Friday, February 19, 2021

Reflections on a Star

The news came yesterday that Herman Heyn, a fixture in the Baltimore astronomical community for decades, had passed. The melancholy was palpable as friends and those who simply knew him as the guy with a telescope at Harborplace expressed their sadness in learning he's no longer with us.

Like a lot of folks I had the good fortune to meet Herman many years ago as I was delving deeper into amateur astronomy. I was struck by both his practical knowledge of the hobby as well as his desire to share it. Whether it was a simple Post-it note memento stamped with "I saw Saturn!" on it or a handout describing how you can use your hand to estimate degrees in the sky, Herman was always giving away something to stimulate your interest in the night sky. A few months ago HAL's Jim Johnson did a wonderful "Astro School" introduction to understanding the celestial mechanics of the heavens. As I listened in on that talk I was reminded how Herman had done much the same for me in the 80's, giving me a souped up planisphere where he had added a thread for meridian and drawn a precession circle as well. I still have it and occasionally make use of it when planning an evening's observations.

Planisphere customized by Herman

Herman was also helpful in improving my night sky photography. He offered not only some technical recommendations but shared artistic feedback (such as always include some interesting background to your shot.) He was quite accomplished and often made some money by putting his work onto t-shirts or greeting cards. And the subject didn't have to be heavenly - the 17 year locusts found themselves on commemorative t-shirts at their last outing courtesy of Herman. When Hale-Bopp appeared on the scene in 1997 I used his advice to capture some wonderful photos of that grand comet and even ended up making a couple hundred dollars selling them amid the high public interest.

From Sky & Telescope article, Sept 1994

While the exact date escapes me I recall a daytime lunar occultation of Venus many years ago. A couple of BAS friends, Dr. Richard Pembroke and Charlie Cyrus, met at my house to witness the event. Herman was there and set up his scope so that we could watch the Moon slowly creep up on our brilliant sister planet. Viewing astronomical objects during the daytime was one of his fortes. While it likely began as a way to perform sidewalk astronomy during the day, he really honed the skills of aligning his scope without the aid of Polaris. In fact, his attention to finding true north from downtown Baltimore led him to discover that the surveyors of yesteryear didn't quite lay out the roads in a N-S line, being off by about 3°. Whenever Venus headed for an inferior conjunction he was sure to try to locate it in the sky (provided it was passing a reasonable distance north or south of the Sun.) And he wasn't limited to Venus, he could easily display any 1st magnitude star in his Celestron for passers by. He even penned a detailed article about doing it which appeared in the September 1994 issue of Sky & Telescope.

Herman also indirectly contributed to my landing a job back in 2004 while interviewing for a senior developer position at a scan center in Upper Marlboro. I was ushered into the operation manager's office where a fairly gruff individual started sizing me up. It was at about that time that I spied a card featuring Hale-Bopp on his desk and recognized it immediately. I inquired whether he had gotten it from my friend and colleague Herman Heyn (knowing he must have in some way.) The ice thawed immediately between us as we took a few minutes to discuss the card and the great comet that inspired it. I left his office having secured my new position.

One of Herman's best sellers - Hale-Bopp from countryside

I am very glad that I was able to be present at Herman's virtual 90th birthday celebration a few weeks ago. It was a wonderful outpouring of affection from the many friends he had made along those nine decades. And what a life he lived - a true renaissance individual of our time! From championship high school swimmer, to accomplished dancer, to street corner ambassador to the stars, he lived a full life. We should all take a lesson from him and strive to always to be kind and to help others find amazement and inspiration by what can be found in the eyepiece of a telescope. 

Bless you Herman Heyn, you will be missed.

(To learn more about Herman visit his website)

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