The Success and/or Failure of Bob Cameron, Astronomer

25 05 2013
Taruntius Crater (with Cameron Crater). Courtesy LPOD.

Taruntius Crater (with Cameron Crater). Image courtesy LPOD, December 3, 2008.

I wish I knew if this was a cautionary tale or a story of triumph.

Robert Curry Cameron, known to his friends and professors as Bob, matriculated at Indiana University in 1947. Circumstantial evidence suggests that he came from Ohio. His formal name seems to tie him to the Curry family from Wayne County, Ohio (the lumber firm Curry, Cameron & Son, comprised of James Willard Curry and Robert Cameron, formed in 1877); when he left Indiana University, he found work in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The astronomy profession of the mid-twentieth-century had at least this in common with the profession of the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries:  success was partly about intelligence and dedication, and partly about who you knew. Letters of recommendation were more informal then than they are now, but a statement of support from a powerhouse astronomer could (can) do much to smooth over a bad patch in a student’s career. A less-than-enthusiastic letter could dog a graduate student for life, arriving in the hands of future employers before he (seldom, she) had a chance to speak for himself.

Astronomer Frank Edmondson depended heavily on the American academic network when filling positions in the Indiana University Astronomy Department and the associated Link Goethe Observatory in Brooklyn, Indiana. He took seriously the recommendations of his fellow astronomers. He consulted the various Directors off Lick Observatory whenever he had a vacancy to fill, whether it be for a postdoc, instructor, junior faculty, or full professor. He was also diligent in his recommendations to his colleagues, possibly to the detriment of poor Bob Cameron.

At the end of 1948, Cameron applied to study at Lick Observatory. Then director, C. Douglas Shane, asked Edmondson about Cameron’s work at IU. Edmondson replied as follows:

Robert C. Cameron was a beginning graduate student here during the academic year 1947-48. He did respectable work during the first semester. However, about the middle of the second semester something happened and he simply stopped working. As a result, he failed in some of his courses and made such low marks in the rest that it was equivalent to failure. He is an assistant at the Cincinnati Observatory this year, and Dr. Herget could tell you how he is getting along now.

Personality and character are OK, and I think you would find him an acceptable member of a small community such as you have on Mount Hamilton. As for his ability and promise as a student, I hesitate to make any predictions. If he has overcome whatever was troubling him last spring, and if a repetition is unlikely, I would rank him a bit above average in ability and promise as a student.[1]

Not surprisingly, Shane didn’t extend a student position to Cameron. Just in case his caution had gone astray in the winter storms, however, Edmondson sent a second letter of dissuasion, noting that

…for the sake of the record I should say that I have talked to Herget recently and there is no reason to believe that Cameron has overcome his personal troubles, whatever they were. Hence, I could not recommend him to you as a student or an assistant.[2]

Try as I might, I have not been able to uncover the nature of Cameron’s “personal troubles.” In February 1949, Cameron was listed as a Student Member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.[3] He also attended the Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Bloomington, Indiana in June 1950.[4] He is listed as first or second author on a series of papers related to minor planet observations made at Goethe Link Observatory in 1949 and 1950 and is credited with the discovery of  1575 Winifred (1950 HH), a Main Belt Asteroid, on April 20, 1950 at Brooklyn, Indiana. Did Edmondson let him come back to IU after he proved he was over his “personal troubles”?

I’ve failed to track Cameron through the 1950s, but in the 1960s, he reappears as an expert on magnetic fields and stars. He shows up as first author of a paper on Babcocks’ star (HD 215441). From there, he advanced to editorial work on books about stellar evolution and magnetic fields. His last publication seems to have been a 1967 edited volume The Magnetic and Related Stars (Proceedings of a symposium, Greenbelt, Md., Nov. 1965), which received several favorable reviews the next year. He died in 1972, a successful enough astronomer that the IAU eventually renamed a small lunar crater (Taruntius C) in his honor.

I’d like to know: was Cameron satisfied in his career? Did he resolve his “personal troubles” to his own satisfaction? Was the discovery of an asteroid enough to make up for being asked to leave Indiana University? Do students ever recover from bad times if those happen to coincide with their years in graduate school? I’m sure many Ph.D. candidates would like to know the answer to that one.


[1] Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California, Santa Cruz, UA 36 Lick Series 1, Box 83, Letter from Frank K. Edmondson to C. Douglas Shane, 29 January 1949.

[2] Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California, Santa Cruz, UA 36 Lick Series 1, Box 83, Letter from Frank K. Edmondson to C. Douglas Shane, 13 March 1949.

[3] “Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, February 2, 1949,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 61, No. 359, p.114.

[4] Huffer, C. M., “The eighty-third meeting of the American Astronomical Society,” Popular Astronomy, Vol. 58, p.314 (Cameron is #67 in the photo)

“…in scanning the wonders of the Sidereal Universe…”

18 05 2013
Lunar crater Piazzi Smyth

Lunar crater Piazzi Smyth

Charles Piazzi Smyth, Astronomer Royal for Scotland from 1846 to 1888, reminds us of the lost art (and drama) of correspondence in a letter penned to Edward S. Holden, then Director of Lick Observatory:

Clova, Ripon, England.

October 18 1888

My dear Mr. President-Astronomer, Edward S. Holden,

From your noble eagle’s perch and grand employ for intellectual man in scanning the wonders of the Sidereal Universe, how kind of you to make a little leisure wherein to recognise, that after my having, in utter despair, torn up all the stakes and ropes of a life-long employment, — I should highly appreciate a few friendly words from those who understand the subjects I have aimed at, oh! how earnestly, though nearly ineffectually, and partly from want of any sufficient apparatus or necessary means. While from the manner in which you are pleased to allude to my early experiment on the Peak of Teneriffe, — I am now quite ready to let that go by the board even in my own private thoughts, — for if it has had any share in directing a converging attention in America towards thinking and working out ultimately, & I might say inventing, so superb an Institution as the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, with the  friendly mists of the Pacific through the summer nights to cut off the radiations of the heated lower country; and with the grandest astronomical instruments yet constructed anywhere, but all of American manufacture—it has helped a little those who have carried out  an ideal for above anything I had ever contemplated even proposing.

Already too there is a stirring of the public journals in this country towards a new Astronomy emanating from your Lick Observatory, which is quite unmistakable. The rapidity with which, after you were once in working order, a new comet was picked up one night, and nebula & otherwise invisible stars noted on another, & reasoned on as well to the extent of the possibilities of the best modern physical, as well as astronomical theory, — is causing these to begin to express an interest in Astronomy, who never felt it before. Long may you and your well chosen band of friends keep it up, — while I remain in a lower wilderness,

Yours very truly, though lost,

C. Piazzi Smyth

Courtesy, Special Collections, University Library, University of California Santa Cruz. Lick Records, Mary Lea Shane Archives.

Lick Observatory (Wallpaper Wednesday)

15 05 2013
Lick Observatory. Image credit: Rick (瑞克)

Lick Observatory. Image credit: Rick (瑞克)

If all goes as scheduled, by the time this post reaches its intended audience, I will be in the air, flying toward the American west coast. I’ll be spending the balance of the month in central California, working in the Lick Observatory Archives at UC-Santa Cruz. This trip marks the beginning of an entirely new research project for me—new topic, new time period, new theoretical concerns. I’m more excited about this than I have been about anything I’ve worked on to date; I hope that means I’m headed in a good direction. Regardless, I get to spend some time reading original correspondence and papers related to the construction of the observatory in the 1880s. How cool is that?

The above panorama of the observatory building was produced by Rick (Ruei ke). Right click to save to your hard drive, or visit Rick’s flickr page to download other sizes and look at his other intriguing images.

Lick Observatory, stereographic projection. Image credit:

Lick Observatory, stereographic projection. Image credit: Rick (瑞克)

For Catherine

10 05 2013
Astronomy iPhone Wallpaper

Astronomy Wallpaper

This post is for my wife (this is my way of initiating a tutorial on updating the wallpaper on her new smart phone).

Observatories and Instruments