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Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
Berkeley, CA 94705-2702

cellphone 650 - 200 - 9211
eMail normsperling [at] gmail.com

Norm Sperling’s Great Science Trek: 2014

San Luis Obispo
Santa Barbara
Palm Springs
Death Valley
El Paso
Corpus Christi
Baton Rouge
Key West
Winter Star Party, Scout Key

MARCH 2014:
up the Eastern seaboard

APRIL 2014:
near I-40, I-30, and I-20 westbound

MAY 2014:
near US-101 northbound
May 17-18: Maker Faire, San Mateo
May 23-26: BayCon, Santa Clara

California till midJune

JUNE 2014:
Pacific Northwest

JULY 2014:
Western Canada, eastbound

AUGUST 2014:
near the US/Can border, westbound
August 22-on: UC Berkeley

Speaking engagements welcome!
2014 and 2015 itineraries will probably cross several times.

Memories of Brian Marsden

© Norman Sperling, November 21, 2010

My friend Brian Marsden, longtime director of the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams and the Minor Planet Center, died on November 18th, age 73.

In addition to being a world-class celestial mechanic and puzzle solver, he was one of the very nicest people I ever met. Always cheerful, quick to laugh, happy to talk good astronomy with anybody (amateur or professional, young or old), always trying to get the science right. He was everybody else's friend, too. That's a splendid attitude to emulate!

Brian was not an observer. At all. When a bright comet came by, he wouldn't even consider strolling to a telescope in the same complex to see it.

I remember hearing Brian say "Pluto is a comet" several times in the 1970s and '80s. He cited evidence from its orbital characteristics, and never changed his mind: it is too different from anything else called a "planet" to be covered under the same label. To Brian, that made Pluto more interesting rather than less, because he was most interested in asteroids and comets.

Bright and Not So Bright

The Central Bureau is astronomy's alert service: it evaluates and spreads the word about any new discovery that astronomers ought to look at. Once in a while somebody makes a false claim, and they have to avoid diverting astronomers from reality to track it down. Almost all of the discoveries are conventional like comets or novae or supernovae, but they've also announced sudden storms on Saturn and much more.

Brian announced many fast-breaking stories, and inevitably he misjudged a few. While he was tops at predicting positions, he was not very good at predicting comet brightnesses. Neither was everybody else in the 1970s, when so little was yet known about comets' physical structures. Unfortunately, Brian was very slow to realize how poor his brightness formulae were. Fortunately, a lot of amateur and professional astronomers learned skepticism much faster.

His biggest blunder - politely neglected in the flurry of laudatory obituaries and blogs - was predicting that Comet Kohoutek would reach the stupendous brightness of minus-tenth magnitude in January 1974. Later down-gradings of the predicted brightness never caught up with the initial extreme hype. That comet never got bright enough for most urban people to see at all, and the public and media were VERY turned off. That, in turn, cut deeply into the audience for Comet West on March mornings of 1976, when it was truly gaudy but largely ignored.

Decades later, when "potentially hazardous objects" were discovered with orbits that might endanger Earth, Brian again provided the best early calculations to the public. He labeled the uncertainties, but certain irresponsible and incompetent media failed to explain those uncertainties to the public. Other astronomers criticized Brian for stirring up needless alarm, but all Brian was doing was fully informing the public. Re-aim that criticism to the media who don't explain uncertainties. (Now some of them do, but, curiously, only with opinion polls.)

When I worked at Sky & Telescope, I pointed out that not only was Brian an indispensible source, month in, month out, he was also a splendid article topic himself. Other editors agreed, but didn't give me the assignment. Instead, they assigned it to another assistant editor, Dennis Overbye, who has been with the New York Times for many years now. His article "Life in the Hot Seat" (S&T, August 1980, pp 92-96) is far better than what I had in mind.

Finding Lost Asteroids

"Brian found Adonis" sounded like gossip, but to astronomers concerned with asteroids and history, it meant that the foremost celestial mechanic had cleaned up yet another decades-old mystery.

In the late 1970s, more than 20 numbered asteroids remained "lost" - about 1% of all numbered asteroids at that time. They had been issued their numbers too hastily, before sufficient data firmly pinned down their orbits. One of Brian's ambitions was to patrol the inflooding observations from bigger and more sensitive telescopes for new sightings of those lost asteroids. That would enable accurate orbits to be computed, securing them for the future.

1862 Apollo was recovered in 1973, and 2101 Adonis in 1977. By 1981, 9 numbered asteroids remained lost, and Brian really wanted them found.

The last 2 were finally mopped up by his son-in-law Gareth Williams: 878 Mildred in 1991, and 719 Albert in 2000. Mildred, by the way, was named for co-discoverer Harlow Shapley's infant daughter when it was discovered in 1916; when her asteroid was recovered she was an editor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson.

Though Brian put tremendous energy into tidying up the solar system, he never managed to accomplish the same with his office. It had nearly as many paper piles as mine.

Naming Asteroids

Officially, discoverers have the right to name their asteroids, but some observers never get around to naming all the asteroids they discover. Some identifications emerge from computer analyses instead of observers. Many confusions were cleared up decades later. So, many asteroids that earned numbers have no names.

3 times, I came up with names of living (though old) astronomers who obviously merited asteroids. Not being an observer, I never discovered any myself, so I suggested the names to Brian. He liked them and cleared them through his IAU committee. That committee almost never disagreed - not because they were a rubber stamp, but because Brian made good cases for his proposals. That's how asteroids 2157 Ashbrook and 2637 Bobrovnikoff got their names. He relayed the other to a likely astronomer who had some asteroids "available", which is why Ted Bowell named 2421 Nininger.

A Project for You

Now, way over 100,000 asteroids have earned numbers but haven't been named. Names don't have to be astronomers, or even people. Places and instruments, for example, have lent their names to space rocks. A few have been named for events. What names do you think asteroids should carry? Scientists, historians, and others should propose serious names to prolific discoverers who hold naming rights. Wags who concoct names to suggest in jest should send them to me (normsperling@gmail.com) for possible use in The Journal of Irreproducible Results.

What a life Brian led! Friends everywhere, widely respected, a very successful career at the top of his profession. We're all going to miss Brian Marsden.

Brian Marsden in 1987
The Journal of Irreproducible Results
This Book Warps Space and Time
What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You

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