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My Undergraduate Years

My first two years in college were spent at the Kansas City Missouri Junior College where I studied engineering. In order to major in astronomy I then enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts at K.U. This was the autumn of 1938, the nation still floundered in the depression, and the student population numbered only about 4000. The in-state tuition was about $30 per semester, though the out-of-state tuition was much more. My brother joined me as a student in my senior year and studied electrical engineering. He graduated in 1943, and shortly thereafter joined General Electric in New York to work on the Manhattan Project.

The K.U. Observatory was located in a frame building on the extreme west side of the campus, and it housed the 27-inch William Pitt reflector, the 6-inch Clark refractor and a small aperture (3-inch) high quality transit instrument. Dr. Norman Wyman Storer (called Wyman by his friends) was the only astronomer on the faculty, and had held that position since 1935, replacing Dr. Dinsmore Alter who had become the director of the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles, California. Storerhad obtained his Ph.D. from the University of California in 1928, and his observational-type thesis, devoted to the photographic photometry of stars, was carried out at the Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton, CA. His Ph.D. adviser was Dr. Trumpler, the famous Swiss astronomer. His undergraduate major was in chemistry (B.A. 1923), and it was in graduate school that he first studied astronomy; his M.A. thesis from Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, concerned stellar parallax determination (1925). His wife, Mary, was a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, MA, with a major in psychology (B.A. 1925); they were married shortly after he received his Ph.D. They had three children, Norman William, Esther Jean and David Wyman. Dr. Storer and Mary were caught up in the depression of the thirties, and his first steady job was the professorship at K.U. which he held until he retired in 1970.

I first met Dr.Storer on the enrollment floor (Robinson Gymnasium); he suggested that I enroll only in one astronomy course, Practical Astronomy, because I had to make up so many hours of liberal arts courses. It turned out that Richard Gage, a Physics major, also enrolled in the class. There was a bonus for us, however, since Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of the planet Pluto, was completing his studies for the M.A., and we would get to know him quite well. As part of his thesis, he was evaluating the performance of the Pitt reflector; in fact the day I first met him he was fitting a Hartmann diaphragm onto the telescope for this purpose.

Sometime during the school year Clyde and I worked together computing the circumstances of a partial solar eclipse due to be visible in Lawrence, and Dr. Storer also did his own independent calculations. We then timed the contacts using the Clark refractor in the projection mode, but the predicted times differed from the observed by an uncomfortable number of seconds; this naturally gave rise to discussions, and the tentative conclusion we reached was that the earth's rotation rate was slowing down. I recall that Dr. Storer phoned the Naval Observatory and reviewed our results with them. Little did we know then that the art of time keeping was going to be tremendously improved in just a few decades by the application of the cesium resonator, resulting in the atomic clock with an accuracy of 1 second in about 300,000 years!

Dr. Storer was always friendly, helpful, and had a very penetrating intellect. Since there were so few advanced astronomy students on the campus, I enjoyed the unique opportunity to discuss many topics with him on an individual basis. His lectures were well prepared and interesting. As a teaching device he would on occasion bring into the conversation some misconception that, for example, an author had displayed in a textbook. He kept a list of such mistakes he had found, and sometimes would phone the author and discuss a salient point. He also had a good sense of humor, which would occasionally appear as a surprise, such as his remark "Astrology is Taurus." The whole subject of astrology amused him, but he would get upset when someone took the subject seriously. He told me that one day, a gentleman appeared and wanted to know how to use the Nautical Almanac to find the positions of planets. After receiving the explanation the man said rather apologetically that he was an astrologer and offered Storer some money for his trouble. Storer politely declined, but also stated, at no charge, his opinion of astrology.

Dr. Storer was unusually adept in carrying out the often lengthy calculations required to solve astronomy problems, and even admitted that he enjoyed doing such work. In those days it was usual to use six-place logarithms, and therefore the various formulas had to be first modified into the form of products and quotients. I didn't particularly enjoy such manipulation, but unfortunately there was no escape. Much later in the 1960's calculation methods would change drastically!

In any event I survived my junior year, and also Clyde Tombaugh got his degree. In my senior year I was able to take enough astronomy courses to complete my major, and get the B.A.; also I played baseball (pitcher and outfielder) on the varsity team, which disappointed Storer somewhat. However, there was also another interlude in my coursework, for an annular eclipse of the sun was predicted to occur on April 7, 1940 that would be a complete ring as viewed from southern Texas. Dr.Storer suggested that we go on an eclipse ``expedition,'' which we did to Conroe, Texas (just north of Houston). Two others accompanied us, a graduate student in physics, Mr. W. Bush, and Dr. Storer's former student-colleague, Dr.Mendenhall, who was on the faculty of Oklahoma A&M University. We made the trip in Storer's 1936 Pontiac, and it rained incessantly. The 6-inch Clark objective was to be used, which we carefully packed and took with us, but a special wooden mounting had been built just for the eclipse and had been shipped ahead. Permission had been granted to use the tennis court of a high school as the observation platform. Fortunately for us, the sky cleared at the very beginning of the eclipse and remained clear throughout all the important phases. Dr. Storer, who did the lion's share of the work, got a complete set of photographs taken on glass plates. Then the sky clouded over again! When we returned to Lawrence, Storer developed the plates himself, and it turned out that the exposures were indeed excellent.