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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 11: Large aperture telescopes and comet seekers

    I returned to the observatory at Nakagawa Town, Tokushima prefecture, on February 7. I was expected to serve as a judge for a contest for astrophotographs submitted from all over Japan, prior to the opening of the observatory on February 12. We were to select one best photograph and award several from about 100 submissions. With so many excellent works in front of us, it would be an extremely difficult job. A difference between successful photos and failures would be very little and the rankings could change readily.

    The selection criterion is based on the clarity of the photograph's motif, then aesthetic quality and scientific value. I make it a rule not to know the name of the photographer. Even if a photograph is ordinary but submitted by a well-known astrophotographer, unconsciously I may try to look for whatever is good about it and weigh it heavily in favor. Photography is not an exception for that matter. Whether it is in the field of painting or Japanese calligraphy, interestingly the results of selection can be different if the name of the artist is known to the judges.

    After the selection, I felt strongly that enlarged photographs for display purposes have a definite advantage over small 35mm photos. The other thing I noticed is that films have greatly improved since 10 years ago when I was involved in selection at a planetarium in Matsuyama City. I was looking forward to seeing works with a refreshing motif or unexpectedness, not just ordinary photographs. It was pleasing that there were several unique works with such a quality. After finishing the 2-hour long selection process, I had a meeting with astronomy enthusiasts from Tokushima prefecture. Although the meeting was brief, it was pleasant and valuable.

    Fortunately, the sky was a clear that night and seeing was reasonably good. Prior to the official opening of the observatory, an observing session was held by interested participants. Although the minimum effective magnification of the 113cm reflector was relatively high, which is a common problem with large aperture telescopes, apparently the figuring of the mirror was good and the image was excellent. In the large 9-meter dome more than 10 people gathered and observed Jupiter, Saturn, the companion star of Rigel, Great Orion Nebula, and two newly discovered Comets Williams and Jaeger. We were able to confirm up to 5 Saturnian satellites. The piggybacked 25cm Russian refractor showed surprisingly good images. Large apertures narrow the true field of view and cannot capture the whole of large diffuse nebulae and open clusters extending over more than 30' across. My 88mm-comet seeker (19x) I had brought along, on the other hand, turned out to be very popular with observers for viewing the Praesepe, Pleiades, Double Cluster, and diffuse nebulae in Orion.

    Those observers were mesmerized by galaxies from the depths of the universe through the large telescope, then taken to the different world of a wide star-studded field of the comet seeker. It is the extraordinarily wide, unreal world known only to comet hunters. Incidentally, the mirror of this observatory's telescope, which is one of the largest Japanese mirrors, was ground by one and the same optician who ground the lens of my comet seeker, which is the world's smallest. This fact provided an interesting topic of conversation that night.

    I stayed at a nearby hotel in Anan City that night and drove to Tokushima City the following morning. The observatory is no more than 30 minutes' drive from Tokushima City. It is fortunate that the sky over this observatory is dark enough for common observing purposes in spite of its proximity to the city of more than 300,000 inhabitants. If the access to an observatory is not easy, it will not be suitable for us amateur astronomers, no matter how dark the skies are. I manage to continue observing at Geisei because of good access, though the skies over Geisei are not perfect.

    The only reason for my visit to Tokushima was to see the birthplace of Juza Unno. "The Martian Army", one of his novels, was the first science fiction I came across in my early childhood. Juza translated Conan Doyle's "the Speckled Band" in his late years, which was broadcast by NHK. This novel taught me the fascination of detective stories and I was totally captivated with the world of mysteries. After that, I read everything I could get my hands on, not only Conan Doyle, but Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, and Japanese writers such as Rampo Edogawa and Seicho Matsumoto. Uson Morishita and Ruiko Kuroiwa, both from Kochi prefecture, followed these two pioneers of Japanese mysteries. Ruiko had some connection with astronomy and was from near Geisei Observatory. I may tell more about him later.

    I came across Juza Unno's literary memorial at Shiroyama Park in Tokushima City. On the large marble stone was written Rampo Edogawa's introduction of Juza Unno, praising him as a pioneer in the Japanese mystery writing. Next to this, Juzafs own words were written. It reads something to the effect: "Mankind is benefiting from science, and yet threatened by development of science...(omitted)..There should be a place for science fiction in the era when science has two opposing faces of benefactor and oppressor. " Juza died in 1949. It was the times when many people were in fear of the use of atomic bombs and testing of hydrogen bombs.

    I could not find his birthplace easily. Even though I believed I was quite close, people in his neighborhood had no knowledge of Juza Unno whatsoever. Juza was the first person who traveled to Mars on a rocket, though only in his book. This great science fiction writer proclaimed ahead of Yuri Gagarin: "the earth was blue," Was such a great writer forgotten even in his neighborhood after a half century? I wandered around looking for his birthplace passing through very narrow back alleys repeatedly. It was around 5 pm with the evening twilight just about to end when at last I found a house looking like his birthplace. The name on a large wooden nameplate near the entrance was hardly legible and only one of the characters was barely recognizable. The house seemed to be made open to the public by people related to Juza and I was readily allowed to view the inside of the house.

    Passing through the old gate I saw a well-cared garden. I opened the door to the main house quietly. There was a rather dark and depressing Japanese-style room. On the other side of the fusuma sliding doors with a sign of repeated repairs was a small study-like room. A low writing desk was standing on the matted floor looking unused for a long time. Juza Unno was born in this house and left for Tokyo to write novels. I believe he returned to this home and lived there for several years after the end of the war. He might have used this desk to write novels. Were many of his masterpieces created here on this desk? Half a century later, I was standing by the desk of the master mystery writer whom I had admired in my youth; the master who had led me into the unknown universe.

    I have once seen the study used by Ogai Mori, a great Japanese novelist. There was no piece of expensive furniture or decorations in the room; instead I felt I glimpsed a shadow of extreme simplicity and harsh life in the room with faint light coming through a small window. I sensed similar poverty in Juza's room. It crossed my mind that perhaps this extreme poverty and austere life had become their source of energy for creating outstanding literary works. Didn't the life of extreme poverty and perseverance nurture their strong mind? My mind was dizzy and totally chaotic when I left Juza's home behind. A strong feeling of despondence began to sneak into my consciousness.

    I began my observing in totally inadequate conditions equipped only with a home-built comet seeker and an observing site which doubles as a laundry-drying platform on the roof. I was entirely reliant on this small comet seeker. It was this period of the "laundry platform" observatory when I made great achievements. What am I doing now in the dome blessed with excellent facilities? Is my mind dulled by convenience and comfortable observing conditions? It's not just me. Doesn't flashy and abundant lifestyle in the present society lead to laziness and prevent healthy development of young people's mind? It may sound just rumbling discontent, but my visit to Juza Unno's birthplace gave me an opportunity to reflect on myself.

Copyright (C) 2006 Tsutomu Seki.