Tales from the Golden Age: A Short Commentary on Walter Scott Houston’s,”Deep Sky Wonders.”

A Distillation of observing notes from the late Walter Scott Houston(1912–93).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Between 1946 and 1994, the noted American observer, Walter Scott Houston, wrote the Deep Sky Wonders column for Sky & Telescope magazine, entertaining several generations of amateur astronomers across the English speaking world. His great personal knowledge of the deep sky and enthusiasm to share his experiences were downright infectious. With beautiful prose and just the right amount of technical detail, Houston’s writings presented delightful ‘word pictures’ of the many deep sky objects that adorn the night sky. The present work, first published in 1999 by Sky Publishing Corporation, represents a distillation of his  writings which appeared a few short years after his untimely passing in December 1993.

The copy of the book discussed here refers to the paperback edition (309 pages), containing a preface, followed by 12 chapters covering all the months of the year, and ending with source references, a bibliography and index. The selective writings are edited by the noted observer and former Sky & Telescope columnist, Stephen James O’ Meara.

The Preface

This is divided into three distinct sections with commentaries from O’ Meara, Brian Skiff and Dennis di Cicco, who provide interesting biographical details of Houston’s life and observing philosophy.

Born in Tippecanoe, Wisconsin, on May 30 1912, Houston developed an early interest in optical instruments, constructing his first telescope as a preteenage boy: a 1 inch aperture refractor from salvaged spectacle lenses, and mounted inside a cardboard tube, which provided a magnification of 40 diameters. But we also learn that ‘Scotty’ was far more knowledgeable about microscopes than telescopes. Growing up in an era where good telescopes were very expensive by modern standards, Houston, like so many of his contemporaries, resorted to grinding his own mirrors in order to sate his growing aperture fever. This resulted, we are further informed, in a badly made 6 inch primary mirror he finished in 1930, but it was soon improved upon when he apparently produced a first rate 10 inch silver on glass mirror which formed the heart of Houston’s first serious telescope, an instrument that consolidated his lifelong love for the treasures of the deep sky. The interested reader will note that Scotty’s 10 inch mirror is on display at the R.W. Porter Museum of Amateur Telescope Making, Springfield, Vermont.

After leaving school, Scotty studied for a degree in English literature at the University of Wisconsin and it was here that he made his acquaintance with a one Joseph Meek, who stoked his interest in observing variable stars. Indeed, after joining the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) in 1931, he went on to contribute an astonishing 12,500 observations throughout his long life!

Scotty was quite the scholar, securing teaching positions at various public schools and universities across the American Midwest. During World War II, he served as an instructor for pilots at the Army Air Force’s Navigation School, at Selman, Louisiana. Finally, he moved to Connecticut, where his skills in the written word were put to good use as an editor for American Education Publications, a post he held until his retirement in 1974. He and his wife, Miriam, were inveterate travellers, visiting astronomical conventions and star parties across the United States, where he endeared himself to the community, which had so admired his Deep Sky Wonders column over the years and decades since its inception back in 1946.

Observations made with this homemade 10 inch f/8.6 reflector formed much of the basis of Scotty’s earliest astronomical forays, conducted under the dark skies of rural Kansas throughout the 1950s. That instrument must have been a best of a ‘scope, but it served as his workhorse for many years. Scotty was also very enthusiastic about using binoculars, as we shall discover. His association with the AAVSO introduced Houston to arguably his favourite telescope;a 4 inch f/15 Clark achromatic refractor. On page 84 of Deborah Warner’s book, Alvan Clark & Sons, Artists in Optics, we learn of more details about the instrument:

William Tyler Olcott, the author of several popular books on astronomy, used a 4 inch aperture Clark refractor made in 1893. A wooden tripod supported the brass with nickel tube and a hand driven work wheel. Olcott later gave the telescope to Phoebe Haas (q.v), who then gave it to the American Association of Variable Star Observers, which in turn loans it to its members. The Olcott instrument is now being used by Walter Scott Houston.

pp 84.

A neoclassical 4 inch f/15 refractor, similar to that used by Houston, and once used by this author for several years.

Later in his life, Houston acquired a 5 inch Apogee ‘Moonwatch’ rich field refractor delivering a fixed power of 20x, which he used to sweep the skies, and which features in many of his later monthly columns.

Scotty eschewed the growing number of amateur astronomers who were becoming increasingly obsessed with their equipment. He was an observer, not a ‘gear head’. Brian Skiff explains:

Scotty had a light touch and avoided being distracted by technical details. You don’t find any invidious comparisons of different telescope or eyepiece brands in his writing or much about the nitty gritty of equipment at all, because Scotty knew that the most important piece of equipment was the eye, and its training the most important activity; all else was trivial in comparison. Time wasted arguing the virtues of one eyepiece over another was time not spent honing your observing skills.

xiv

How times have changed! Many contemporary amateurs, despite having an embarrassment of riches of good equipment, show breathtaking ignorance concerning the noble art of observing!

It was with this modest cache of instruments that Walter Scott Houston created his literary magic; word enchancements that we shall explore in this essay.

Houston invited many of his readers to comment on the more speculative commentaries he made in the course of making his observations, and accordingly invited them to write him with their findings. In this way, Houston built up a formidable correspondence base with fellow observers across the United States, Canada and further afield, and when he attended star parties he would get to finally meet his admirers in person. Back in those days before internet, Scotty corresponded with his fans via snail mail. Specifically, they’d receive a small blue postcard with a personalised message. In these and other ways, he endeared himself to his readers and inspired many to take up the gauntlet to explore the riches of the deep sky.

One of his greatest admirers was W. H. Levy, of comet fame. Indeed, according to Skiff, it was ‘Twinky’ (aka Houston), who provided the essential push to him becoming the celebrated comet discoverer he subsequently became:

David Levy tells the story of meeting Scotty at a Deep Sky Wonder Night in northern Vermont in late August 1966. He had just begun comet hunting some months earlier. In the middle of the night, David took a break and began telling Scotty of his hopes to discover a comet someday. Puffing slowly on his pipe, Scotty asked David what the sky was like outside. He answered that it was pretty clear, dark and moonless. Scotty then asked if David’s telescope was out there, to which the answer was “yes.” Scotty took another puff on his pipe, looked up quizzically and said, “Well, David, you sure aren’t going to find a comet as long as we’re inside talking about it!”

xiv

In 1986, Scotty underwent surgery to remove a cataract from his observing eye. As we shall see in his discourses, this greatly increased his sensitivity to shorter visual wavelengths as well as ultraviolet radiation. We will also discover a wealth of information concerning what ordinary individuals achieved using modest instruments, thereby providing yet more historically relevant documentation on what experienced individuals saw under the starry heavens. The individual chapters cover the entire observer’s year, parcelling the sky up into twelve slices, with each fully two hours of right ascension in width. So, why not pull up a chair and enjoy some of the highlights of this charming and inspirational work from memory lane.

The Great Nebula in Orion, the majestic furnace of winter. Image credit Wiki Commons.

Chapter 1: January

I learned my constellations in Tippecanoe, Wisconsin, a town that long ago vanished into the urban sprawl of Milwaukee. Back then Tippecanoe was a rather treeless tract of farmland bounded by the great clay buffs of western Lake Michigan. The sky ran right down to the horizon, with an almost irresistible force, called for you to look at it. In January 1926, after a midnight walk home from ice skating, I wrote:

Snow crystals like blue diamonds, but with a dreamy gentle radiance totally unlike the harsh gem. A rail fence as black as Pluto himself runs along the road. The forest is black in the distance. The landscape is a masterpiece in ultramarine and sable.

As if in contrast, the heavens above blaze with a thousand tints. Incomparable Orion leads the hosts with blue Rigel, ruby Betelgeuse, and bright Bellatrix. His silver belt and sword flash like burnished stellar steel. And more advanced is the dark and somber Aldebaran, so heavy and gloomy. In fitting contrast are the delicate Pleiades, who sparkle “like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.”

How can a person ever forget the scene, the glory of a thousand stars in a thousand hues, the radiant heavens and the peaceful Earth? There is nothing else like it. It may well be beauty in its purest form.

pp 1/2

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Author’s note:  Few books make an entrance like Scotty’s opening lines of chapter 1. Recalling the days of his youth, when the skies near his home were sublimely dark and crystal clear, and when light pollution was simply non existent, Houston thrusts us headlong into the starry universe of a freezing January night. Such a scene reminds this author of the sable skies of his own youth, when he’d sit on his back on a windswept sand dune on the south coast of Ireland during summer holidays, where the stars, too numerous to count, would stretch all the way down to the horizon! The brilliant luminaries of January, coupled to the naturally darker sky experienced as our planet faces away from the hustle and bustle of the down town Milky Way, would have certainly bewitched the young sky gazer and instilled in him a great yearning to explore its cavernous reaches with optical aid.

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On page 2 through 5, Scotty introduces us to the glories of the Great Nebula in Orion, a most fitting place to start Deep Sky Wonders. He describes how the nebula was first ‘discovered’ in 1611 and informs us that Sir William Herschel turned his first homemade reflecting telescope toward it in 1774 in the aftermath of some two hundred failed attempts to fashion a decent speculum mirror! Scotty’s mind wanders, as he discusses the drawings made of the Orion Nebula by telescopic observers prior to the advent of astronomical photography;

Drawings of the Orion Nebula made before the influence of photography raise more questions than they answer. Only superficially do the sketches bear any resemblance  to one another. The bright section of the nebula drawn by Bindon Stoney using Lord Rosse’s 3 foot reflector in Ireland doesn’t begin to match what I saw in 1935 with the 36 inch reflector at Steward Observatory in Arizona. Trouvelot’s 1882 lithograph based on observations with the Harvard 15 inch is a reasonable match to my view through a 3 inch. On the other hand, John Mallas’ drawing in the Messier Album, made in the 1960s with a 4 inch telescope shows features that most observers need a 10 inch to see.

pp 4

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Author’s note: It is difficult to see the precise point Scotty is making here. Certainly, the visual acuity of the observer has a role to play, and it is certainly true that a good observer with a small telescope will probably see more than a poor observer using a larger instrument. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly true that for observing the Orion Nebula (or, indeed, the vast majority deep sky objects) that a good observer will see more in a larger instrument than the same individual will see in a smaller one, provided the optics are working as they ought to.

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The Nebula, as Scotty ably reminds us, responds well to all magnifications. “Its chaotic form gives a strong impression of twisting and turbulent motion,” he writes, “that are too slow to follow….. and its green tint is obvious to most. …… With low powers and a field wide enough to include the whole nebula, it becomes an object compelling enough to draw exclamations of delight from even the most disinterested bystander.”

pp 5.

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Author’s note: Scotty is dead right! Seeing the Orion Nebula through most any telescope, large or small, is sure to knock your socks off and is arguably one of the best outreach objects to enthral beginning observers.

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On pages 5 through 6, Scotty discusses the elusive Barnard’s Loop, an enormous, faint emission nebula running for several tens of degrees east of the Orion’s belt asterism.  He informs us that E.E. Barnard did not, in fact, discover the structure. It was the harvard astronomer, W. H. Pickering who first picked it up on photographic plates made at Mount Wilson in 1889; a full five years before Barnard’s own wide field astrographs confirmed it.

The beautiful but visually cahhlenging Barnard’s Loop in Orion. Image credit: WIki Commons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In all his years of searching with instruments of all shapes and sizes, Houston admits that the structure had eluded him, until one night at his Connecticut home, he saw it with his naked eye when he placed a OIII filter up to his eye! The sighting of it drove him wild:

My wife says I jumped clean over the observatory (it’s a small building).

pp 6

Sticking with elusive objects, Scotty then moves onto the Horsehead Nebula, which, although discovered photographically in 1900, had eluded the most seasoned deep sky observers for generations. It’s found very close to 2nd magnitude star, Alnitak, the southermost luminary in the Hunter’s belt. Even to this day, the Horsehead has evaded most deep sky observers, generally requiring large aperture telescopes and excellent seeing conditions. A Hydrogen beta filter (unavailiable in Scotty’s time) also helps make this nebula pop.

Scotty provides his own findings with the Horsehead:

From Connecticut my 4 inch refractor failed to reveal the Horsehead, but my notebook indicates that it was visible from Kansas with a 10 inch reflector. I have since fished it out using a 4 inch Clark, a 4 inch off axis Newtonian telescope made by Margaret Snow, a 5 inch Moonwatch Apogee telescope under the same circumstances as Mr. Wooten, immediately after the passage of a cold front.Scattered light from 2nd magnitude zeta foils many attempts to find the Horsehead, since the two are seaprated by only 1/2 a degree.

pp 8

Less challenging is the Flame Nebula (IC 434), located a mere 15 arc minutes to the southeast of Alnitak. Scotty reports that the Flame has been observed in instruments as various as a 60mm classic refractor as well as small reflecting telescopes. Scotty received reports that the Flame was exceptionally well observed at high altitude.

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Author’s note: Many years ago, during my brief forays into astrophography, I captured a reasonable image of the Horsehead and Flame Nebula using a 8 inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope on Kodak ektachrome. Visually, it remains an elusive object to my eyes. The Flame Nebula can be glimpsed at powers of about 200x in a good 8 inch reflector and of course, one should not neglect Alnitak itself, which presents as a wonderful triple star for backyard telescopes.

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Scotty made it very clear from his writings and correspondences with amateurs across the country that the sighting of many deep sky objects depend more on the condition of the sky from which it is observed than the visual acuity of the individual. This is brought into sharp focus whilst discussing his next January target, M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy in Triangulum, which is presented on pages 9 through 11. Good seeing conditions and clean air swept clear of particulates render M 33 visible without optical aid. Scotty also informs us that it can prove a difficult target to pin down telescopically, owing to its low surface brightness:

With a diameter of 1 degree, the 7th magnitude spiral more than fills the field of view in high power binoculars and presents an almost featureless glow that is easily missed. Therefore, very low powers or even small binoculars give the best view.

pp 10.

The Pinwheel Galaxy, as imaged in a 10 inch Newtonian reflector. Image credit: Alexander Meleg.

With careful study in a moderatey large back yard telescope, Scotty  says;

“M 33 is usually smooth, but on one night I saw the whole surface surprisingly mottled, with the southeast part considerably brighter than the northeast….. Most observers settle for for locating NGC 604, a bright knot in one arm 9.1′ east and 7.6′ north of the galaxy’s nucleus….. One night in an 8 inch, a congested mass of bright patches was seen superimposed on an overall spiral pattern.

pp 11

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Author’s note: The Pinwheel is a fascinating object to study in telescopes of 8 inches or larger aperture. It is very well presented in my 8 inch reflector at 30x, where a roughly ‘S’ shaped structure is seen snaking its way from a slightly brighter and more condensed centre. If you crank up the power to over 100x or so, one can make out NGC 604 as a distinct blob at the extreme tip of the galaxy’s northern spiral arm.

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On pages 11 through 15, Scotty fleshes out details of an interesting correspondence with a one Pat Brennan, of Regina, Saskatchewan, an avid deep sky obsever who used a homemade 6 inch f/7 Newtonian to carry out his own observations of more obscure NGC objects and who was struck by the disprepancy between their description in Dreyer’s New General Catalogue (and its revisions) and how he found them at the eyepiece. As Scotty points out, the all sky photographic surveys, recording as they do a bewildering number of faint and bright objects, would often overwhelm well defined clusters as seen in a small amateur telescope. A few such objects (loose open clusters) are discussed, including NGC 1662, NGC 2180 and NGC 2184 in Orion, NGC 2251 in neighbouring Monoceros and NGC 7394 in Lacerta. The moral of the story here is that until one actually observes such systems for oneself, descriptions can be next to meaningless.

The magnificent Double Cluster (Caldwell 14) in Perseus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On pages 16 through 19, Scotty discusses one the most beautiful deep sky treasures in all the heavens, the celebrated Double Cluster (also known as Xi Persei) in the constellation of Perseus. Although known to the ancients, the Double Cluster’s true majesty could scarcely be revealed until the age of the telescope was upon us. And while anyone evenly briefly acquainted with the night sky can find it without much trouble with the naked eye, Scotty is nonetheless careful to provide his readers with good directions on how to find it from less than ideal skies.

Scotty reveals that many of the great telescopic observers of past centuries recognised its splendour, including W.H. Smyth, T.W Webb and W.T. Olcott. Serviss’ Astronomy with an Opera Glass, published in 1888, described it thus:

With a telescope of medium power, it is one of the most marvelously beautiful objects in the sky; a double swarm of stars, bright enough to be clearly distinguished from one another, and yet so numerous as to to dazzle the eye with their lively beam.

pp18.

Houston provides his readers with some historical references to observers who first coined the term ‘Double Cluster’, with a number of individuals using the phrase beginning around the latter part of the 19th century. From here, Scotty wastes no time in providing his impression of the system as seen through a medium sized telescope:

Each of these two open clusters would stand well on their own , but they are even more spectacular because, less than a degree apart, they are visisble in the same low power field. I see h Persei (NGC 869) being slightly brighter and more concentrated of the two. Becvar’s Atalas catalogie gives the star count in NGC 869 as 250. Just 1/2  a degree east, Chi Persei is said to contain some 300 stars. However, anyone who looks with a 10 inch telescope will certainly consider the catalog values to be conservative.

pp 19

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Author’s note: Scotty declares that the finest views he has personally enjoyed of the Double Cluster was with a 6 inch refractor equipped with a special 4 inch focal length ocular designed by Art Leonard. This author has observed these clusters with all manner of instruments, including opera glasses, a three draw spyglass with a one inch diameter objective, binoculars of various sizes, as well as a plethora of astronomical telescopes. Arguably the best view was enjoyed with a rather specialised 8″ f/6 doublet achromat( utterly useless at high power), but these days he is completely sated with the medium power views served up by his workhorse instrument, a 8″ f/6 Newtonian reflector.

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The final pages of this opening chapter discusses a number of NGC objects in the far southern constellation of Fornax. On page 23, Houston discusses the visibility of the planetary nebula, NGC 1360:

A short notice on this object was in Deep Sky Wonders for 1972, and it surprises me now. I wrote that NGC 1360 was not seen in a 4 inch reffractor but glimpsed with a fast 5 inch refractor; a sad testimony to the murk of my Connecticut skies that evening…

pp 23.

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Author’s note: This is an intriguing statement, and one that flies somewhat in the face of much contemporary ‘wisdom’. Aterall, a quality 4 inch long focus refractor (his beloved Clark) ought to see things ‘better’ than a fast achromat only an inch larger, right? Wrong! Scotty had little reason to prevaricate. The larger instrument showed up this magnitude 9.4 Robin’s Egg Nebula, where the 4 inch apparently could not; and under the same conditions!

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Chapter 2: February

To be continued…………………………….

De Fideli.

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