A Nightwatchman’s Journey: The Road Not Taken
On Friday, June 14, my latest book, my autobiography titled A Nightwatchman’s Journey: The Road not Taken was launched at the Royal Astronomical Society’s General Assembly in Toronto. It is a book I have been working on for almost a decade, and it is the story of my life. The book begins in medias res, in the midst of a suicide attempt that happened shortly after I graduated from Acadia. I have suffered from depression throughout my life, but this book describes my efforts to conquer it. It tells of how I made many poor decisions in my life, but how two of them were good. The best decision was marrying Wendee, which I did in 1997 and with whom I have had 22 happy years. The other one was to begin, on December 17, 1965, a search for comets.
It took me nineteen years, searching with telescopes for 917 hours 28 minutes, before I finally found my first comet in 1984. Since then I have found 22 more. One was an electronic find shared with Tom Glinos in 2010. Thirteen were photographic film discoveries shared with Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker (including Shoemaker-Levy 9 which collided with Jupiter in 1994) and there were nine visual comet finds. If the first seventy-one years of my life had been just staring through the eyepiece of a telescope, however, there would not have been much to write about. What happened on the road less travelled by, like Robert Frost, has made all the difference.
Comets, I learned, are not just for viewing. They are for reading and for studying. At first, I did some high school reading about the discovery of Comet Ikeya-Seki, the brightest comet of the twentieth century. Years later in graduate school at Canada’s Queen’s University, I prepared a master’s thesis based on the 19th century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who observed Comet Tempel in 1864 and subsequently wrote a beautiful poem about it. But the writer who seemed to be most into astronomy, and whose love of the sky I turned into my Ph.D., was none other than the great William Shakespeare, whose collected works contain more than two hundred references to the sky, including the opening lines to I Henry VI, one of his earliest plays:
Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky.
Even now, when I spend an evening or all night under the stars, I am amazed to be able to share my experiences with so many people, in all walks of life, who have come before me. Taking a road “that was grassy and wanted wear” might have been risky, but it did point me toward many adventures I’ll never forget.