Are you sure ... ?

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Wednesday, July 11, 2007

My wife and I maintain a running gag. Let's say she and I are observing a meteor shower. Perhaps I saw a nice meteor and exclaimed, "There's one through Triangulum, heading south; magnitude –1; 10° trail." If she didn't see it, her response, based on our gag, would be, "That's an unconfirmed observation."
This all started at the 1999 Texas Star Party (TSP), which is held in the Davis Mountains. My observing buddy Mike Marcotte (who now occasionally writes for Astronomy) and I headed to that dark location for the whole week.
One evening during twilight, telescope manufacturer Rick Singmaster (of Starmaster Telescopes) had one of his new 11-inch Dobsonian-mounted reflectors set up near our location. As I scanned the not-yet-dark sky, I noticed the seeing (a measure of the atmosphere's steadiness) was superb. Borrowing one of Rick's Tele Vue eyepieces, I cranked the 11-inch's power up to about 150x and pointed it at Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Minor the Little Dog.

Procyon is a double star. Its companion, Procyon B, was the second white dwarf discovered. It's notoriously difficult to split because of the 10-magnitude disparity between the two stars. That works out to a brightness difference of 10,000 times.
After only a minute, however, I felt certain I could see Procyon B. I noted its position relative to Procyon A as if I were looking at a clock. Then I called three friends — all seasoned observers — over to have a look. Each confirmed my observation, and, to add more value to the sighting, none had seen Procyon B before. Nice!
Fast forward 8 hours. Mike and I pause our observing to head to TSP's all-night snack shack. While standing in line to order a couple of hot chocolates, some chips, and three donuts (I don't remember what Mike ate), I started chatting with a fellow about what we'd seen that night. When I related my Procyon B sighting, he uttered the soon-to-be-immortal words, "Are you sure?"
Indeed I was, and I described the sky, the scope, and the stars. He made a few additional comments and ended with, "I've never seen Procyon B."
On the way back to the upper field, Mike said, "You know, I don't think he believed you."
Mike was right. I had been in such an elated state reliving the observation by describing it that I totally missed the fellow's sarcastic remarks and disbelief. By the time we reached our telescopes, Mike had whipped me into a frenzy. Not having an appropriate response for that fellow so far after our conversation, however, I let the topic die.
Later that week, after our wives had joined us, we were huddled around a friend's 18-inch telescope. He was testing some drive-motor control software, and I was at the eyepiece, calling out objects for him to send the scope to and then confirming the sighting. While describing a galaxy in Virgo, my friend asked if I saw anything else in the field of view.
When I answered, "Yes. There's a faint elliptical galaxy about 10' south of the main object," I heard my wife softly say, "Are you sure?" That comment effectively ended our session that night. We were all laughing so hard, other observers came by to see what was up. By week's end, hundreds of observers were asking each other, "Are you sure?"
I guess if this story has a moral, it's "Confirm your observations." But don't forget when you're describing a sighting to somebody else to tell them the observation was confirmed. It could save you a lot of grief.

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