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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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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