Robert Burnham Jr.'s Strange, Wonderful Manifesto Coming in One Month

Burnham, circa 1960, at the telescope Clyde Tombaugh used to find Pluto 30 years earlier
Burnham, circa 1960, at the telescope Clyde Tombaugh used to find Pluto 30 years earlier

One month from today, the Voice will make public for the first time a 24,000-word autobiographical essay written by a man named Robert Burnham, Jr.

Burnham died in 1993 at the age of 61. On June 16, had he lived, he would have been 80 years old. To mark that anniversary, Burnham's sister, Viola Courtney, has given the Voice permission to publish her brother's unique "self-interview," a much shorter version of which was published in Astronomy magazine in 1982.

About three-quarters of the essay has never seen the light of day, and it includes acerbic morsels like this:

A scientist may seem justified in dismissing much of the world's established religions as puerile folk-lore. But no one has shown that the viewpoint of the scientific materialists is really much better.

Burnham was a Lowell Observatory astronomer who, in the 1960s and 1970s, produced a 2,000-page, 3-volume work titled Burnham's Celestial Handbook: An Observer's Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System. To this day, it remains an astonishing product of a single person: a unique collection of information, inspiration, and wonder about the night sky, and a beloved set of books among people who use telescopes.

Burnham was something of a recluse. Despite the popularity of his work and the intense interest in him it produced, he chose to interview himself about his life and ideas rather than talk to a journalist. The result was a remarkable testament from a man who enjoyed nature more than he did other people, who lived for science but was impatient with other scientists, and who found inspiration in the stars but was skeptical of mankind's future in space.

In 1997, I set out to find Burnham to interview him about his work. Instead, I found Viola Courtney and learned that her brother had died several years earlier and almost no one knew about it. Burnham had struggled to make a living after leaving Lowell in 1979; the last few years of his life, Burnham was living in a cheap hotel in San Diego, selling painting of cats in Balboa Park. He died of congestive heart failure on March 20, 1993.

Among his papers, I found the 37-page, single-spaced self-interview, and realized that only about a quarter of it had been published in 1982 by Astronomy. In coordination with the Voice's release of the larger document, Astronomy editor Dave Eicher will be making the 1982 version available again at Astronomy.com. As June 16 nears, Astronomy and the Voice will mark the countdown with interviews and other material about Burnham, his life, and his work.

To learn more about Burnham's life, see the 1997 story "Sky Writer," that revealed Burnham's fate in the Phoenix New Times.

tortega@villagevoice.com | @VoiceTonyO


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