intact, but what had happened was a figure and ground confusion because Saturn was in the immediate area. This planetary presence caused a temporary karmaic occlusion, as my brother puts it in my fatigue-fogged brain. I thought that Eta Gem was 1 Geminorum! Eta is at R.A. 06h 12m, Dec +22 31' (1950), while that morning Saturn was positioned at 06h 17m, +22 18', in other words, at some small distance from the star. Now - I have been used to visualizing the foot of the westernmost Twin as a short arc of stars, an arc which terminates with 1 Gem. This is the way it has been since the second Eisenhower administration. With Saturn in the asterism, there was some visual confusion which saw the arc as including Saturn and omitting 1 Gem, which is not a very bright star. Eta then took the contextural place of its fainter neighbor, which meant that it turned up missing - the fact that the stellar arc was considerably shortened in so doing was lost upon this observer. How could I EVER explain this to the Boys at Big Jack's?
So now we come back to Bob Moler as a denouement. Here I am, a Man (and not a "person" either) who prides himself on being a practitioner of the Old Time Religion of amateur astronomy. A man who can trace Camelopardalis, but who knows nothing of neutron stars; stopped dead because a silly planet happened to intrude into lower Gemini. To put words in the mouth of the Venerable Moler, "If this can happen to Ross, what are the chances of getting the facts straight out of the average stockbroker on his yearly camping trip? What does this imply for the 'UFO Experience'?"