Jump to top page

The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 21: Letters from comet hunters

    It was the late autumn of 1948. At school we were busily practicing tennis in preparation for the autumn prefectural sports meet. I was the net player of the doubles game and hit back the ball from the opponentfs baseline player. The ball would pass over the net in 0.2 to 0.3 seconds at the fastest. A lack of attention will result in missing the ball. You have to hit the ball at a lightening speed for a volley. As soft-ball tennis is easily affected by wind, we practiced a lot in the evening twilight, when there was little or no wind. The most favourable conditions for practice occurred when the white tennis ball became difficult to see clearly. The refreshing sound of hitting tennis balls echoing against the school buildings still lingers in my ears.

    I did a lot of practice, in fact so much that anything flying toward me looked like a tennis ball. There is a story that, one day, a great swordsman was attacked by a number of assassins and killed all of them with his sword. When he thought he had finished the last assailant, he realized it was a stone Jizo statue that he struck with his sword. I have a similar experience. Hurrying to a train station after finishing tennis practice, I saw something flying toward me in the darkness. It turned out to be a swallow, but I took it for a tennis ball and got ready to volley it. There is something in common with the Samurai warriorfs readiness when coming upon an enemy. Through tennis practice, my ability to react immediately to an unexpected event had improved and it still stays with me. While driving, something suddenly runs out into a narrow street and I slam on the brakes. This quick reaction has saved me from accidents several times in the past.

    Now, letfs return to the main story. In my third year at senior high school, tennis was everything for me and I had no interest in astronomy at all. However, thanks to tennis, I had an encounter with astronomy. It was mid-November of 1948. I finished tennis practice late because it was a day before the competition. I was walking home from the train station not far. I heard radio news coming from a house along the street. It seemed to be a local radio station. It was about the discovery of a new astronomical object reporting that a Mr. Yamasaki, a teacher of Tosa Girls High School living near my home, spotted a comet from the river bank of Kagamigawa river, trailing a faint tail in the south-eastern sky over Hitsuzan mountain. He was on his way to the shore of Kagamigawa river to join an early morning exercise. Mr. Yamasaki seemed to be quite knowledgeable on the stars as he described the appearance of the nucleus inside the cometfs coma, magnitude (2nd magnitude), as well as the length of the tail in degrees. This comet was the gEclipse Cometh discovered in November, 1948 in Africa during a solar eclipse. Later, an American pilot McGun spotted it while flying over the Caribbean Sea and it was informally called gComet McGunh. Probably, Mr. Yamasakifs discovery was a third following McGunfs discovery. Beautiful photographs of this comet taken by Messrs. Tetsuyasu Mitani and Toshikazu Higami at Kwasan Observatory of Kyoto University were published in the Journal of the Oriental Astronomical Association in 1948.

    Thirteen years later, Mr. Yamasaki, the first discoverer of this comet in Japan phoned me right after my discovery of Comet Seki (1961f). We talked about his independent discovery of the Eclipse Comet. He said he was particularly interested in astronomy and wanted to look through my telescope someday, though he did not have a chance to come to see me. Tsukiyashiki where he lived is on Kagamigawa river and has streets lined with famous rock fences reminiscent of the Edo period. It is also known as the place where Sakamoto Ryoma went to his Kenjutsu school. One day when I was walking the dog, I came across an imposing building with a rock fence displaying a large name plate with gYamasakih written on it. Then, a grey-haired polite elderly gentleman appeared and we looked at each other for a few moments, while I was wondering if he was that discoverer of the comet. It was fifty long years ago.

    The first event that made me want to build a comet seeker was the appearance of the Eclipse Comet. Needless to say, there werenft telescopes around those days. In the city devastated by the 1941 Great Kochi air-raids and following Great Nankai Earthquake in 1946, it was unthinkable that telescopes were being sold. I built a short cardboard telescope using lenses of my grandfatherfs spectacles and a magnifying glass lying around in a desk drawer. It was my first comet seeker, though it might have been of dubious quality. It was probably around a half past 5 in the morning on November 15, 1948. I opened a storm shutter on the south side of my bedroom and was gazing above the south-eastern horizon wearing only pajamas. Hitsuzan mountain famous for its scenery with the beautiful moon lied there with good-looking Corvus above it. There should have been the Eclipse Comet majestically positioned immediately to the south of the Corvus square. Sadly, to the untrained eye the great comet didnft come into view. Unable to see the comet, I was left with the coldness of the night and beauty of the stars.

    In early December the same year, Mr. Minoru Honda of Setomura village in Hiroshima prefecture discovered a new comet, the famous Comet Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova. He made this discovery using a 15cm f/6.3 reflector comet seeker. It was the second discovery made with this 15cm Kibe mirror telescope following the discovery in November 1947. This Kibe mirrorfs whereabouts seems to be unknown today, but I believe two comets were discovered by this mirror. Mr. Honda discovered Comet Friend-Reese-Honda (1941‡V) before the war, but it was made with a different telescope perhaps with a Sakamoto mirror.

    It was in the spring of 1942 when I wrote my first letter to Mr. Minoru Honda for his advice. Writing to Mr. Honda, the person of international fame, was a daunting idea to an inexperienced young man and required a big decision as well as courage. Whether I could receive a reply from him or not would change my life. Following the most appropriate etiquette for a person who writes a letter seeking advice, I enclosed a reply envelope with a stamp and my name and address written on it. In addition, I put blank letter paper in it too. I could hardly wait for his reply. Mr. Honda replied to my letter, however, without using the enclosed reply envelope and letter paper. Instead, he used his own envelope, stamp, and paper and wrote me an incredibly polite and kind letter, all these in spite of his privately and publicly hectic days. I was amazed how kind and considerate person he was. For the next 10 years or more, I had never forgotten Mr. Hondafs warm encouragement even at the toughest time in my life. One letter changed a personfs life. Since then, following his example, I I would reply to any letter I received regardless of the importance of the questions. This is my duty I learned from Mr. Honda, the duty more important than astronomical discoveries.

Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.