President’s Message – September 2021

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Carolyn Shoemaker
Carolyn Shoemaker (Nature)

Carolyn Shoemaker died last month. After her children had grown up and she was 51 years old, she started her astronomy career. She helped establish the Palomar Asteroid and Comet Survey, and for decades she studied the photographic plates coming off of the 18 inch Schmidt wide-field telescope, located in a dome next to the Palomar 200 inch telescope. At an average of 1 discovery for every 100 hours spent at the stereoscopic microscope, she became the world’s top comet finder.

This was more than a job. Everybody who knew her emphasizes her enthusiasm and humour. Among these friends is an acquaintance of several of our centre members, David Levy. On March 23, 1993, David passed some photographs he had just taken of the region near Jupiter, and Carolyn exclaimed that she saw in these images a strange “squashed” comet. This comet became known as Shoemaker-Levy-9. It was actually the 11th comet they had discovered together, but two were aperiodic and so had a different naming convention. I remember the excitement, when 4 months later, 21 fragments of SL9 crashed into Jupiter with images from professionals and amateurs alike started pouring in. We got to watch a cosmic collision in real time!

What kept Carolyn Shoemaker at this slow, painstaking task was similar to what many amateur astronomers feel. She said “The thrill of discovery is deeply satisfying”. Few of us will get the opportunity to do cutting edge science with the best instruments available, but all of us get our own personal thrills. Whether the discovery is at the eyepiece, or on the computer monitor, or from a revelation that comes during a talk at our Astro Cafe, the experience continues to be deeply satisfying. In memory of Carolyn Shoemaker, I wish you all many more of these deeply satisfying moments!

Look Up,
Randy Enkin, President email