The author pays tribute to accomplished amateur astronomer and dear friend Barbara Wilson.
The gifted observer Barbara Wilson passed away on the evening of September 24, 2019, after battling cancer for several months. Barbara was very well known in the amateur astronomy community as a dedicated and talented deep-sky observer. But she was much more than that. She was a kind and beautiful person who took time to mentor almost anyone interested in learning about our wonderful universe.
For many years Barbara was director of the George Observatory near her home of Houston, Texas, where she fostered an interest in the night sky for thousands of children and adults. She had an infectious laugh and made friends easily. Even though she held strong opinions on many things, she was always congenial.
In the professional community, she collaborated with researchers and was proud to coauthor a paper on the globular cluster IC 1257. Several books feature her observations, including Star Clusters by Brent A. Archinal and Stephen J. Hynes, and Mark Allison’s Star Clusters and How to Observe Them. Timothy Ferris interviewed Barbara for his 2007 film and book Seeing in the Dark about the lives and work of amateurs exploring the universe.
Barbara was a member of the Fort Bend and Houston astronomical societies, and she was a fixture at the Texas Star Party since the mid-1980s. During her tenure as the Texas Star Party’s speaker chairperson, she invited prominent and famous astronomers who entertained and educated fortunate attendees deep in the West Texas mountains.
These speakers included Gene Shoemaker, Harold Corwin, David Levy, and, during an incredible four nights in 1995, Paul Hickson, Timothy Ferris, Robert Williams, and Halton Arp. Several fortunate souls sat at Arp’s feet, enthralled to listen to him describe his interactions with his mentor, Edwin Hubble, and how he spent one year of his life in the observing cage of the Palomar Observatory 200-inch telescope. That star party changed my life and the direction my observing career took thereafter.
Barbara herself was a sought-after speaker at many events, too, including the Northeast Astronomy Forum and numerous large star parties.
With her friend and observing partner, Larry Mitchell, she concocted likely the most devious and enticing group of deep-sky objects ever assembled: the infamous AINTNO catalog, an acronym for the Association of Invisible Nebula and Things Nobody Observes. Among the 100 arcane targets included in the list are “footprints on the Moon,” “a neutrino,” and the “sun glint off of Voyager 1.” In the 1990s, when the list was first compiled, the items on the list were thought impossible, or near impossible, to observe. Nevertheless, with improvements in filters, eyepieces, and information available on the internet, a number of the objects proved observable — albeit with Herculean effort.
Stephen O’Meara claimed Centaurus A as “an elliptical galaxy seen naked eye,” and two Finnish observers, Riku Henriksson and Markus Tuukkanen, were the first to see the optical afterglow of a gamma-ray burst in the eyepiece. Tim Parson found a “galaxy within 1 degree of the Horsehead,” among other objects. I, too, bagged several AINTNO targets, and received awards for the “Egg Nebula’s shell,” “a protostar,” and "45 galaxies in Abell Galaxy Cluster 2065."
Sometimes the easy part was doing the observation — the difficulty was in getting Barbara and Larry to agree. The process of decision was decidedly slow, becoming interminable in later years: Barbara would delay and consider and retort, always in good fun. At one time her grandson, Ben, and my son, Sam, would act as spies, surreptitiously finding out what the other camp was up to.
A legacy builds over time, but I think her influence will be felt for decades, if not longer. She touched many people with her passion for astronomy, always wanting to push the limits of what could be seen. With encouragement and fair critique, she and Larry Mitchell sparked a flame that kept me coming twenty times to those desert skies.
Now Barbara is gone, but the passion seems to have been reignited by her passing. Maybe she is up there nudging and goading from a different vantage point, one with a remarkable view. She will be missed, but I know what she would want: for us who knew her to encourage and mentor the next generation.