Gene Hanson Website


Astronomy Biography

Vital Stats:


My Astronomy Story:

Night sky from the Golden Book of Science My interest in astronomy goes back nearly as far as I can remember. What may be unusual is that I can recall what ignited it. I was about 7 years old and we were at our neighbor's (John and Lenore Spychalla) cottage on Lake Winneconne and they always went down to the shore to watch the sunset over the lake. One evening John and I stayed out a little longer as the first stars were appearing in the sky. John knew the constellations and proceeded to point into the sky the summer triangle and named the stars! Before this, I simply assumed that new stars were out every night.

The Big DipperThe pictures at the left and right are from the out of print book The Golden Book of Science. The picture of the big dipper spawned many nights of fruitless searches for this object because I was looking for a much smaller star field. But the searches were fun and I definitely remember finding Orion during the winter months.

Exploring the Planets - VenusIn the following years I actually tried to make my own telescope out of a magnifying glass and a microscope eyepiece without any real result.  I received what I thought was a real telescope around 1968, but it was a draw tube design with no mount and magnified 40X.  It was difficult to focus and at 40X, nearly impossible to hand hold. Because of those difficulties, I don't think I even tried using it at night.  But during this time I read a very interesting book called Exploring the Planets and it had a wonderful rendering of Venus in the dusk/dawn sky, showing how bright it was. And I was lucky because at that time Venus was an evening star and there it was, just as conspicuous as promised! How could I have missed that before?

I eventually  received my first genuine astronomical telescope in 1970 as a3" reflector from Edmund Scientific Christmas present -- an Edmund Space Conqueror 3 inch reflector. Though this could hardly be described as a good telescope, as a beginner scope it was more than adequate but here was the great part: the information that Edmund supplied with the scope was outstanding. This was important because like many other amateurs, I had no one to help me. Everything I learned was either from a book or by experience. I cannot even begin to describe the euphoria of actually finding Saturn for the first time and I had done it all myself. In the coming months I would eventually find Jupiter and Mars.

Edmund 3 inch reflector   Planesphere
Edmund Space Conqueror 3" Reflector

Nova Home PlanetariumFrom money earned from shoveling snow that winter, I bought a Nova Home Planetarium.  Though it was fun to use, one big disappointment was that it was missing so many stars as I naturally compared it against what I could see in my suburban sky.  I would add many more stars by carefully punching a very fine pin through the dome.  The result was very satisfying.  The unit itself came with a couple of neat accessories.  First, an arrow pointer so you could literally point to the "stars" on the ceiling.  Second, it came with a secondary projector with slides of various constellations that were perfectly spaced so that you could show the image of the figure right on the "sky" presumably just like a real planetarium show. Finally, there was a small 16mm slide projector and they included 2 strips, one of astronomical objects and the other a fictional account of a moon landing.  What was a "real" planetarium show?  All I knew of that was a small article in an encyclopedia and especially what I saw in the James Dean movie, Rebel Without A Cause. 

More about home planetariums in Uncle Rod's Blog: Stars On The Ceiling

Two really excellent books. The Sky Observer's Guide and The Stars, a book still readily available today which greatly aides new observers how to find and identify constellations.

The Sky Observer's Guide   H. A. Rey - The Stars

Tasco 4.5 inch reflector The 3 inch scope was very quickly replaced by my second telescope, 4.5 inch Tasco reflector.  Though this wasn't a great jump in aperture over the 3, it was still significant and I ended using this telescope for several years. It had very good slow motion controls, especially in Right Ascension, a rotatable tube and was still highly portable, allowing quick movements around the yard to get at various parts of the sky.  I have thought of how different things would have been had this been my first scope.  The information that came with the scope was woefully insufficient and in comparison to what came with the Edmund, simply pitiful.  And it makes me wonder how many budding amateurs were unnecessarily handicapped by lack of good information. 

But though I badmouth the information that came with this scope, the guide that came with it, A Key To The Worlds Beyond, did have a sample observers notebook page.  I quickly adopted its format and from then on every observation I made would be recorded.

Gene with 4.5 inch in 1971   World's Beyond Booklet
Gene in 1971
World's Beyond Booklet

After Drawing of T Cep Fieldnearly two years and exhausting the list of possible objects, I fancied myself a pretty good observer. I then ran across a book that had reprints of old Sky &Telescope articles. The piece was "Visual Observing Programs For Amateurs" by David Rosebrugh and it was my introduction to variable stars and the AAVSO. The attraction was immediate. 1) It provided a way to do useful (scientific) observing, and 2) it looked easy! In 1973 I received introductory material from the AAVSO and with the chart of T Cephei (finder and 'B' chart) shown in the article, I went for my first variable star. After trying to find this very bright variable for many hours over several nights, I gave up. The fields I saw in the telescope simply didn't match the chart. I made a drawing of what I thought might be the field and filed it away.

 Later, with my life sav Essential Optics 10 inch reflectorings of $300 dollars, I mail ordered a 10 inch (25cm) scope from Essential Optics. It was a deal that seemed too good to be true and almost was. Two years later (and a year after I thought my money was gone) the scope arrived, and it turned out to be a wonderful instrument. It seemed like this scope could find and see everything I went after, especially the faint NGC objects. Not only was this telescope relatively big, but it came with an 8X50 finder scope. The finding technique that worked for me time and again was to use the Skalnate Pleso Atlas (limiting magnitude 7.5 - the Sky Atlas 2000.0 is the modern day equivalent), which had all the NGC objects already plotted, and had a striking similarity to the view in the finder scope. Fortunately, this atlas also had variable stars plotted; that is, if their maximum brightness was at least 7.5. There one day I stumbled across the plot of T Cep, and it looked easy. And this time it was easy! I found the field without a lot of effort and made my first estimate. Remembering the drawing I had made, I looked at it and I definitely found it some 8 years previously.

T Cep variable star chartThis was 1979 while I was still in college. I lived in Milwaukee and at this time I became active in the Milwaukee Astronomical Society (MAS) (thanks to accessibility of a car), met Gerry Samolyk, and joined the AAVSO. The MAS has a long history with the AAVSO, and many great variable star observers worked from the MAS observatory. As a result, they had nearly the entire catalog of variable star charts, the standard charts being genuine blue prints. I made a few hundred estimates using the 12.5 inch telescopes using setting circles, but never liked that finding technique. I preferred my atlas, so I started the arduous task of making photocopies of sections of this atlas to paste onto my charts.

In 2002 I was presented with the very prestigious Leslie C. Peltier Award from the Astronomical League for my work in variable stars.

Gene Hanson's Peltier Award Plague