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The comet is here; Are you ready to see it?

Fri, 02/28/1997 - 7:00pm
Jim Farmer
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For the rest of our time on earth

Tom Bopp spoke first, of how he discovered the comet on July 22, 1995. An amateur astronomer, he had planned a casual evening of stellar observation with a friend at a remote observing point (remoteness is a hazard of the hobby, because city lights are anathema to astronomers). He almost didn't go out that night, because his car wouldn't start.

If his father had not agreed to lend him his car, Bopp's name wouldn't be on the comet for the remaining time humans are on the earth.

That night, he was swinging his telescope around to another place in the sky because clouds were obscuring the area where he had planned to look. His buddy had taken a turn observing, and Bopp had started his turn. Being incredibly familiar with that piece of sky, Bopp knew something was wrong when he saw a bit of light where there should be none.

Had he not been observant, Bopp's name wouldn't be on the comet for the remaining time humans are on the earth.

Of the millions of objects visible in the heavens, Bopp couldn't be sure he hadn't forgotten something. He and his buddy consulted their charts to verify that they weren't forgetting about something that had been there all along. Had he not brought his charts with him that night, Bopp's name wouldn't be on the comet for the remaining time humans are on the earth.

That was when he began thinking that maybe he had found something. But of course, he needed proof. This required patient observation for a long period of time, to see celestial motion against the fixed stars.

After they were sure they had seen motion, Bopp was pretty sure he had a comet, but had no idea whether anyone else had reported it (the first to report a valid observation gets the credit). He had to drive home to call in his observation, because every attempt to phone before he got there ended in frustration. The phone was next to the bedroom, and his wife was irritated that he woke her for some silly phone call.

Had he not been persistent, Bopp's name wouldn't be on the comet for the remaining time humans are on the earth.

He collapsed into bed, only to be awakened in the morning by his wife saying, "Someone's calling about some comet thing." The call was to inform him that he had, indeed, discovered a new comet!

Dr. Alan Hale just happened to look in the same one degree or so of the sky that night. Again, being familiar with the region of space, he saw something unexpected. He was home, and simply sent in an e-mail report. Had he not been familiar with that part of the sky, had he not been observing that spot, and had he not questioned what he saw, Hale's name wouldn't be on the comet for the remaining time humans are on the earth.

This story reminded me that significant discoveries are often made by accident; someone was in the right place at the right time. But, just as importantly, the discovery is critically dependent on the observer's alertness and ability to question what he or she is seeing. This is true of the discovery of a comet, but it is just as true for the discovery of a leak in the plant, a bad cable or a loose connector.

My friend John reminded me that an engineer should never look at a waveform or a signal level unless he knows what to expect. If he doesn't see what he expects, he finds out why. If you are reading a signal level, know what it should be. If you read something else (outside of tolerance), then question why. The fact that the level is not as expected is probably trying to tell you something important. It may be that your understanding is wrong, but more likely, it is telling you that something is wrong.

When something's not working, listen to what it's telling you. I once heard of a tech who was trying to get a piece of two-way gear running. It ran fine at most locations, but the installation at one house wouldn't work, no matter what.

He got everyone all excited about the "fact" that the gear wasn't good enough to work at this particular house. Had our friend thought about what the symptoms were trying to tell him, he might have avoided the embarrassment he suffered later. He had forgotten to install the reverse module in one line extender.

Missing important clues

Often, we tend to concentrate so much on the problem that we are trying to solve, that we miss the solution, or we miss something that's even more important. We do much better work when we really know the job well, and when we think about everything we see, hear, feel and even smell. If it doesn't seem right, it probably isn't, and it had better be investigated. If you're observant, inquisitive, prepared with the proper materials and equipment, and persistent, you might not discover a comet, but you can clean up a picture. Your name might be on that repair for the remaining time humans are on the earth!

Contact Jim Farmer at: jfarmer@ix.netcom.com

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