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BAA Comet Section

George Alcock (1912-2000) remembered

by Martin Mobberley

I first saw the legendary George Alcock (giving a rare astronomy talk in London) in 1978, and eleven years then elapsed before I met and spoke to him at the 1989 TA (The Astronomer magazine) meeting, in Basingstoke. Throughout the 1990s, and up to 2000, I spoke to him many times on the telephone (and occasionally in person), especially when there was a new discovery and George wanted to hear the news. He was a very friendly character despite having a reputation for being 'reclusive'. The last time I saw George face to face was just after the August 11th 1999 Total Solar Eclipse, when I was BAA President. He was at the IWCA conference at Cambridge where he received a standing ovation from some very famous comet observers and discoverers. He became rather frail and confused in 2000 and died shortly after moving from his house into full time care. Nine years earlier, in 1991, for the first time in his life, George agreed to a full video interview of his life. I was honoured that I was the 'film-maker' George allowed to do this. The interview was set up by Guy Hurst and the interviewer was Denis Buczynski. Also helping out on the day (Sept 1st 1991) was Glyn Marsh. During the following years I churned out dozens of copies of the 3 hour video for fellow amateur astronomers and I also filmed George at The Astronomer AGM's in 1989 and 1992. George was amazed at the popularity of my video recordings of him and, a few years later, he also agreed to Kay Williams writing a biography of himself. This was published by Genesis Publications in 1996 and called 'Under an English Heaven'. Kay Williams is the mother of Gareth Williams of the Minor Planets Center (MPC)! She also wrote a biography of Richmal Crompton, author of the 'William' books for children. When George died in December 2000 I wrote the following appreciation in The Astronomer (TA) mag. It later appeared in the BAA Comet Section publication "The Comet's Tale". Recently (2006) I have released all my Alcock videos on a DVD entitled "George Alcock the DVD Biography". It costs 15 in the UK. Anyway, here is my summary of George's remarkable life:-

The man who memorised the sky

"We will not see his like again"; these seven words are often used when great men die, but they could not be more appropriate when the man in question is George Alcock. George was simply the greatest visual discoverer who ever lived under the cloudy British skies. His ten discoveries (five comets and five novae) surpass even the achievements of Caroline Herschel, who discovered eight comets from Britain and did not have to battle against the likes of Honda, Seki, Ikeya, Mrkos and Burnham, competing with George from much clearer skies. As most TA members will know, George also had to memorise the northern Milky Way to eighth magnitude (and fainter in some regions) to make his binocular nova patrol viable. His extraordinary success in this area implies that, locked in his brain, were thousands of star patterns, containing maybe more than 30,000 stars, as seen through his binoculars.
The Early Years
George was born in Peterborough on August 28th 1912 during the time of the great East Anglian flood. He died, in hospital, on December 15th 2000, 88 years and 109 days later, with the river Nene once again at dangerously high levels. Excluding the war years, George would spend his whole life in the Peterborough region.
George's first big encounter with Astronomy was as an eight year old, when he saw the large partial eclipse of April 8th 1921. The eclipse was annular at around 9am from NW Scotland and the Sun was 86% obscured from Peterborough. George and his schoolmates observed the eclipse through smoked glass. But, while George had learned much about astronomy from this experience, and developed a keen interest in the night sky in the following years, it was not the event which fired his latent desire to contribute observations; this was to come some 9 years later. On December 30th 1930, whilst crossing the Peterborough town bridge, George saw a bright meteor "as bright as Venus". This single event spurred him to contact the BAA meteor section director, J.P.M.Prentice, with his first serious observation.
Manning Prentice lived at Stowmarket, a small town midway between Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich and, critically, some 60 miles SE of Peterborough, a useful baseline distance for meteor triangulation observations.
Prentice invited George to join the BAA's Meteor Section and George (although not yet a full BAA member) attended his first Meteor Section meeting in July 1931 (aged 18), in the library of Sion College. W.F. Denning, discoverer of five comets and a 3rd mag nova in Cygnus (V476 Cyg) had just died and the meeting began with a minutes silence in memory of the great man. During the meeting, George was approached by the veteran meteor observer Grace Cook, who let George know that he would take the place of Denning. Whether she was endowed with clairvoyant abilities or was simply a good judge of character, we will never know; however, she would surely have been aware, via Prentice, that the young Alcock was a meticulous observer, fully familiar with the night sky and one who showed great promise.
The Meteor Years
The July 1931 Meteor Section meeting seemed to inspire George and marked the start of an extremely fruitful observing partnership between himself and Prentice. The intensive meteor partnership would last twenty productive years, interrupted only by the war years. But meteors were not George's only interest, he also enjoyed observing and sketching the planets, even if some BAA members were sceptical of what could be seen through a small refractor. George also independently discovered the white spot on Saturn, while using a friend's 4" refractor, on August 12th 1933, some 3 days after it's official discovery by Will Hay. However, he missed the spectacular Giacobinid meteor shower of October 9th 1933; it was not predicted and he was not outside at the time; remarkably his mother Jennie did observe it whilst waiting for a bus! Up to 450 meteors per hour were visible from dark sites.
On December 12th 1934, George might have discovered his first nova. Both he and Prentice had been out observing at their respective locations, but George had turned in at 1.30am (he started a new teaching job the next day) whereas Prentice had stayed out a while longer and, while stretching his legs after a long observing session, he spotted the 1st mag Nova Herculis 1934 (later classified as DQ Her) George could easily have spotted the newcomer himself but it was not to be. Prentice telephoned the RGO and the Astronomer Royal and incoming BAA President, Sir Harold Spencer Jones, mentioned the discovery on the radio the next evening. The nova took 94 days to fade to mag 4.3. Some 57 years later, George would himself discover a nova in Hercules!
With George now fully committed to meteor observing, after four years work with the BAA meteor section, he eventually found the funds to became a fully paid up BAA member and was elected to the association, in February 1936, at the age of 23. (Some 15 months earlier, the 11 year old Patrick Moore had been elected).
George first met his future wife, Mary Green in 1936. Like George she was a teacher, some five years his senior. Fortunately, her extremely strict mother guaranteed that this new friendship would not interfere whatsoever with George's night time vigils!
George continued his mammoth meteor watches until his Second World War call up in December 1940. He even managed some meteor watches during his RAF service! He married Mary on June 9th 1941 during a months leave from the RAF.
While the marriage was a happy one, Mary suffered a fall in 1958 resulting in a particularly complex fracture of her (already weak) left leg. The leg never fully repaired and she eventually became virtually bedridden for the last twenty years of her life (she died in October 1991).
Following the distraction of the war, George was finally returned to civilian life in March 1946. His meteor work with Prentice continued and he was determined to see the next big Giacobinid shower, following his mother's chance observation of the 1933 event. But he was to be thwarted again....while Prentice enjoyed clear skies on the night of October 9th 1946 and saw a meteor storm, George was clouded out; sadly, he never did see a true meteor storm.
In November 1947 George and Mary moved to their own home, in the nearby village of Farcet in the Peterborough countryside. They named the new house "Antares" and it was numbered "no 55 Broadway, Farcet". With George to ultimately notch up 5 comet and 5 nova discoveries it would prove to be an appropriate number!
During the early 1950s it became increasingly obvious to George and to Manning Prentice that the value of their meteor observations was being eroded by the radar work being carried out at Jodrell Bank. This, however, did not stop George completing a record breaking Quadrantid watch on the night of Jan 3rd/4th 1951; a total observing time of 10 hours and 48 minutes! This was his last major meteor watch, though he still submitted occasional reports to the BAA for another 10 years to both Prentice and, from 1954, to Harold Ridley. He had been the country's most dedicated meteor observer for almost twenty years!
The Comet Sweeping Years
With the value of his meteor work diminishing (in his eyes) George started looking around for other areas of Astronomy where he could really make a contribution. George was not that interested in submitting routine observations that simply added to a large database and may, or may not, be of some minor scientific use. He wanted his observations to be VERY useful and to fundamentally increase our understanding of the Universe. But, in George's own words "What could I, a single observer, with not much money, do, that would make a difference". The answer was obvious, but would involve a mammoth effort: he resolved to direct his energies into discovering a comet. On the 1st of Jan 1953 George made his only New Year's resolution; he would embark on a 5 year comet search with his 4" refractor, a telescope he had owned, on loan from the BAA, since 1938.
(In 1958, without a discovery, he would resolve to carry on for another 5 years.) Two and a half years after his New Year resolution, in the summer of '55, he decided he would search for novae too. This latter challenge was a collossal undertaking, but one that George fully understood.
From his meteor work of the past twenty years, George could recognise about a thousand stars in patterns. This does not mean he could name them all, or that he could even draw the constellations down to mag 5 or so. It simply meant that his brain's pattern recognition centre could tell if a new star was breaking up the old pattern. Nevertheless, the idea of committing the Milky Way, as seen through binoculars, to memory was "preposterous" even to implied memorising perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 stars!! But taking the easy way out was not an option for George...he would search for novae as well as comets.
George threw himself at the new challenge, spending hundreds of hours per year sweeping the sky for comets and then novae. A few other comet hunters were stealing comets from George in the first few years and George learned from "the ones that got away". The successes of Mrkos, Honda, Peltier, Burnham and others in the 1950s showed George that a comet could be discovered; it just needed infinite dedication and infinite patience!
There can be little doubt that George had the wrong equipment for comet hunting in the early years. His 4" refractor with a 1 degree field was not a comet sweepers dream instrument.
In 1957 he borrowed Manning Prentice's delapidated 25x105 binoculars and immediately realised that he needed something similar. The breakthrough that, quite possibly, changed the course of British Astronomical history, occurred in January 1959; George's brother John spotted a pair of similar binoculars for sale at the 1959 Boat Show in London. Edward Marcus who owned a binocular & telescope shop close to Liverpool Street insisted that John took them back to George for a trial. After some modifications by Marcus, George was delighted with the astronomical performance of the binoculars and 150 pounds sterling changed hands! Not only did the binoculars have wide field eyepieces giving a 3 degree field, the eyepieces were inclined at 45 degrees. At a stroke, George's comet sweeping became comfortable and the field of view increased by nine-fold! History was about to be made.
After only 7 months sweeping with the new binoculars, on the 25th of August 1959, 3 days prior to his 47th birthday, George spotted an intruder in Corona Borealis. The next night, with a new star atlas, he checked the field again....the suspect had moved one degree. George had made his first discovery, Comet Alcock 1959e, the first comet discovered from Britain since Dennings final comet discovery in 1894. After more than 6 years of sweeping, the second Comet Alcock was discovered only 5 days later (!), 2 days after his 47th birthday, on August 30th. Comet 1959f was discovered in the morning sky in Cancer. After a 65 year dearth of British comet discoveries (and not for the lack of people trying) the discovery of two British comets in a week was, and still is, a fairytale event. Over the years, many astronomers, including myself, have stood in the back garden of Antares and wondered if they were standing on sacred ground. George was a well known observer in the BAA prior to August 1959, but he would always be a legend after that month. It is sobering to speculate as to what might have happened if August 1959 had been a really cloudy month. George's third Comet was discovered in March 1963; how long would George have carried on without a discovery.....we will never know.
George made his fourth comet discovery in September 1965. He would not discover his fifth for another 18 years; thus the 6 year period from 1959 - 1965 marked George's golden period of comet discovery.
The Nova Discovery Years
After 1965, George placed more emphasis on nova hunting; after all, he had a unique talent in that field, he had memorised the northern Milky Way! During the 1970s he became increasingly frustrated by the encroaching skyglow from Peterborough, making nova hunting, not comet hunting, the natural direction in which to continue.
As most TA members will be aware, The Astronomer started its life as The Casual Astronomer in April 1964, founded by John Larard and Jim Muirden. George was one of the strongest supporters of the magazine, right from the very start. It filled a number of voids not then covered by the BAA, and particularly attractive to an observer like George. Most importantly, rapid publication of observations and discoveries, especially of comets and variable stars, were it's speciality. In today's Internet & CCD dominated world it's hard to imagine a world where observers had to wait months or years to see their observations in print. But that was quite often the case in the 1960s, until the Casual Astronomer appeared. George was a lifelong supporter of TA from it's inception, and of Guy Hurst, who took over the magazine in 1975.
From 1967 to 1976 George used his memory of the northern Milky Way to full advantage, sweeping up 4 novae in an 11 year period. He had rivals in this field too, most notably the Japanese photographic patrollers. Once again, Honda was a major rival. But George was the only successful observer at that time who was searching visually. On clear nights he had a huge advantage over the photographers. Bright novae would be spotted almost instantly by him; there was no additional hassle of developing films, mounting negatives and stereo merging or blinking. He could also observe in an instant and between cloud banks, his visual approach had much more flexibility than photography. His first nova success came on July 8th 1967 when he swept up Nova Delphini rising through 6th magnitude. At last, the 12 years of memorising the Milky Way through binoculars had paid off; it must have been a huge relief. George now had 5 discoveries to his credit: 4 comets and a nova. In the late seventies and eighties, US observers Peter Collins and Kenneth Beckman would follow George's example and memorise the Milky Way stars too, but George had shown the way.
Nova Delphini 1967, or HR Del as it became known, is still the only nova to have been discovered in Delphinus.It was the first British Nova to be discovered since Prentice discovered DQ Her in 1934. The nova rose to a peak of 3.5 on 1967 December 13th, dropped slowly, then peaked again at 4.2 on 1968 May 5th; an extraordinary object. George's second nova was discovered a mere 9 months after the first and was a much faster nova. This one was in Vulpecula and was designated LV Vul. It was discovered on 1968 April 14th, rising to a peak of mag 4.8 a week later, on April 21st. Remarkably, with HR Del on the rise to it's final fourth magnitude peak, there were two British naked eye novae, only 15 degrees apart, in the April 1968 dawn sky!!
George has often stated that the sight of those two novae together was "the greatest thrill of my observing career" The proximity of LV Vul to the bright nova of 1670 was also of considerable importance to George. Two years later, George notched up his third and faintest (at mag 6.9) nova, in Scutum, V368 Scuti. Another 6 years would elapse before he bagged his fourth, on October 21st 1976, NQ Vul, a nova right next to the famous Coathanger Asterism. This was an especially important discovery for George as his morale was somewhat dented by 'missing' the 1st mag nova V1500 Cyg on August 29th 1975, the day after his 63rd birtday. George only missed the spectacular nova by a few hours and the loss nearly made him give up. I well remember hearing George describe his feelings towards Nova Cyg 1975 at a meeting of the JAS (now SPA) on April 29th 1978 at the Holborn Library in London. I had walked 7 miles from Enfield to hear George (and Jocelyn Bell of Pulsar fame) give a rare was well worth the blisters! I would not see George again until the 1989 TA AGM.
Even for an observer as dedicated as George, comet and nova discoveries are generally separated by years, not days! One can only marvel at the mental stamina of the man, notching up literally thousands of fruitless hours of searching between discoveries as well as caring for his bedridden wife and teaching by day (up to 1977).Somehow George managed to find the strength to go on, year after year and retain his cheery disposition. It is simply mind-boggling!
The last two discoveries
The last two discoveries of George, his fifth comet and his fifth nova must have stretched even his patience, occurring after discovery gaps of 7 and 8 years, but the stories associated with them have gone down in astronomical history. George swept up Comet 1983d (C/1983 H1) at 22h UT on 1983 May 3rd after putting his wife to bed. It was in Draco, already 6th magnitude and 12' in diameter. Unlike his previous 8 discoveries, this one was made from indoors (!) with George kneeling on the floor beneath the Antares landing window and using 15 x 80 binoculars. It ultimately transpired that Araki had spotted it fractionally earlier and the Infra-Red Astronomy Satellite (IRAS) had secured images of it as early as April 25th, but the team had failed to appreciate it's true significance. George was not happy that the TV report made it sound as if he was simply 'checking out' the IRAS discovery; he would definitely have been happier for the comet to have been named Araki-Alcock, with IRAS left out! This was the only time George had to share a comet discovery. IRAS-Araki-Alcock became the third closest comet flyby of all time, after Lexell (1770) and Tempel-Tuttle (1366). It passed within 3 million miles of Earth on May 11th and plunged 40 degrees in declination in one day! It was the brightest comet George had discovered and the fact he'd done it from indoors, aged 70, with hand-held 15x80 binoculars just added to the legendary status of the man. Two years later, on Jan 30th 1985, George made the observation which he personally considered was his tenth discovery, he spotted an outburst of the recurrent Nova RS Ophiuchi, again while observing from indoors. Although not a new nova, George had missed the 1967 flare-up due to driving home after visiting Manning Prentice. So, although not a discovery of a new object, it was a satisfying success for George.
His final discovery, on 1991 March 25th, when George was 78 years old, was a remarkable one in many ways. Firstly, George had a strong feeling that he was going to be lucky that night, so strong in fact, that he was not at all surprised when he spotted the 5th magnitude intruder. Secondly, he was, once again, observing from indoors, through a downstairs double glazed window, using only 10x50 binoculars. Thirdly, the confirmation was itself, equally remarkable. At the time of the discovery, 0435 UT, nautical twilight had already arrived. From his satellite images he knew that Denis Buczynski in Lancashire was clear and phoned him with the details.Within minutes of the call, Denis was in the dome and his astrograph was being slewed to the right position, offsetting from Deneb, the ONLY star visible in the twilight sky! Astoundingly, Denis photographed the object and secured a position. An independent discovery was made by Sugano in Japan and the new object (V838 Her) was one of the fastest fading novae of all time, dropping 3 magnitudes in 2.8 days!
Tributes and awards
Although V838 Her was the last discovery for George he continued to search the sky from indoors and to sketch comets, like Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp, that came along. On September 1st 1991 I visited 55 Broadway, Farcet with Denis Buczynski and Glyn Marsh. Denis was a man George trusted and with Denis acting as an expert interviewer I secured 3 hours of footage, while George related his life story. It's compulsive viewing! Five years later, Kay Williams, inspired by a suggestion from Brian Marsden's wife Nancy, completed her excellent and meticulous biography of George's life. The book, "Under an English Heaven, the life of George Alcock" should be on every astronomers bookshelf. Only by reading that book and watching the TA video can the true quality of the man be appreciated.
In this tribute I have concentrated on the astronomical side of George's life, but this is only a tiny part of the story. George was an avid bird watcher, nature watcher, weather watcher and sky watcher. He loved cathedral and church architecture and was forever producing the finest sketches of buildings, flaura, fauna, wildlife, comets and planets. As Richard McKim, a fellow Peterborough schoolteacher and astronomer noted, observers generally have a good eye for fine detail or very sensitive night vision; George had both. His drawings of comet tails are in a league of their own.
George was also a schoolteacher with a difference; he was universally popular with his students, many of whom kept in contact with him for decades after their schooldays were over. Unlike so many people today, George was also a modest and kind man, never bragging about his colossal achievements and having no interest in broadcasting his opinions; his achievements spoke for themselves. He also wrote in the most exquisite "copper-plate" handwriting one could ever wish to see! Buzzwords and spin had no place in George's life, for him actions spoke louder than words.
George was showered with accolades during his life. No other visual observer since Denning had discovered more than one object from the UK. Only Candy, Hosty and Panther (a friend of George since the 1940s) had discovered any others! He received the MBE, for services to astronomy in 1979, and was awarded the BAA Goodacre Award in 1976. The RAS awarded him the Jackson-Gwilt medal in 1963 for his first two comet discoveries. He was the only triple recipient of the BAA Merlin medal in 1961, 1972 and 1992. George also received the first ever Astronomical Society of the Pacific's "International Amateur Achievement Award" in 1981 as well as 3 AAVSO plaques for all of his nova discoveries. In 1992 he was invited to be a member of the elite New York Academy of Sciences, which he accepted with pride. He was also recognised by Peterborough town council at a presentation in the Town Hall in 1997.
The last time I saw George was on August 15th 1999 at the International Workshop on Cometary Astronomy II at Cambridge, just after the Total Solar Eclipse. Many legendary figures were there including Don Machholz, Kesao Takamizawa, Bill Liller, Alan Hale and Brian Marsden. But only one man got a standing ovation and that was George, who had come to the meeting accompanied by his younger brother John (who spotted those crucial binoculars 40 years earlier at the 1959 boat show). George was an amateur astronomers astronomer. A discoverer who actually went out in the cold and dark and used his eyes and brain to discover comets and novae. George was rarely beaten by any astronomical challenge, despite the disadvantages of searching from the cloudy skies of Britain. Candy stole a comet from him at Xmas 1960; Panther stole another at Xmas 1980; George lost the ultimate battle at Xmas 2000.
At the end of the TA video, Denis asks George how he would like to be remembered. After a pause, George replies "As an observer".
And surely, that is how we will remember George Alcock.
---------------The Ten Discoveries of George Alcock---------------------
1959 Comet C/1959 Q1 (Alcock) = 1959e. Discovered August 24
1959 Comet C/1959 Q2 (Alcock) = 1959f. Discovered August 30
1963 Comet C/1963 F1 (Alcock) = 1963b. Discovered March 1
1965 Comet C/1965 S2 (Alcock) = 1965h. Discovered September 26
1967 HR Del = Nova Del 1967. Discovered July 8
1968 LV Vul = Nova Vul 1968 No 1. Discovered April 15
1970 V368 Sct = Nova Sct 1970. Discovered July 31
1976 NQ Vul = Nova Vul 1976. Discovered October 21
1983 Comet C/1983 H1 (IRAS-Araki-Alcock) = 1983d. Discovered May 3
1991 V838 Her = Nova Herculis 1991. Discovered March 25
On April 19th 2005, there was an Alcock plaque unveiling ceremony at Peterborough Cathedral. The main dignitaries were the Dean of Peterborough Cathedral, the 2003-2005 BAA President Tom Boles, and The Astronomer Royal, Professor Sir Martin Rees. The ceremony was conducted in front of about 50 guests, mainly local friends of George, his younger brother John Alcock , his biographer Kay Williams and many amateur astronomers from the British Astronomical Association (BAA). The BAA had commissioned the plaque and, after several years of building work, following a fire at the Cathedral, the ceremony took place. George was especially fond of the architecture of the Cathedral which he had sketched in remarkable detail. It is almost unprecedented for anyone to be honoured with a plaque in a British Cathedral so soon after their death.
Ian Ridpath's 1982 New Scientist article on Dall & Alcock is certainly worth a read.

Pictures of George Alcock

All pictures by Martin Mobberley, except the small one at the very top of this page, which is from BAA archives.

George with John Mason

George in his garden

George outside No. 55

George (right) & brother John

George with Denis Buczynski

The famous garden of No. 55 (Antares)

George with Guy Hurst

George with Richard McKim

George with another BAA legend, Harold Ridley

George (left) Brian Marsden, & John Alcock

George with ten other comet discoverers

George with the discoverer Kesao Takamizawa

Tom Boles(left) & Prof. Sir Martin Rees unveiling the Alcock Plaque in Peterborough Cathedral on April 19th 2005.

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