Gerry Dyck: A steady friend to some very unsteady stars

This is about a steady friend to some very unsteady stars and to appreciate it requires a tad of background, so pleas ebear with me.

Certain stars change their light output dramatically – sometimes in a steady, predictable rhythm and sometimes in sudden, unpredictable outbursts. Keeping tabs on such stars is helpful for professional astronomers, but there’s too darned many of them, so for the past century observing variable stars has been a way for amateur astronomers to make a meaningful contribution and one of the biggest contributors in the world has been an amateur from this region, Gerry Dyck. He’s made more than 150,000 such observations, putting him into the top tier of variable stars observers in the world. What’s more, I helped out with one of those observations – his first. 😉

This is an AAVSO chart of the variable Z Ursa Major. The numbers are magnitudes (brightness) given in tenths, but with no decimal point - if used it would look like another star. So "59" means magnitude 5.9.

Now making a variable star observation is, for me, a painstaking process. Just finding one of the little rascals can be a pain because while you have a good chart, you don’t know how bright the star you want to evaluate is going to be. It may be so dim you can’t see it at all! And once you’ve located the rascal, you have to be sure to find some of its steady friends – stars for whom the brightness is known and doesn’t change. Then you have to make careful comparisons, trying to get your observation to an accuracy of one-tenth of a magnitude. it’s doable. And Gerry is testimony to the fact that you can learn to do it quite quickly, especially if you have a real good memory for star fields. Not me. If i decide to check out a variable it usually means I’m going to spend about a half an hour making sure I have the right star and I have evaluated it correctly.

But it was great to hear from another amateur astronomer today who pointed me to this brief story by Gerry and I felt a tinge of accomplishment – a small tinge – when I read this part of his account:

I made my first variable star estimate in the summer of 1978. It was under the tutelage of Greg Stone of Westport, Massachusetts. He had set up his 6-inch Criterion reflector behind his house on the banks of the Westport River. After some splendid planetary views he asked me if I had every seen a variable star. His response to my negative reply was to show me Z UMA. He showed me the chart, explained the process, then said we should make independent estimates before comparing results. I was quite pleased that my 9.2 matched his 9.2 exactly.

OK – that’s about me. More of the story than I deserve, really. The rest is about Gerry and what it’s like to turn in variable star reports for 300 consecutive months. That’s a quarter century folks. The only thing I’ve done with such consistency during that time is breathe 😉 Gerry is amazing. He writes well, too, and tells his story with all due modesty. So I highly recommend that you get thee to the Skyscraper Website. I’ll just sit here and bask in a few faint rays that constitute one part in 150,000 of his glory. Gerry – thanks for the mention and I’m amazed that you can remember such details of that first observing session so long ago. You really are amazing!

There’s a longer, more detailed biography of Gerry, with pictures, here.