Sensor Scan: Burnham's Celestial Handbook


This one is going to take some explaining.

For me, Star Trek and astronomy are connected in a particular and important way. Not because of the material connection between Paramount's PR wing and NASA; it's debatable whether that can even be called astronomy in the first place. No, the reason why I think of astronomy when I think of Star Trek is quite simple: My love for one inspired my love for the other, and I feel the true strength of both can be found in wayfinding.

Though I've mentioned it several times before, my personal connection to and relationship with the realm of the sky is going to become a major, central theme in my reading of not this next phase of Star Trek's history, but definitely the one directly after it. One of the benefits of living where I live is that my relative distance from urban civilization and comparatively high altitude mountain residence means that I have access to something that's sadly not afforded to many people these days anymore: A truly vast and open night sky free of light pollution. On a clear night, it seems like you can look into infinity, with layers upon layers of countless stars and the dazzling ribbon of the Milky Way winding its way across the celestial sphere. The cliche is that looking up at the night sky is a humbling experience that makes people aware of their cosmic insignificance, but that's not how I've ever seen it: To me, spending a really good night under the stars here is a truly profound experience that makes me aware of the Cosmic Whole, and our interconnectedness with it. When I was younger it would also fire my imagination, causing me to dream of travelling amongst those stars.

The very first thing that struck me about Star Trek: The Next Generation was a captivating, hypnotic sense that permeated throughout the whole show: Everything about it seemed to exude an awareness and embrace of the mystical vastness of the universe, and to say that humanity is not in fact dwarfed by it but belongs to it, as much a part of it as the inspired planets, comets, nebulae and other cosmic wonders that sailed by in the show's intro sequence, which remains possibly the single piece of visual media that inspires and means the most to me to this day. I guess I may have been immediately drawn to this and had the kind of reaction I did because it reminded me so much of the way I felt when looking at the real sky at night in my backyard. Considering we only got Star Trek: The Next Generation in syndication late at night, that just compounded the effect and to me created the perfect mood to get lost in the imaginary dreamscapes the show would evoke at me. Sometimes I'd go out at night, look up at the Milky Way and imagine the Enterprise and all those who lived on her sailing to all those different stars.

Astronomy is said to be the oldest science and the oldest scientific pastime, and to me this sense of rapturous awareness is central to what it is. Among my many dead-end career paths prior to becoming an anthropologist who writes about pop culture, I briefly attempted to be an astronomer because of my own love for the Celestial Sphere, but also partly inspired by Star Trek. Funnily enough, real astronomers tend to hate Star Trek because real astronomers are actually physicists, and physicists get very upset when fiction is not 100% scientifically accurate. This gets at an interesting point about the technoscientific side of Star Trek fandom: It's almost exclusively made up of engineers and computer people, and nobody else. A number of books and documentaries have been written about why this is, but in brief, a lot of it comes back to the tech-inclined youth growing up with Star Trek and being inspired more by the cool imaginary technology than anything else, and then dedicating their lives to making it a reality. Apple in particular seems almost entirely staffed by these sorts of people, because Quicktime, the iPod, the multitouch interface and the iPad can all be directly traced back to someone watching Star Trek and saying “I want that”.

Suffice to say, my breathless, heartfelt stories about the borderline spiritual way I've been inspired by the heavens and parts of Star Trek did not go over terribly well with my astronomer colleagues. It's one of the many reasons I'm not a professional astronomer and the exact type of thing that makes me extremely difficult to get along with. But there is a visible trend, if rather small, in amateur astronomy that does seem at least somewhat aware of the more primal and fundamental aspects of it, and that brings us to Robert Burnham, Jr. and his Celestial Handbook. Burnham was a passionate amateur astronomer in the purest sense: He received no formal training and was a chronic loner, but by his twenties had already discovered a comet. This led to him being picked up by the Lowell Observatory, who wanted his help in compiling a survey of stellar proper motion, where he discovered five more comets with his co-worker (a fellow astronomer by the name of Norman G. Thomas). While at Lowell, Burnham began work on his masterpiece, a three-volume set meticulously cataloging every single star and deep sky object (galaxies, nebulae and globular clusters) it was possible to observe with backyard telescopes, alphabetized by constellation. Burnham's Celestial Handbook is truly an amazing accomplishment, made even more so by the fact that it was entirely self-published without any backing or support from Lowell and, despite the last revision coming out in 1978, it still remaining an indispensable staple of amateur astronomers all over the world.

What makes Burnham's Celestial Handbook so unique, apart from the staggering scope of the thing, is that it somehow manages to be and do everything: All the information a beginning astronomer could possibly want about history, terminology and methodology is all here, written in engaging and easy to digest prose, but Burnham also combines this with exhaustive data tables, charts and diagrams alongside achingly gorgeous exposure photographs of every single object that would have looked absolutely unbelievable in 1978 and still look a million times better than anything you can actually see through a telescope with your naked eye. On top of that, Burnham fills out the handbook with lore and mythology about the stars from around the world (which is precisely the sort of thing professional astronomy severely frowns upon because it's unscientific and superstitious), actual poetry (some of it his own: One of my favourites is the prefatory poem “Midnight” that opens Volume 1) and Native American proverbs.

Every ounce of Burnham's love of the night sky and the universe is on display on every page of the handbook. I was of course particularly moved by how much Burnham stresses the primacy of humanity's connection to the Celestial Sphere, and how indigenous people throughout history and around the world have found enlightenment and truth in the stars. Like Star Trek: The New Voyages, I once again find myself wanting to quote everything because it's all so genius, but that would be ludicrously impractical, especially as the majority of the handbook has been archived on Google Books, so you can go read it over there (seriously, if you take nothing else away from what I say here, please do yourself a favour and at least read the first two chapters of Volume 1). What I will do is cite two of my favourite passages from the introduction. Firstly, in regard to the all-too-familiar argument that humans have no business engaging with outer space in any fashion and should concentrate on the problems we've made for ourselves on Earth, Burnham has this to say (emphasis his):

“Yet it sometimes happens, perhaps because of the very real aesthetic appeal of astronomy and the almost incomprehensible vastness of the Universe, that the more solidly practical and duller mentalities tend to see the study as an 'escape from reality' - surely one of the most thoroughly lop-sided views ever propounded. The knowledge obtained from astronomy has always been, and will continue to be, of the greatest practical value. But, this apart, only the most myopic minds could identify 'reality' solely with the doings of man on this planet. Contemporary civilization, whatever its advantages and achievements, is characterized by many features that are, to put it very mildly, disquieting; to turn from this increasingly artificial and strangely alien world is to escape from unreality; to return to the timeless world of the mountains, the sea, the forest and the stars is to return to sanity and truth.”

In my mind, this is just about the definitive response to the perceived split between the Space Age and the Environmentalist Age, and speaks real, hard truth about Westernism that's even more valid today than it was in 1978. No matter what your views are on politics or social justice, it's tough to argue human civilization as it currently exists is built around recognising the interconnectedness of being and living in harmony with ourselves and the rest of the world. Again, the takeaway here isn't that humans are insignificant specks of dust against the unknowable cosmic vastness, its a reminder that our identity and being are part of, and irreducible from, the cosmos, and that understanding this is the first step towards healing, peace and enlightenment.

Along those lines, the opening to chapter 2 means a great deal to me, for reasons that are hopefully obvious to most by this point in this project:

“We are beginning a journey.

It will be a journey both strange and wonderful. In our tour of the Universe we shall travel the vast empty pathways of limitless space and explore the uncharted wilderness of creation. Here, in the dark unknown immensity of the heavens, we shall meet with glories beyond description and witness scenes of inexpressible splendor. In the great black gulfs of space and in the realm of innumerable stars, we shall find mysteries and wonders undreamed of. And when we return to Earth, we shall try to remember something of what we have learned about the incredible Universe which is our home.”

In my experience, the best astronomers are also mystics. It's one of the very few widely known and accessible hobbies and professions that, if not actively encourages this sort of thing, at least offers an easy pipeline to a more spiritual way of viewing the world. This is something that I find extremely evident in Burnham's work, and perhaps this is why I find myself drawn to him above and beyond many others who've written on astronomy, either the professional or amateur kind. And this is also a philosophy and worldview I have always found in the Star Trek from the Long 1980s, but really seen the most clearly in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not the Original Series or the Original Series movies-I've always found, and even still find after revisiting them in this manner, them to be far too much Golden Age technologistic and militaristic Hard SF for my tastes. In my personal interpretation and headcanon, Burnham's words above are precisely the sort of thing Jean-Luc Picard would say. Perhaps I'm wrong to project that onto the show, but by this point in my life it's been so firmly linked to Star Trek: The Next Generation in my mind there's simply no way for me to separate them anymore. This is what it means to gaze upon the Celestial Sphere, and this *is* Star Trek: The Next Generation to me.

But what this also is, I think, is a sentiment that would be very much understood by the ancient navigators. The Polynesian Wayfinders were, and are, of course, extremely well versed in their own form of astronomy. Navigators use the positions of the Polynesian constellations to determine with peerless accuracy the locations of the islands they voyage to. But the sky in general has always played a very important role in Polynesian mythology, with many variants referring to the Sky Father and Earth Mother. In Hawaiian spirituality in particular, practitioners are taught that we are all part of the stars in some form. Ancient Hawaiian custom dictates the centrality of night to the division of time, because only at night is it possible to distinguish between days as each night the sky is ever-so-slightly different. Hawai'i is also, of course, home to Mauna Kea: Geologically speaking (and counting from the sea floor) the tallest mountain on Earth and in traditional Hawaiian belief the realm of the gods, most notably the Sky itself, Wākea. Today Mauna Kea is the home to a collection of observatories and considered to be the best place for astronomical observation on the *planet*.

One has to be somewhat careful when speaking in generalities about modern astronomy and the astronomy practiced by the navigators. There's a risk of falling into the trap of projecting onto the ancient traditions, or worse, appropriating their concepts and imagery and distorting them into a defense of the increasingly indefensible state-sponsored space programmes (NASA in particular is not above dabbling in this). That said though, there is a strong enough connection to astronomy and the sky in Hawai'i that the existence of the Mauna Kea observatories tend to feel a little more like an extension of pre-existing cultural systems then imperialist Western cultural appropriation. As part of their somewhat excellent interactive exhibit on Polynesian Wayfinding, the Exploratorium (linked to the side on this blog) has a video interview with a native Hawaiian astrophysicist who works at the observatories, claims to be descended from one of the oldest clans of Hawaiians and who sees his work in astronomy as a logical extension of his deeply held cultural beliefs and personal feeling of connection to the Sky. Though, full disclosure, the Exploratorium gets some of its funding from NASA, there does seem to be an underlying truth this exhibit is at least trying to touch on.

And this is the same truth Robert Burnham, Jr. knew. We are all stardust. We are of the Earth and the Sky. And we voyage to reaffirm this to ourselves and to each other. Burnham's books themselves know this as well: These are books with genuine soul and character. Even the layout seems to have a personality: The entire handbook is done on a typewriter in the same distinctive Arial, the charts and diagrams feel either literally cut-and-pasted or otherwise carefully arranged by hand in a notebook and the whole thing has a charming and endearingly analog feel that evokes images of a tirelessly dedicated person from the early Long 1980s working patiently throughout the night in a tiny, dimly lit wood-paneled workshop striving to produce something that captures some part of the profound love and meaning that inspired it. It's a bit rough-around-the-edges and much of it is very outdated today (not just in data, but in language, tone and attitude), but absolutely none of that matters. Burnham's Celestial Handbook feels like nothing if not an artefact of this era that, through reading it, allows us to cross the gulf of time and connect with the person whose unique love it's so very much the product of: The love of someone who's been able to touch the transcendent immortal and been, if you will, transformed. But though an artefact it may be, it's an artefact that still speaks a profound truth that ought to be heard and taken to heart.

In some ways then, perhaps much like Star Trek itself.


mwhybark 6 years, 10 months ago

Couple tangents:

The tone of celestial wonder that is present within TNG also has a specific prior TV source: Sagan and Druyan's original Cosmos.

Scroll down to the art department credits, and note the name Rick Sternbach.

I seem to recall reading (although i was unable to put cursor to link) that he was responsible for the interior design of the main set of Sagan's "ship of the mind," which used organic forms intended to refer to the dandelion used to introduce the concept on-screen. In my opinion, the bridge of NCC-1701D can be seen as a direct iteration of Carl's bridge, down to the organic forms in the sensor dome lattice.

The other tangent that may be of interest is the minor subtheme in TNG proper and in fan and pro-lit of mapmaking, which eventually surfaces explicitly in-show as Stellar Cartography and which spawned a series of fan-maps that eventually grew into a series of semi-canon commercially published reference books, referred to and or contributed to by people working on the show. I don't know if you are familiar with them or not but as one of the ways the show self-generates its own mythology.

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mwhybark 6 years, 10 months ago

... but *they are* one of the ways ...

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Josh Marsfelder 6 years, 10 months ago

Cosmos will absolutely get its due when the time comes. And I am certainly familiar with Rick Sternbach's work-Intimately so, in fact. He will be a very significant figure and theme to this blog going forward. :-)

The reference and technical manuals too, actually: Sternbach was a major figure in that scene, of course. Actually, come to think of it, I just finished writing the post that lays the groundwork for that...

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Daru 6 years, 10 months ago

"to return to the timeless world of the mountains, the sea, the forest and the stars is to return to sanity and truth.”

Absolutely wonderful essay Josh, thanks you! When I watched TNG when it fist was airing here in the UK I recall I had something of a similar experience to you. I was getting into stargazing and with the show in mind I would also go out into the hills where I lived and my mind and imagination would soar upwards and outwards. I loved that spirit of searching present in the show.

The quote above makes me think of the writings of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and instigator of National Parks such as Yosemite (appearing in Trek down the road!). He comes from not far away from me, a little seaside town with a beautiful coastline - Dunbar in South East Scotland.

Here are some great Vaka Rangi based quotes from him that tie in with your essay:

"When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty."
(Travels in Alaska, chapter 1)

"The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness".
(John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, page 313)

"Everything is flowing -- going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks... While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like
Nature's warm heart."
(My First Summer in the Sierra, chapter 10)

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Josh Marsfelder 6 years, 10 months ago

I can't tell you how wonderful it is for me to hear I'm not the only one who has these feelings about Star Trek: The Next Generation. Especially as we reach the 1980s, my views on Star Trek tend to drift to what I get the distinct impression can be politely called "unorthodox". I'm totally comfortable going fully autobiographical here, but it's nice to know my views don't exist in a complete vacuum.

And thanks for reminding me that I need to read more John Muir: I've read a little of his work, but every time someone quotes him it becomes obvious to me he's a guy who saw the world fairly similarly to me.

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Daru 6 years, 10 months ago

Yeah Josh absolutely! Really TNG as well as inspiring me to connect with the cosmos and the flowing narrative of my imagination in response the that experience, it was also deeply inspiring to me on my own personal journey in my teens/late teens. So I would happily place myself in the unorthodox category too - and will share more when we reach that point - which is really one of the hooks you have placed in me with your writing.

John Muir is amazing, just gotta say it. I still want to read a lot more of him too. I have been working on a woodland based project to help support positive relationships between children and their parents where where may be trouble. We have been incorporating as part of the sessions the ideas of John Muir - to go and explore and discover, even in microcosm, the nature around them. Witnessed a wonderful moment yesterday with a tiny kid, their attention rapt as they had a conversation with one of the leaders about skills Muir may have used to survive when out in the wilderness. Inspiring.

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Josh Marsfelder 6 years, 10 months ago

I'm really hoping the Star Trek: The Next Generation section of Vaka Rangi goes over well and I'm able to really convey the profound impact it had on me and what I think that means. It is unquestionably the part of the project that's going to be the most important to me and will be the hardest and most emotional to write. And I'm *really* glad at least one other person seems to have had similar experiences with the show.

Your project sounds great and really important: I love the bit about the kid. Reminds me a bit of something I might have done as a youngster, actually.

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Daru 6 years, 10 months ago

Well it will be interesting to see what comes out of you during the TNG period - I love that you are bringing in that weaving of your own personal story there. The time I watched TNG first was (I can see nowadays) was a very formative time for me too, so I look forwards to sharing when that comes. *Very* happy to to share the emotional connection about the show with you too!

Yes I adore the Forest Schools work that I do (as one of my jobs) with children, families and adults with mental health issues etc. All of those wonderful fictional worlds that inspired me as a kid led me always out into nature somehow. It's great to have the chance to re-inspire kids now to go out and have their own experiences in a fun way.

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