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  • Toner Stevenson

The passing of three significant figures in astronomy

We end 2022 on a sad but important note, commemorating the contribution made and lives of Professor Jay Pasachoff, solar eclipse astrophysicist; Dr Ragbir Bhathal, astronomy historian, scientist and educator and Reverend Robert Evans, highly accomplished amateur astronomer and discoverer of 42 supernovae. These three people made a difference to how we understand our solar system, galaxies and deep space and I am telling you my personal encounters.


Professor Jay Pasachoff

Well known and much travelled astrophysicist, Jay Pasachoff, passed away on 20 November, aged 79. Dr Pasachoff is credited with seeing more solar eclipses, 79 in all their variety of forms, than any other human past or present on the planet. Many fellow eclipse observers had hoped to meet up with Jay and Naomi, his partner in life and eclipse observing, at the 2023 eclipse in Exmouth. Jay's passing is a great blow to many around the globe as he was friendly and social as well as scientific. The two of them seemed ageless and with enormous energy for research and travel chasing eclipses.


There is an excellent post in the New York Times which outlines Jay's life and pursuits.


The first time I met Jay and Naomi was in Russia, in the city of Novosibirsk, Siberia on the evening of 1 August 2008 dining in a restaurant after a spectacular solar eclipse we had all witnessed in different locations. The Sydney Observatory group I was with viewed the eclipse from the shores of Lake Ob, Jay Pasachoff's scientific team were on the rooftop of a University with many types of instruments and telescopes for photographing the eclipse and taking readings. His website entries, photographs and links of that eclipse made me realise that whilst I had enjoyed the breathtaking visceral experience of totality there was much still to learn about our Sun, in particular Jay studied the Sun's corona.



The next time we met was on Easter Island for the 2010 total solar eclipse. This was such a spectacular location and again everyone was fortunate as the weather was perfect - even though rain had fallen prior to the eclipse and then again afterwards. Jay's team was staying in the only motel in town and we were in tents - but as it proved our glamping was the more luxurious. However all got to witness a spectacular solar eclipse and you can see one of Jay's photographs here in this interview just prior to the 2012 eclipse in Australia: https://www.space.com/18442-total-solar-eclipse-chasing-2012-interview.html. Again our group was fortunate to join in with Jay and Naomi Pasachoff for the celebratory lunch.


Jay and Naomi visited Sydney Observatory a number of times and I always feel fortunate for having had these encounters. Naomi's interest in the history of astronomy and the women who are often hidden inspired me in my pursuits and Jay Pasachoff, very recently wrote a very favourable review of the 'Eclipse Chasers' book myself, Nick Lomb, Uncle Ghillar Michael Anderson, Duane Hamacher, Melissa Hulbert, Geoffrey Wyatt and Kirsten Banks have coming out on 1 March 2023, published by CSIRO. You can find out more here: https://www.publish.csiro.au/book/8098/.



Rev. Robert Evans

Robert (Bob) Evans passed away on 8 November 2022, aged 85. His visual observations of 42 supernovae have only been surpassed by computer technology in recent years. A supernova occur when a massive star nears the end of its life, it collapses and then suddenly massively explodes. These events occur all the time but until sophsticated computer technology, evidence of them occurring relied on observers. Bob Evans's life was extraordinary in the way he pursued his passions for astronomy, history and the study of religion and was able to excel in all three areas. There is much written about his achievements, but this is my first encounter which has remained strong in my memory for two decades.



In the early 2000s Dr Nick Lomb organised our society to visit Linden Observatory in the Blue Mountains. It was in winter and the night was exceptionally chilly, but perfectly clear and still. We met up with the Western Sydney Amateur Astronomy Group. Linden Observatory is an extraordinary historic site in the Blue Mountains and I was introduced to Bob Evans who suggested I look through his telescope - what I saw was an impressive view of the Tarantula Nebula. He told me about his search for supernovae and galaxy observations and Nick later explained how quick Bob was at finding and recognising stars in the sky because of his amazing visual memory. Bob's observations of supernovae relied on this ability to notice change within a vast star map in his memory. Bob Evans knew the sky in an exceptional way. That evening I also met Alan Plummer, who is an amateur variable star observer who has regularly observed with Bob Evans over decades, and Sky and Telescope magazine have published a fitting obituary written by Alan here: https://www.skyandtelescope.com.au/vale-the-rev-roberts-evans/. I aslo love this 2004 interview- recorded at about the time I met Bob Evans: https://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/15/kastner_evans.php



Dr Ragbir Bhathal

Dr Ragbir Bhathal passed away on 30 November 2022, aged 86. He was well-known amongst amateur and professional astronomers, and spoke at meetings of Sydney City Skywatchers. The Royal Society of NSW have published a comprehensive obituary here: https://www.royalsoc.org.au/blog/vale-dr-ragbir-bhathal-frsn


I first met Dr Bhathal when I joined the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) staff in 1983. He was Deputy Director responsible for education and the physical sciences. MAAS had recently taken responsibility for Sydney Observatory and Bhathal saw Sydney Observatory as an interactive Science Museum. Not all shared this vision and it was never fully realised but he was instrumental in Sydney Observatory's restoration and many of his ideas were transformed into the concepts for Questacon Science Centre in Canberra.


Photograph courtesy of Macarthur Astronomical Society

Bhathal's contributions to astronomy were many, here I will focus on his continued interest and research in the history of Australian Astronomy, both professional and amateur. Bhathal was responsible for a series of sixteen interviews with women scientists, the oral recordings can be sourced in the National Library of Australia. This research and other became a book called 'Profiles' featuring 100 women scientists. Bhathal contributed to several publications, including a book about Mt Stromlo Observatory called 'From Bush Observatory to a Nobel Prize'. Furthermore he wrote about First Nations Peoples' astronomy at a time when Australian Indigenous Peoples' knowledge of astronomy was not widely known. He was well known, did not shy away from debate and was always approachable and welcoming of discussion.


On behalf of our members I send condolences to his family and to our fellow astronomy society members in the Macarthur Astronomical Society who have written a fitting obituary: https://macastro.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Obituary-Dr-Ragbir-Bhathal-1.pdf



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