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He inscribed the night sky like no one else — and now he gets his due at Lowell Observatory

[Bob in his Prescott home lab]

Today we have a rare non-Scientology piece here at the Underground Bunker. But with August 13 rapidly approaching, we wanted to get the word out about an event taking place in Arizona that we think is very important. And your proprietor will be there in attendance.

Robert Burnham Jr — the people who knew him called him Bob — would have been fascinated by the science coming out of the images from the James Webb Space Telescope.

But he warned that astronomers were doing a disservice to the public if they didn’t also encourage people to make their own connection to the night sky.

“I don’t see the universe chiefly as a huge heap of raw data waiting to be fed into a computer,” Bob wrote in 1982. “Collecting factual data is fine. I do it too. But the heart and core of astronomy, to me, is the direct experience of the universe.”

The people who search for that kind of direct experience — telescope users around the world — have relied on Bob to help guide them to the most interesting places in that universe.


His three volume, 2000-page ‘Burnham’s Celestial Handbook,’ completed in 1978, is to this day still a treasured possession for people who explore the cosmos from their own backyards.

A massive undertaking by a single person, the Handbook is part encyclopedia, part science textbook, and mostly a work of wonder about the heavens that begs its reader to discover those treasures for him or herself on the next dark, clear night.

And there is something else unique and essential to the Handbook: You can literally see the Herculean effort it took to put it together, since its tables and charts and essays were typed, page by page, by Burnham himself on first one typewriter, which broke down from the effort, and then from a sturdier IBM Selectric machine that allowed him to complete the large third, and final, volume.


[The Handbook is a unique mix of science, history, and wonder.]

Happening to come out at a time, the late 1970s, when there was a renaissance going on that allowed amateurs to own larger instruments for reasonable prices and even to build large telescopes themselves, the combination of the “Dobsonian revolution” in telescope ownership and Bob’s intriguing guide to the night sky changed many lives. My own included.

Twenty-five years ago this summer, I set out to find Bob and interview him about his masterpiece, and discovered that he had died a few years before, in 1993, and almost no one in the astronomical world was aware of it.

In part, that was because he had left Lowell Observatory, the place where he had worked for more than 20 years, in 1979, and the institution had, for the most part, ignored his legacy.

When I visited the observatory that summer of 1997 trying to piece together the life of such a unique man, there was little sign that he’d ever been there.

Now, 25 years later, the observatory is making up for that. Lowell has created a display about Robert Burnham Jr at its rotunda, and on August 13 it has scheduled an evening with some speakers that will include Bob’s sole living relative.

I’ll be there too. And I’m looking forward to seeing the new display because it will include an item that I gave Lowell to include in it.

Bob’s sturdy IBM Selectric typewriter.


[The author’s dog-eared copy of the Handbook]


It was on a long drive from Phoenix to Big Bear, California for a telescope conference that I first told Tom Polakis I had come up with a crazy idea.

I was working as a staff writer at Phoenix New Times, and my job was to find surprising and conflict-filled stories about politics, crime, courts, and other contentious stuff. But I had also pleased my editors by contributing a couple of pieces about local scientists, and Arizona was lousy with astronomical types, drawn to its dark skies.

I told Tom, one of those extremely competent Arizona dark-sky types, that out of curiosity I had tried to learn more about Burnham, the author of the set of books we found so useful, and discovered something interesting at the Phoenix public library. Looking through archives, I realized that the “Robert Burnham” who helped edit Astronomy magazine and was the author of several books was not the “Robert Burnham Jr” who had written the Handbook.

In fact, except for a single 1982 self-interview Bob had contributed to the magazine, I could find no other published work by him except for his massive 2000-page encyclopedia of the night sky.

What kind of person does that? Who taps out a Britannica of the heavens on his own typewriter and publishes almost nothing else?

While we drove to Big Bear, I told Tom about my search, and that I wanted badly to interview Burnham if I could track him down.

Tom pointed out that in the Handbook, when it was finished in 1978, Bob listed himself as a member of Lowell Observatory. He suggested that I call up Brian Skiff, an astronomer at the observatory Tom knew personally.

So I did. Brian said he’d heard something about Bob being spotted on the coast in California, and something about selling paintings in parks.

That didn’t sound promising. How would I find someone selling paintings in parks? But Brian also suggested I contact Norm Thomas, a retired Lowell astronomer who had worked with Bob for many years.

From 1958 to 1979, Bob Burnham and Norm Thomas had used the Pluto discovery telescope to systematically photograph the same sections of the night sky that Clyde Tombaugh had done 30 years earlier, so they could compare the positions of stars that had changed in that time. This “proper motion survey” was invaluable in a pre-satellite age and resulted in the discovery of many new asteroids and white dwarf suspects: degenerate stars with incredible densities.


[Bob at the Pluto discovery telescope in the late 1950s]

It was Norm who first suggested to me that Bob might no longer be alive. But he didn’t know for sure. The only thing he could suggest was that he remembered that Bob had a sister in Phoenix. But he didn’t know her name.

He did remember, however, that when Bob’s mother had died in Prescott years ago, the newspaper’s obituary had carried the names of both Bob and his sister.


With some patience and luck, I managed to find the obituary, and that’s how I learned the name of Bob’s sister: Marguerite Viola Courtney.

That sent me to the county voter’s database in Phoenix, and to my astonishment, there were two Marguerite Viola Courtneys in the system. One of them was originally from Chicago, however, and I knew that’s where Bob had been born.

And so that’s how I tracked down Viola, who confirmed that her brother Bob had died in 1993. She and her daughter Donna then generously allowed me into their lives so that I could put together an 11,000-word biography of Bob for the Phoenix New Times in September 1997.

It turned out that Bob, a genius in things he cared about, but indifferent to practical matters, had endured various hardships in a life that ended with heart failure at only 61 years of age.


[Bob and his sister Viola]

I knew that Viola had not been sure what to think of me or the project, but after it came out, she was grateful and we were both emotional about it. Bob had meant a lot to both of us.

And that’s when she said she had a gift for me. I went to her north Phoenix house and she showed it to me: An enormous and heavy IBM typewriter. The typewriter. The machine that Bob had used to pound out his magnum opus.

For years, and through a dozen moves across the country, I lugged that thing with me as my most prized possession.

And over time, Lowell Observatory became more open to the idea of recognizing its former employee. In 2009, Tom Polakis’s wife Jennifer spearheaded an effort to put a plaque about Bob on a boulder along the walking path to the Pluto telescope. (Unfortunately, it was damaged during later construction at the observatory, but a new plaque is going to replace it.)

And then, in 2019, I happened to run into a man named Kevin Schindler at the Northeast Astronomy Forum, a telescope trade show that takes place in Rockland County.

Kevin was there representing Lowell Observatory, getting out the word that the place was changing. Long a top flight research institute, the observatory was trying to become more welcoming to visitors and to amateur astronomers, building new facilities where the public could get their hands on telescopes for observing.

When I told Kevin that I was the author of the story about Burnham, we discussed the possibility of Lowell doing more to highlight Bob’s contributions.

Several months later, I lugged the heavy typewriter to Kevin’s hotel room when he was in New York again on a layover, and the machine began making its way back to Lowell.


The ceremony to celebrate the new display was delayed for a couple of years because of the pandemic, but finally, Bob will be getting his due at a place that was a huge part of his life for so many years.

And among the people speaking that night, on August 13, will be Bob’s niece, Donna.

Her mother, Viola, died in 2013. She would have, however, been thrilled to see her brother honored at Lowell. I only wish she could have seen it.


Technology Cocktail

“The mechanism of the Time Track can then be said to be the primary action in making a thetan solid, immobile and decisionless. For without a record of the past accumulating and forming a gradient of solidification of the thetan, the entrapment potential of the physical universe would be negligible and the havingness which it offers might be quite therapeutic. It probably requires more than just living in the physical universe to become aberrated. The main method of causing aberration and entrapment is therefore found in actions which create or confuse the Time Track. A thetan has things beyond Matter, Energy, Space and Time which can deteriorate. His power of choice, his ability to keep two locations separate, his belief in self and his ethical standards are independent of material things. But these can be recorded in the Time Track as well and one sees them recover when no longer influenced by the Time Track.” — L. Ron Hubbard, 1963


Now available: Bonus for our supporters

Episode 6 of the Underground Bunker podcast has been sent out to paid subscribers, and it’s a conversation with Pete Griffiths about how he managed to run a Scientology mission after being declared SP. Meanwhile, we’ve made episodes 1 through 5 available to everyone, with Sunny Pereira dishing secrets of Scientology’s Hollywood Celebrity Centre, Bruce Hines on the crazy life in the Sea Org, Jeffrey Augustine on recent Scientology court cases, Claire Headley exposing Tom Cruise, and Marc Headley on what it must be like for David Miscavige living in Clearwater, Florida. Go here to get the episodes!


Source Code


“I was auditing a preclear one day that had a history of lesbianism and I learned this lesson but good. She was very sensitive about it and wanted to get over it. I knew this. I knew that this was a broken-up case. I mean the person was in bad shape. She was very spinny….You’ve got this individual sitting there as I had this lesbian and at the end of twenty-five minutes I suddenly realized that I was being ‘awfully nice.’ And I was getting nowhere….So I just broke out my Scientological scalpel and I said, ‘Women are nice, aren’t they? Particularly in bed.’ Dahhhhhhwwwwww! Wild needle slams and so forth. First lock of the Rock that came off of that case was being in charge, way, way back on the track, as the high priestess of the Vestal Virgins who weren’t virgin anymore, for which she was quietly and lengthily cooked over a slow fire, and which was making her avoid being a housewife because housewives have to cook. One of the innumerable computations that came off of this case.” — L. Ron Hubbard, August 1, 1958


Avast, Ye Mateys

“The VIII sessions being done by Belkacem Ferradj, Connie Broadbent and Quentin Hubbard are well above the Org VIII Course standard for consistency and fast case change. As soon as a couple more auditors qualify for full time Dianetic Qual assignment, Joan Robertson can join the full time Course to get her VIII. We do not have enough VIIIs coming up for the ship and the AOSH group so somebody better find the throttle on his study and begin to fill this gap. I’m told in the field an VIII is looked on like God.” — The Commodore, August 1, 1969


Overheard in the FreeZone

“Justin Craig made statements in a public YouTube video that ‘Scientology is dead’ because his version of Scientology has not been broadly accepted. This enturbulated the field and has brought great disrepute to the independent field and Scientology in general. The flap is now being propagandized in ‘tabloid’ websites.”


Past is Prologue

2001: The St. Petersburg Times reported that Dr. David Minkoff has been suspended as a doctor and fined for his treatment of Lisa McPherson, who died as a result of her care in the Fort Harrison Hotel in 1995. “Florida’s Board of Medicine has sternly sanctioned Clearwater physician David I. Minkoff, finding he improperly prescribed medicine for a patient he had never seen – Scientologist Lisa McPherson. Minkoff, also a Scientologist, prescribed Valium and the muscle relaxant chloral hydrate at the behest of unlicensed Church of Scientology staffers who were trying to nurse McPherson, 36, through a severe mental breakdown. When they failed after 17 days of isolating her, Minkoff was recruited again. This time, he pronounced McPherson dead. For his role in the 1995 episode that Minkoff himself calls a ‘fiasco,’ the 53-year-old doctor will lose his medical license for one year and then be made to practice under probation for two more years – unless he appeals and wins a reversal. He also was fined $10,000.”



Random Howdy

“Go to the Icke message board and search ‘Scientology.’ They think the Church of Scientology is either part of the NWO/Illuminati/Reptilian conspiracy or that the Scientologists are crazy. Ha!”


Full Court Press: What we’re watching at the Underground Bunker

Criminal prosecutions:
Danny Masterson charged for raping three women: Trial scheduled for October 11, pretrial conference August 17.
‘Lafayette Ronald Hubbard’ (a/k/a Justin Craig), aggravated assault, plus drug charges: Last hearing was on January 18, referred to grand jury. Additional charges also referred to grand jury after January 5 assault while in jail.
Jay and Jeff Spina, Medicare fraud: Jay sentenced to 9 years in prison. Jeff’s sentencing to be scheduled.
Rizza Islam and other family members, Medi-Cal fraud: Readiness hearing scheduled for August 22 in Los Angeles
David Gentile, GPB Capital, fraud: Next pretrial conference set for September 19.
Yanti Mike Greene, Scientology private eye accused of contempt of court: Found guilty of criminal and civil contempt.

Civil litigation:
Baxter, Baxter, and Paris v. Scientology, alleging labor trafficking: Complaint filed April 28 in Tampa federal court, Scientology moving to compel arbitration. Plaintiffs filing amended complaint on August 2.
Valerie Haney v. Scientology: Forced to ‘religious arbitration.’ Selection of arbitrators underway. Next court hearing: February 2, 2023.
Chrissie Bixler et al. v. Scientology and Danny Masterson: Appellate court removes requirement of arbitration on January 19, case remanded back to Superior Court. Stay in place, next status hearing October 25. Scientology petitioning US Supreme Court over appellate ruling.
Brian Statler Sr v. City of Inglewood: Third amended complaint filed, trial set for December 6.
Author Steve Cannane defamation trial: New trial ordered after appeals court overturned prior ruling.
Chiropractors Steve Peyroux and Brent Detelich, stem cell fraud: Lawsuit filed by the FTC and state of Georgia in August, now in discovery phase.



We first broke the news of the LAPD’s investigation of Scientology celebrity Danny Masterson on rape allegations in 2017, and we’ve been covering the story every step of the way since then. At this page we’ve collected our most important links, including our four days in Los Angeles covering the preliminary hearing and its ruling, which has Danny facing trial and the potential sentence of 45 years to life in prison.


After the success of their double-Emmy-winning, three-season A&E series ‘Scientology and the Aftermath,’ Leah Remini and Mike Rinder continue the conversation on their podcast, ‘Scientology: Fair Game.’ We’ve created a landing page where you can hear all of the episodes so far.


An episode-by-episode guide to Leah Remini’s three-season, double-Emmy winning series that changed everything for Scientology watching. Originally aired from 2016 to 2019 on the A&E network, and now on Netflix.


Find your favorite Hubbardite celeb at this index page — or suggest someone to add to the list!

Other links: SCIENTOLOGY BLACK OPS: Tom Cruise and dirty tricks. Scientology’s Ideal Orgs, from one end of the planet to the other. Scientology’s sneaky front groups, spreading the good news about L. Ron Hubbard while pretending to benefit society. Scientology Lit: Books reviewed or excerpted in a weekly series. How many have you read?


[ONE year ago] If this video doesn’t convince you Scientology is the world’s coolest religion, nothing will
[TWO years ago] Two years after filing their appeal, why there’s hope for the Garcias against Scientology
[THREE years ago] Scientologists in Texas neighborhood battle turn out to include Lori Hodgson’s daughter
[FOUR years ago] Scientology TV is the best thing to happen to television — says Scientology
[FIVE years ago] Clearwater Baptist pastor reflects on his message about Scientology, stands by it
[SIX years ago] Scientology opened a new ‘Ideal Org’ in Harlem, and we weren’t made to feel very welcome
[SEVEN years ago] When Jesse Prince sec-checked David Miscavige: A Scientology interrogation for the ages
[EIGHT years ago] Kirstie Alley ‘disconnects’ from not one but two men over their friendship with Leah Remini
[NINE years ago] Leah Remini Retaliation? Suddenly, Scientology “Fair Gaming” Of Critics Is Way Up
[TEN years ago] Watch Mimi Faust Talk about Losing Her Mother to Scientology
[ELEVEN years ago] Benjamin Ring, LA Sheriff’s Deputy, Under Official Inquiry for Endorsing Expensive Scientology Services


Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley (1952-2019) did not see his daughter Stephanie in his final 5,667 days.
Valerie Haney has not seen her mother Lynne in 2,743 days.
Katrina Reyes has not seen her mother Yelena in 3,248 days
Sylvia Wagner DeWall has not seen her brother Randy in 2,798 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his grandson Leo in 1,788 days.
Geoff Levin has not seen his son Collin and daughter Savannah in 1,679 days.
Christie Collbran has not seen her mother Liz King in 4,984 days.
Clarissa Adams has not seen her parents Walter and Irmin Huber in 2,854 days.
Carol Nyburg has not seen her daughter Nancy in 3,628 days.
Doug Kramer has not seen his parents Linda and Norm in 1,959 days.
Jamie Sorrentini Lugli has not seen her father Irving in 4,432 days.
Quailynn McDaniel has not seen her brother Sean in 3,748 days.
Dylan Gill has not seen his father Russell in 12,314 days.
Melissa Paris has not seen her father Jean-Francois in 8,233 days.
Valeska Paris has not seen her brother Raphael in 4,401 days.
Mirriam Francis has not seen her brother Ben in 3,981 days.
Claudio and Renata Lugli have not seen their son Flavio in 4,243 days.
Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter Ashley in 3,279 days.
Lori Hodgson has not seen her son Jeremy and daughter Jessica in 2,994 days.
Marie Bilheimer has not seen her mother June in 2,519 days.
Julian Wain has not seen his brother Joseph or mother Susan in 874 days.
Charley Updegrove has not seen his son Toby in 2,049 days.
Joe Reaiche has not seen his daughter Alanna Masterson in 6,600 days
Derek Bloch has not seen his father Darren in 3,749 days.
Cindy Plahuta has not seen her daughter Kara in 4,069 days.
Roger Weller has not seen his daughter Alyssa in 8,924 days.
Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 4,043 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 2,399 days.
Mike Rinder has not seen his son Benjamin and daughter Taryn in 6,702 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his daughter Spring in 2,808 days.
Skip Young has not seen his daughters Megan and Alexis in 3,206 days.
Mary Kahn has not seen her son Sammy in 3,082 days.
Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 2,665 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike and daughter Emily in 3,160 days.
Mary Jane Barry has not seen her daughter Samantha in 3,414 days.
Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 14,523 days.


Posted by Tony Ortega on August 1, 2022 at 07:00

E-mail tips to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We also post updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Our new book with Paulette Cooper, Battlefield Scientology: Exposing L. Ron Hubbard’s dangerous ‘religion’ is now on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. Our book about Paulette, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2021 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Underground Bunker (2012-2021), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)

Other links: BLOGGING DIANETICS: Reading Scientology’s founding text cover to cover | UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists | GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice | SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts | Shelly Miscavige, 15 years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Watch our short videos that explain Scientology’s controversies in three minutes or less…

Check your whale level at our dedicated page for status updates, or join us at the Underground Bunker’s Facebook discussion group for more frivolity.

Our non-Scientology stories: Robert Burnham Jr., the man who inscribed the universe | Notorious alt-right inspiration Kevin MacDonald and his theories about Jewish DNA | The selling of the “Phoenix Lights” | Astronomer Harlow Shapley‘s FBI file | Sex, spies, and local TV news | Battling Babe-Hounds: Ross Jeffries v. R. Don Steele


Tony Ortega at The Daily Beast


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