Sometime in the mid 1990's a series of humorous articles appeared under the collective title "The Ignorant Astronomer", written by Stephen R. Waldee. They were hosted at pw2.netcom.com/~regina-r, a domain that disappeared around the turn of the century, taking the articles with it. In the years since then I have made several attempts to contact the author or find an archive of the articles, all without success. I thought they were lost for ever until I recently stumbled across one of them in an old mail spool dated 1997, and so I have reproduced it below.
The author's copyright notice gives permission for its reproduction in any non-profit astronomy newsletter. Whilst this site is not specifically astronomy-related, I do have a keen interest in astronomy and so I trust the author will forgive the liberal interpretation. Should he wish to discuss this, or should he or anyone else be able to uncover copies of the other articles in the series, hopefully with a view to making the complete set available, I would be delighted to hear from them.
Our final Ignorant instalment recounts the immortal life of one of amateur astronomy's most inspiring figures, the great comet- hunter Darn Blackholes. Vying with Leslie Peltier, David Levy, and William Bradfield for the title of "Comet Hunter One Would Most Like To Watch Reruns of 'Cosmos' With", Blackholes was "one of the most beloved figures in the sport", according to astronomical historian Frank Gifford.
The night of August 11, 1849 was a great event in the history of astronomy. Not only was the Perseid meteor shower at its spectacular height (with over 4 Perseids recorded in a sixteen-hour period), but also a shower of comets suddenly appeared in the constellation of "The Bull of Poniatowskii" (an obsolete northern one, now much simplified and known merely as "Taurus", after the famous Ford Motor Co. vehicle.) Humble immigrant former-ironmonger Vesto Melvin Blackholes stood, awed and transfixed at the apparition, on the rude front porch of his modest log cabin at Clinton, Arkansas, cradling his 14-minute-old newborn son Darn Emerson Blackholes in his musclebound arms. Little did the youngster realize, squalling blindly as his father mused, that by the end of the 19th century, he would achieve worldwide notoriety, have his chiseled features depicted on a U. S. penny, discover 62 comets, 46 asteroids, 2 hemorrhoids, a Jovian moon (Runymede), and the secret to the perfect Spanish omelet.
Darn's father expected the fine, strapping lad -- whose hobby had become wrapping anything in sight with duct-tape (a trait shared with the famous telescope maker Brother Don Jobsonian) -- to save his old man from the drudgery of plowing and planting. And so, when Darn was old enough to handle the unruly team of plow horses (at about the age of 3) he was put to work in the fields, while his father (a ripe old duogenarian) retired to the cabin's patio with a cool mint julep. But the youngster, by now seasoned from exposure to three stern Arkansas winters, had other expectations...plowing a straight furrow until he was out of sight over a far hill, Darn unhitched the lead horse, swung onto it barebacked, and grasping its mane for dear life, clattered off at breakneck speed to seek his fortune.
Of course, he was dragged back home by the friendly sheriff of Clinton, Holden Barnard, who kindly spared the urchin from being shot as a horse thief. Fourteen long years of servitude later, Darn's father tragically passed on, choking on a mint sprig. The sorrowing adolescent decided at last that it was time to bid farm life adieu. Clutching his inheritance of three Confederate dollars, Darn left once again to seek his fortune.
The now-elderly, kindly sheriff once again dragged Darn home, confiscating his money for back taxes, and slapped the unfortunate youth in the hoosegow: he barely survived the experience, but only because the vicious hoose was away, hunting for bear in the piney woods. At first, Darn was seized with shame and consternation, but soon he made a discovery that liberated his churning intellect from such rude bondage. For in the night sky on the very first evening of his incarceration, Darn spied through the iron bars of his jail cell window the ghostly plumage of a faint naked-eye comet!
Pleading furiously, Darn finally persuaded the friendly old sheriff to stop assembling the hangman's platform behind the jail, and to send off a telegram to Dr. Josephus B. Marzden, the resident astronomer at the Hot Springs County Teacher's College Observatory. Dr. Marzden breathlessly arrived at the jail by fast coach the very next week, bailed out a grateful Darn, and invited him to live at his plantation "Tara Incognita", in exchange for the privilege of naming the comet C/1866 Marzden 01. Thus, Darn lost the credit for his first astronomical discovery, but gained in comfort and status in the world: the future looked bright for the first time in his troubled life!
During the next five blissful years, Darn prospered and became -- under the Doctor's tutelage -- a fine, upstanding southern gentleman, shedding his crude farmer's rags for an elegant Republican carpetbagger's cloth coat (which he found -- somewhat moth-riddled -- in Marzden's closet, under some long-forgotten testy correspondence between George Biddle Airy and John Couch Adams regarding the possible existence of the planet Vulcan.) Darn soon mastered the intracacies of celestial mechanics, long-hand logarithms, and careful measurements with the observatory's precious polished potmetal filar micrometer (an obsolute torture instrument dating back as far as the Spanish inquisition.)
Marzden had a beautiful young daughter, a typical southern belle named Merrily, who was undertaking a fine education in needlepoint and antimacassar-arrangement. It was soon evident by the glint in Darn's eye, reciprocated by blushes and shy glances from the lovely creature, that their love was mutual: after a long and chaste courtship, the two were joined in wedded bliss (during the peak of the Leonid Brezhnev meteor shower.) Thus, in 1871, Darn and his bride left the pampered surroundings of this antibellum arbor to seek their fortunes.
Mr. and Mrs. D. E. Blackholes were arrested near Macon, Georgia, by Edward Emmerich Barnard, son of old sheriff Holden. Not at all a kindly or sympathetic person as had been his pater, E. E. B. had held a grudge against Darn since their childhood, when they had engaged in a lively rivalry to accomplish naked-eye spottings of faint members of the Pleiades cluster. Of course, the eagle-eyed Darn had easily bested Edward E. by sighting no fewer than 150 stars in the asterism, but would live to regret it. Confiscating all their property for back poll taxes, the vengeful young gendarme turned the ill-clad Darn and his wife loose on foot to seek their fortunes.
Twenty hard years slowly passed, as Darn struggled valiantly to support his family by discovering comets, in response to a contest underwritten by a cleanser magnate, the Chicago soap millionaire Proctor N. Gambel. Winning $200 (then a huge sum, worth more than $197 in today's money) for each new discovery, Darn soon cleared up his back-tax problems, built a sturdy seventeen room house for Merrily and their sixteen young sons, and even had enough funds left over for a fine French telescope, a Celes-Tron et Cie Model C-1. As this was before the coming of electricity to rural Arkansas, power for the drive corrector was provided by an amazing device invented by Darn himself, reputedly harnessing the gravitational influence of the comets on the Earth to drive the clockwork (sadly, no trace of the invention has been left to posterity.) Year after year, this faithful device tracked Darn's acquisitive instrument across the heavens, as comet after comet were scooped up by his tenacious eyes.
Darn E. Blackholes lived on happily until 1956, achieving fame for his widely-read monthly question-and-answer column, "Comet Nuts", in the monthly issues of Try & Sellascope Magazine. By permission of Sly Publishers, we conclude this account of Darn's life with a typical example of the crusty wit and wisdom of the Grand Old Man of Comets:
Dear Darn: I've observed for over 500,000 hours and I just can't seem to find a comet! My equipment is impeccable: a fast f/0.2 Hoover comet-sweeper with 2" nozzle, flexible hose, and alt-azimuth rug shampoo attachment. Please help: my wife is threatening divorce, and my koala is becoming catatonic! -- Billy Bradfield, Outback, Australia.
Dear Billy: Have you checked your suction lately? The Hoover Model you mention is notorious for its easily-clogged light pollution filter. Carefully flush with gasoline, mixed with comet-hunters' cleanser, and try again! -- Darn
D. E. B. died as we know he would have preferred to go. On a fine night 41 years ago (amazingly, during the dullest and most disappointing Perseid meteor shower in recent history), the old revered comet-seeker perished under the stars, asphyxiated in the cyanogen-gas tail of Comet Irate-Erratic-Allsort. Sic transit gloria...
1. From "Gridirons and Globulars", pp. 452-3, by Frank Gifford (with Regis Philbin), 1994, Sly Publishing.
2. Named after an asterism located at approximately 17h 53m right ascension, 11d 59m declination (1830), which -- according to Admiral William H. Smyth -- "resembles, in fine, sheaves from the famous bull published by Pope Poniatowskii during the Conclave of Carpathians in Rome in 1432" (Transactions of the Royal Society, iix - cviv, November 31, 1856, courtesy of Brian Schliff, Asteroid Historian at Amy Lowell Memorial Observatory, Poesy, MA.)
3. A full listing of Blackholes' discoveries -- and recipes -- occupying 113 pages of fine text, is contained in the Annals of the Havana College Observatory, Vol. 14, 1957, compiled by the Blackholes scholar Prof. Donald E. Ô Ph.D., Wearing & Blender University, Department of Astrophysics, Cuisinarté California.
4. A former follower of the Medieval Brothers of Applegate of San Diego, California, and now a media celebrity, cardboard telescope maker, student of alternative cosmologies, and frequent guest host on The Cable Home Network Shopping Channel.
5. A 'naked-eye comet' is a type, according to authority Bortle J. Yerkes, that is stripped by solar winds of its protective clothing of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Special software is available for the Internet to prevent children from downloading images of these risqué objects.
6. b. 1804, Portsmouth, England; studied at Oxford (1819-1828), Doctor of Philology (1838); served as assistant to Astronomer Royal George Biddle Airy at Greenwich (1839-1849); and resigned in protest over the radial vector scandal, emigrating to America (1851) to become Professor of Phrenological Astronomy at Teacher's College of Ash Flat, AK. (1852-6) and eventually Head of the Physics Department at Dr. Kellogg's Institute of Digestion in Battle Creek, MI (1864-1910). He died tragically in 1920, after hearing the first radio broadcast by Station KDKA in Pittsburgh, and fearing that the future held no promise.
7. Believed stolen from the Royal Greenwich Observatory by a disgruntled Marzden, these papers were lost for over a century: they were recently recovered by the author, undergoing a course of suppressed memory hypnosis conducted by Professor A. Bell Courtney, Institute of Advanced Yearning, Emoron University, and are promised for release in 1999 by Sly Publishing of Crabtree, VT.
8. E. E. B. was later to go into business with his father Holden Barnard, marketing the Schlitz Cassegrain telescope in the United States. The venture was unsuccessful, but it enabled the Barnard to acquire the Bernhard Schlitz patents: an infringement lawsuit has been outstanding since 1947 against the Celes-Tron et Cie optic works in Paris, and the Bleed Telescope Company of Azusa, California. Currently, the interests of the Barnard family are represented by the late Melvin Belli.
9. The poll tax has been in effect in the state of Arkansas since 1791, when the state was known simply as Kansas. The recent Budget Agreement of Congress and the Clinton administration abolished it; however, in a little-known rider to the bill, the poll tax was also reinstated by the same legislation, some 153,267 lines below its abolition in the complex document.
10. However, a modern digital version of the invention has been announced for the 1998 edition of the Bleed Telescope Company's new line of 60-mm Schlitz Cassegrain instruments.
11. The famed comet was a joint discovery in 1983 by the ultraviolet satellite "Irate" (under Liberian registry), and amateur astronomers Hale Bob Erratic of Pahrump, NV. and J. Sidgwick Allsort of Manchester, England
Future instalments in the series may or may not be written, pending the outcome of a decision in a textual deviancy case by the Court of Appeals, Yokum County, AK. Previous Ignorant articles include: the Life of Telescope-Maker Russell Porterhouse, the Biography of Sir William Hershey, and the Story of the Schlitz Cassegrain Telescope. Copyright (c) 1997 Stephen R. Waldee - All Rights Reserved. Permission is hereby granted for reprint in any nonprofit astronomy newsletter.
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