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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 29: A planetarium and a submarine 2

     I built a small observatory in the ruins of our old paper mill and began enjoying observing alone. It was in the middle of Kochi city with a population of 200,000, but the night sky was darker there at that time than the one over today's Geisei Observatory. I had nothing more than a home-built 10cm comet seeker and a copy of the Murakami Star Atlas.
     The IAUC published at Copenhagen was sent out by sea mail and very slow. The International Astronomical Telegrams reached Tanakami and Kurashiki Observatories via Tokyo Astronomical Observatory. Any urgent telegram was passed on to me by Mr. Honda. I found "Tanakami Astronomical News" very useful, which was published by Dr. Issei Yamamoto by himself. After that, my star charts essential to comet hunters changed from Norton's Star Atlas to Becvar's Atlas of the Heavens. This Becvar's Atlas of the Heavens (Skalnate pleso Atlas) distributed as a not-for-sale publication was hand-drawn by the observatory's director Antonin Becvar himself. Even now, looking at my star charts worn out by many years of use, I can see how difficult it was to trace all the charts I have. At Skalnate pleso Observatory in Czechoslovakia, the observatory director himself began visual search for comets around 1947 with Antonin Mrkos, Ludmila Padjusakova, Lubor Kresak, and Margita Vazarova joining him and they achieved remarkable results. Since Messier's days, it had been accepted that comet discoveries were to be made by amateurs astronomers. The achievements made by Skalnate pleso observatory changed all this and were indeed a "history-shifting" development. For Japanese comet hunters, it was a much more serious development and far bigger threat than the LINEAR project today. The comet seekers they used were 10cm x 25 Somet binoculars with a 4-degree field of view. They were easy to use and powerful. Mr. Honda changed his comet seekers from a 15cm reflector to 12cm binoculars in 1950. This change was likely prompted by what was going on at Skalnate pleso.
     Now I would like to return to the story of Mr. S, the main theme of this article. Building Japan's second planetarium must have been the biggest event in his life. Mr. S, in fact, was a fanatic inventor and amazed people with his numerous inventions for daily life. Needless to say, many of his ideas were used for this planetarium project and his tenacity made it possible to create twinkling stars, which was thought to be very difficult to make at that time. He was somewhat curiosity-driven and at times a little bizarre. Trying to find out what the "fox fire" was, he kept watch hiding in Kitayamamountain in Kochi city. He went up Shinjogawa river in Susaki city looking for river otters feared to be extinct. He even planned on an expedition to find a Loch Ness monster. In the end he carried out an adventure following an outlandish idea of his. I never thought even for a moment he would be living a quiet, ordinary life for the rest of his time just because he failed in his business. I had something like a confidence that he would start a new business someday, somewhere. However, thirty years had quickly passed without an incident and the presence of this "genius inventor" in people's mind seemed to have been completely forgotten.
     I cannot help but thinking the modern day planetariums have gone too far and lost the original purposes. Today's planetariums liberally use advanced technologies to depict the universe very realistically from various perspectives. However, this is done without a presenter and totally reliant on the machines. For the viewers it is like watching a movie without human presence and they feel something is missing. What's worse, the planets are not projected. The viewers are told Antares is the brightest star in the southern sky in the summer evening. Therefore, if Jupiter happens to be there in the southern sky, they will think it is Antares because it is the "brightest star" in the southern sky. What's more, a sudden significant astronomical event will not be explained in the planetarium show. Everything was operated automatically. The presentations are all recorded and the same narrations are played repeatedly for several months. This means the recordings are played regardless of what is really happening in the sky. It shows the downside of the convenience that boats that anyone can run the planetarium show without knowing about the stars. Of course, this does not mean all the planetariums today are run this way. For example, I remember one planetarium credited with a long, significant history in western Japan had a superb combination of veteran presenters and advanced technologies presenting unforgettable shows.
     I was disappointed, however, with the "super-large" planetariums I visited about 10 years ago. The audience wanted to experience more realistic starry skies. For that reason I feel nostalgic for planetariums of the past which connected the presenter with the audience. It was at the time of Shoemaker-Levy 9's collision with Jupiter and impending Leonid meteor shower, but these two events were not included in the show. The omission was simply unthinkable and unacceptable. I miss the old-style planetarium run by a thoughtful presenter with a personal touch.
     On the bus ride on our way back, I heard many criticisms of the planetarium we had visited that day. I told many children in the audience what the planetariums of the past were like. The children enjoyed my talk about the planetarium we had built by ourselves many years ago.
     Mr. S initiated the popularization of astronomy soon after the the war and devoted his passion to astronomy education. Has he really vanished when that unfortunate incident happened? Thirty-eight years have passed since then. Halley's Comet was at aphelion around the time he built the planetarium. It travelled half of the orbit and reached perihelion. Memories of those days were brought along with the comet. In 1984 right before the apparition of the comet, I was writing serial articles titled "A Vagabond of Space" for local Kochi Shinbun newspapers. These monthly articles continued for three years.
     One day, late at night, I received a strange phone call from a person who was possibly one of the readers of my articles. "Hello, you are Mr. Seki, aren't you? I enjoy your newspaper serial. You are doing a good job. I look forward to your story every month. By the way, does my voice sound familiar to you? I watched the star with you and presented planetarium shows together. I never forget the emotions when the stars were projected to the dome for the first time. I have been living in Kagoshima because of certain circumstances, but had a chance to return home after many long years. I really want to see you and talk about good old days. Also, I really want to show you something I have. Could you come to the pier of Kochi port tomorrow morning? Is 10 o'clock o.k. with you? I look forward to seeing you." He finished with a chuckle. His voice was a little scary and unsettling. Who could he be? Talking to me like a close friend. It can't be Mr. S... Anyway, I decided to go to Kochi port at 10 the following morning.

Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.