Category Archives: Barlow Bob

Remembering The Godfather Of Solar Astronomy, Robert “Barlow Bob” Godfrey

The field of amateur astronomy hosts many different personalities. Some love to know anything and everything about astronomy equipment. Some prefer the study of astronomy through the ages. Some enjoy the banter around a large scope with others at midnight. Some enjoy the quiet solitude of a small dome or open field. Still others enjoy setting their equipment up in the middle of the chaos of a large group of people to show them the sights. Some take their love of outreach well past the observing field, taking it upon themselves to educate others by taking what they know (or don’t yet know) and making it accessible to the larger audience of amateurs and non-observers alike.

Amateur astronomy has seen a few key players pass this year, starting with John Dobson this past January and the noted comet hunter Bill Bradfield just a week ago. Both are noteworthy in their passing in that, amongst a large, large number of astro-hobbyists, their names are held in higher esteem because of their unique contributions to amateur astronomy. In the case of Bill Bradfield, he singly was responsible for finding 18 comets that bear his name, making him responsible for helping map part of the contents of our own Solar System from his home in Australia (reportedly taking 3500 hours to do so). In the case of John Dobson, he not only synthesized many great ideas in scope building with his own to produce the class of telescope that bears his name, but he also made it part of his life’s work to bring the distant heavens to anyone and everyone through his founding of what we call today “sidewalk astronomy.”


Barlow Bob at the center of the 2014 NEAF Solar Star Party. Click for a larger view.

The CNY amateur astronomy community learned of the passing of Barlow Bob on June 13th through an email from Chuck Higgins of MVAS. I suspect most people in the community didn’t even know his real name was Robert Godfrey until the announcement of his passing. The announcement of his passing had much farther to go, as the list of people and clubs that Barlow Bob had made better through his own outreach is as large as his many contributions to solar astronomy. For the record, below is a snippet of his contributions to the CNY astronomy community generally and to me specifically.

The Postman And Telephone Operator of Northeast Astronomy

I have a decent handle on all of the astronomy clubs in the Northeast thanks to Barlow Bob’s habit of forwarding newsletters and email announcements around to his email list. Those who’ve not edited a club newsletter do not know how much this simple gesture was appreciated! In my 2008 reboot of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter the Astronomical Chronicle, the biggest problem facing its monthly continuation was new content. Not only did Barlow Bob provide a steady stream of articles for “Barlow Bob’s Corner,” but I learned about several free sources of space science news from these other newsletters (the NASA News Feed and the NASA Space Place being chief among them – still sources of news and updates freely available to all). He saved myself, and the SAS, several months of organizing content and finding relevant material. Those newsletters remain available in PDF format on the SAS website, many peppered with varied hot topics in solar astronomy that Barlow Bob chose to write about for “Barlow Bob’s Corner.”

As part of his aggregative exploits, amateur astronomers in his email loop were also treated to a yearly events calendar of nearly all of the East Coast star parties and special events. His and Chuck Higgins’ 2014 Events Calendar makes up the majority of the non-celestial phenomena listed in CNYO’s current calendar.

I also had the pleasure of being one of the recipients of his many (many!) phone calls as a regular of his “astro-rounds” call list, during which I learned early on to have a pen and paper ready for all of the companies to check out and solar projects to search for. Barlow Bob loved being on the edge of solar observing technology, both in pure observational astronomy and in solar spectroscopy (his Solar Spectroscopy History article is among the most concise stories of the history of the field). A number of his voice messages lasted little more than 15 seconds, but provided enough detail for a requisite google search and email exchange after.

“You keep writing them, I’ll keep publishing them.”

Barlow Bob was, by all metrics, a prolific writer on the topic of solar astronomy. My Barlow Bob CD contains at least 50 full articles along with pictures, equipment reviews, and society newsletters including his articles. Barlow Bob took great pleasure equally in his own understanding some aspect of solar astronomy and his committing that understanding to keyboard and computer screen for others. While many amateur astronomers delight in knowing something well enough to be able to talk about it with authority, precious few in the community actually take the next step and distill all they know into something others far beyond their immediate sphere can appreciate. Even those who’ve never been to NEAF likely knew of Barlow Bob through his writings. Along with his founding of the NEAF Solar Star Party, his many articles will serve as his lasting contribution to the field. We will continue to include Barlow Bob’s articles on the CNYO website and we hope that other societies will consider doing the same. Some of those articles are available on his dedicated webpage at NEAF Solar,

The Bob-o-Scope Comes To Syracuse


Barlow Bob and “the works” at Darling Hill Observatory. Click for a larger view.

While Syracuse only managed to have one solar session hosted by Barlow Bob, that one session provided a number of lasting memories. After a few months of planning around available weekends and Barlow Bob’s own vacation schedule, we finally settled on the early afternoon of 30 July 2011 for a solar session (with a lecture by CNY’s own Bob Piekiel to follow that evening, making for one of the better amateur astronomy weekends in Syracuse) at Darling Hill Observatory, home of the Syracuse Astronomical Society.


Very likely him at Darling Hill Observatory. Click for a larger view.

Our initial plan was for an 11 a.m. set-up and a noon to 3-ish observing session. Saturday morning started a bit earlier than I expected with a phone call at 9:30 a.m. – Barlow Bob, ever ready to be out and about on a clear day, was outside the locked front gate of Darling Hill Observatory. A frantic prep and drive out later, Barlow Bob and I set up and placed his many scopes on the observing grounds to the delight of about 30 attendees. I myself took one look through the Bob-o-Scope and began calling people, telling them “you have to come and see this.” A full day of observing in, Barlow Bob didn’t end up leaving Darling Hill until just before 5 p.m. The hour we took to leisurely pack his station wagon with all of his gear was full of shop talk, people and equipment to be made aware of, and plans on a similar event at some point in the future. That hang and the view through his Bob-o-Scope are two of my favorite memories during my tenure as SAS president.

Barlow Bob and a spectroscopy mini-lecture at Darling Hill Observatory, 30 July 2011.

The Sun, being the excellent, usually accessible target that it is, is ideal for hosting impromptu observing sessions at most any location. Members of CNYO now do as a small group (and with cheaper equipment) what Barlow Bob would do single-handedly – set up and observe “with attitude.”

Not Just NEAF

Barlow Bob is known to many in the community as the founder of the NEAF Solar Star Party and as the author of articles for “Barlow Bob’s Corner.” To those of us with a bent towards public outreach, Barlow Bob is an example of someone who could take some fancy equipment and his own know-how and run a one-host show. Barlow Bob committed a great deal of his own time and talent to doing for our nearest star what those like John Dobson did for far more distant objects. Despite the many, many amateur astronomers in the world today, it’s still a field where a single person can have a strong influence simply by being a perfectly-polished primary mirror that reflects their own love of the field for others to appreciate. Amateur astronomy outreach can learn a lot from Barlow Bob’s example and CNYO will continue in his footsteps of making safe, variously-filtered solar sights available to the public as part of our observing efforts. May we all become a bit more familiar with our nearest star, following in Barlow Bob’s footsteps to observe it “with attitude.”


“It’s like looking in a mirror!” Barlow Bob and I at Kopernik’s 2013 Astrofest.

* Announcement of his passing on Cloudy Nights:

* David Eicher’s announcement at

* A memorial webpage at

Barlow Bob’s Corner – Ophiuchus, By Mary Lou West, Ph.D.

The following article has been forwarded along by Barlow Bob, founder & organizer of the NEAF Solar Star Party and regional event host & lecturer on all things involving solar spectroscopy. You can read more about Barlow Bob and see some of his other articles at

Poster’s Note: I can only imagine that there are outdoor statues all over the world reaching back to antiquity that reveal something astronomical only once a year – and no one knows that this is their purpose. This article describes a modern reminder nearly in our own backyard. This story initially appeared in the Fall 2011 Montclair State University College of Science and Mathematics newsletter. And apologies for the image graininess (exported out of Microsoft Word).

Ophiuchus, the Serpent carrier is an ancient myth from the Middle East, a constellation in the summer sky, and a sculpture on the Montclair State University campus in Montclair, NJ. But how many times have you bypassed it on your way to and from the library or College Hall and wondered what it might be, other than an abstract metal sculpture?

The sculpture, the story of a young man’s victory over “the snake of all knowledge,” consists of a concrete disk, an iron tripod, and aluminum artwork. It was designed in 1988 by Mac Adams and Montclair State University professor of sculpture. This victor changed his name to “Ophiuchus” (snake carrier in Greek) because he then carried the snake wrapped around his walking stick as he traveled from village to village learning the methods of medicine from the snake. The caduceus has become the emblem of physicians and veterinarians since that time.


The not-entirely-Ophiuchus-like sculpture.

But it is also more than just a metal sculpture. At true noon on May 24, 2011, as its shadow is centered on the disk, we were able to see a figure with his hand around a writhing snake’s throat. At other times of the day or year when the shadow is not centered, it is not recognizable, except for July 17 when the sun is at the same declination as on May 24. We chose May 24 because it was graduation day, when college seniors are celebrating their personal victories over the snake of all knowledge. The alignment calculations and surveying were done by Mary Lou West, and should hold for hundreds of years. Ophiuchus is also the (small) thirteenth constellation of the Zodiac.


An entirely-Ophiuchus-like shadow made from the sculpture, visible on May 24th and July 17th each year (for the next few hundred years, anyway).

If you are in Montclair, New Jersey on either May 24th or July 17th, Please consider visiting this Ophiuchus sculpture at the Montclair State University campus.

Barlow Bob’s Corner – The Balmer Series

The following article has been provided by Barlow Bob, founder & organizer of the NEAF Solar Star Party and regional event host & lecturer on all things involving solar spectroscopy. You can read more about Barlow Bob and see some of his other articles at

The February 2014 issue of Astronomy magazine contained an article about the fate of the Sun. There was an illustration showing the differences between the various types of dark Fraunhofer absorption lines in the spectrum of the Sun, a hot blue star and a white dwarf star.

The solar spectrum consisted of many thin dark lines of different elements. The hot blue star spectrum consisted of only thin dark lines of the Balmer Series of hydrogen. The white dwarf spectrum also contained only the Balmer Series lines. In the white dwarf spectrum, however, these lines were very thick.


The spectrum of the Sun, a white dwarf, and blue giant. Image taken from:

Reference books and articles about spectroscopy state that the Fraunhofer lines in the spectrum of hot stars with a high-pressure atmosphere are thin. The lines of cool stars with a low-pressure atmosphere are thick. Why does a white dwarf with an extremely high-pressure atmosphere have wide Fraunhofer lines in its spectrum?

Sue French provided the explanation below, which is reprinted here with permission.

“It’s a question of density and pressure differences between the different luminosity classes of stars. Hydrogen lines broaden from luminosity class I (luminous supergiant) to luminosity class V (main sequence). The lines are generated by collisions in a star’s photosphere. Close-passing atoms can slightly disturb an electron’s energy level such that the electron can absorb at a wavelength that is a bit offset from the center of the line. Whole bunches of these interactions put together broaden the line, and higher photospheric density (class V) promotes more interactions. For example, a B5V star and a B5I star would have about the same photospheric temperature, but the lines would be broader in the former because of its higher photospheric density. Thus for the white dwarf, where the photospheric density is very high, the lines are broadened with respect to stars of similar photospheric temperature.”

From 1859 until his death at age 73, Johann Jakob Balmer (1825-1898) was a high school teacher at a girl’s school in Basel, Switzerland. His primary academic interest was geometry, but in the middle 1880’s he became fascinated with four numbers: 6,562.10, 4,860.74, 4,340.1, and 4,101.2. These are not pretty numbers, but for the mathematician Balmer, they became an intriguing puzzle. Was there a pattern to the four numbers that could be represented mathematically? The four numbers Balmer chose were special because these numbers pertained to the spectrum of the hydrogen atom. By the time Balmer became interested in the problem, the spectra of many chemical elements had been studied and it was clear that each element gave rise to a unique set of spectral lines. Balmer was a devoted Pythagorean: he believed that simple numbers lay behind the mysteries of the universe. His interest was not directed toward spectra, which he knew little about, nor was it directed toward the discovery of some hidden physical mechanism inside the atom that would explain the observed spectra. Balmer was intrigued by the numbers themselves.

In the mid-1880’s, Balmer began his examination of the four numbers associated with the hydrogen spectrum. At his disposal were the four numbers measured by Anders Jonas Angström (1814-1874): 6,562.10, 4,860.74, 4,340.1, and 4,101.2. These numbers represented the wavelengths, in units of Angströms, of the four visible spectral lines in the hydrogen atom spectrum.


The Balmer Series for hydrogen. Image taken from

In 1885, Balmer published a paper in which his successful formulation was communicated to the scientific world. Balmer showed that the four wavelengths could be obtained with the formula that bears his name: wavelength = B x (m^2)/(m^2-n^2), with B = 3645.6 Angströms. He had found a simple mathematical formula that expressed a law by which the hydrogen wavelengths could be represented with striking precision. He further suggested that there might be additional lines in the hydrogen spectrum. Other spectral lines with their own wavelengths were predicted by Balmer and later found by other scientists. Angström measured the wavelengths of the spectral lines of hydrogen, but Balmer showed that the wavelengths of the spectral lines are not arbitrary. The values of the wavelengths are the expression of a single mathematical formula – and this Balmer Series equation altered how scientists thought about spectral lines. Before Balmer published his results, scientists drew an analogy between spectral lines and musical harmonies. They assumed that there were simple harmonic ratios between the frequencies of spectral lines. After Balmer’s work, all scientists recognized that spectral wavelengths could be represented by simple numerical relationships.

Balmer disappeared from the ranks of working scientists and continued his classroom work teaching young ladies mathematics. Neither he nor his students recognized that his paper on the spectrum of hydrogen would bring him scientific immortality. The spectral lines of hydrogen that were the focus of Balmer’s attention are now known as the Balmer Series.