From Bourbon Lancy to Cape Town

From Bourbon Lancy to Cape Town

by Janet A. Mattei, AAVSO Director

In the last year [2002], I had two marvelous international trips to attend astronomical meetings. The first trip was to attend the International Meeting on Variable Stars organized by the Association Francaise de Observateurs d'Etoiles Variables (AFOEV). This meeting was held between August 26 and 28, 2002, in Bourbon Lancy where Michel Verdenet, Director of AFOEV, lives. The second trip was to South Africa to attend the 5th Biannual Symposium of the Astronomical Society of South Africa (ASSA), held in Pretoria between November 29th and December 1st. Tim Cooper, ASSA President and AAVSO member and observer, invited me to present the Danie Overbeek Memorial Lecture at the Symposium.

The objective of the international variable star meeting in France was to bring together observers with professional astronomers, provide close interaction between variable star groups, and to point out the value and the necessity of the continuation of variable star observations. The attendees came from all over, mostly Europe. It was particularly delightful to see so many young variable star observers. The highlights of this meeting were the hospitality of our hosts, the charm and the beauty of Bourbon Lancy, the support of the astronomical activities at Bourbon Lancy by its mayor, and the excellent scientific program covering many areas of variable stars - observing techniques and methods, long period variables, novae, supernovae and x-ray sources. I gave the opening presentations on variable stars. The social events, including the superb organ concert by the Secretary of AFOEV Dr. Dominique Proust, a special reception at the City Hall given by the Mayor and and at which I was presented with a beautiful medal of Bourbon Lancy, a visit to the historical center and the famous baths and spa of Bourbon Lancy, together with a very interesting field trip to the famous Nancay Radio Observatory made this international meeting truly memorable for me.

The ASSA symposium in South Africa was held in the beautiful Aloe Ridge Hotel, located in a game park near Pretoria. The Symposium was superbly organized, well attended, and had an impressive set of papers covering wide areas of astronomy including variable stars, comets, meteors, solar eclipses, and the history of astronomy. Brian Warner, the prominent Cape Town astronomer and expert on cataclysmic variables, opened the Symposium with an excellent talk on novae.

My topic for The Danie Overbeek Memorial Lecture was the contribution of South African observers to variable star research. It was especially touching for me to know that Danie's son, Andrew, and daughter, Margaret, and their families and children were in attendance when I presented my talk. I was very honored when after my talk Tim presented me a beautiful plaque with an impressive clear quartz crystal and proposed to make me an Honorary member of the ASSA. At the Symposium I met many of our South African observers together with many other enthusiastic amateur astronomers, and visited our member/observer Jan Smit and his wife Bokkie and saw his observatory with many ingenious observing gadgets that Jan built.

Aloe Ridge Hotel is quite unique in that it has a 16-inch automatic telescope together with a 25-inch telescope attached to its special restaurant called the Observatory. While the attendees enjoy dinners with astronomical names, they may enjoy viewing the wonders of the universe coming through the 16-inch telescope and projected on the walls of the dining room. They also have the chance to observe the stars of the rich southern skies using a 25-inch telescope that is right next to the observatory. We had a reception at the Observatory that added just the right touch to the events.

Later, Tim and his family invited me to join them and other ASSA members to observe the solar eclipse at a game park in Messina, near the Zimbabwe border. We had a wonderful couple of days there in natural surroundings, with impressive legendary and ancient baobab trees around, and adventures with the wild life, including an encounter with a young elephant. On the day of the eclipse, the weather was touch and go with increasing clouds coming from the east, but ten minutes before the eclipse the sky cleared right around the sun and we saw a beautiful total eclipse. The famous diamond ring and Bailey's Beads were clearly visible along with a beautiful corona around the Sun. It was fantastic. With my small digital camera I was even able to image the corona and Mercury in the same frame.

Later, I went to Bloemfontein to visit the historic Boyden Observatory and see the improvements that are being made there, including the launching of the education and science center. Boyden was the southern observatory of Harvard College Observatory until the mid 1950s. Many of the Harvard plates were taken from there. During my visit to Boyden, I met many enthusiastic amateur astronomers who had a meeting there that evening.

From Bloemfontein I flew to Cape Town both to visit our member/observer R. W. (Win) Jones and to attend a few days of the IAU Colloquium on Magnetic Cataclysmic Variables (Polars). Our member/observer Fanie de Villiers took me to Win Jones' and we had a wonderful afternoon with Win and his wife Wynne. Due to his failing eyesight, Win, who is 90, has recently started to observe variable stars with a photoelectric photometer thanks to the help from Howard Landis, our former Photoelectric Photometry Committee Chairman. It was very impressive to see the clever ways Win has devised to locate his observing targets and the very fine data he has been obtaining. Win, who is originally from Massachusetts, USA, was a member of the first class of the aeronautical engineering graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1929. Fanie, a former musician, teacher, and a composer is now a very accomplished computer programmer with many international collaborations. Win and Fanie (who is half of Win's age) have developed a wonderful friendship thanks to their mutual interest in variable stars. They are our only two photoelectric observers in South Africa.

The two days of the Magnetic Cataclysmic Variables Colloquium I attended were very informative and interesting. Many colleagues who work with these stars and other cataclysmic variables use AAVSO data in their research and made many references to AAVSO observations and services in their presentations and privately to me.

All in all, my trips to France and to South Africa were unforgettable and very fruitful. I want to sincerely thank Joel Minois, Michel Verdenet, Jean Gunther, and Dominique Proust of AFOEV, and Tim Cooper and his family for their warm hospitality. I am grateful for the grants from the AFOEV, the International Travel Grant from the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa, the International Astronomical Union, and the AAVSO which made my travels to France and South Africa possible. I will always remember the enthusiasm, interest, and dedication of the observers and the graciousness and warm hospitality of everyone I met during my trips.