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Bill Hollenbach’s life in astronomy

Bill Hollenbach’s life in astronomy

Picnic under the Milky way in the Karoo.

This story was first published in the December 2010 issue of Country Life

In 1948, the year of the Great Comet, South Africa was blessed with an exceptional astrophotographer, telescope-maker, astronomer and public speaker, Bill Hollenbach.

On the day Bill was born his grandfather, Willem Hollenbach, recognised the mark of the stars on this child. He knew this not only because the Great Comet was visible, but also because of three little moles in a neat row on Bill’s arm.

“When I was a very small boy my grandfather pointed at the moles and then pointed at three bright stars in the heavens and said, ‘Those signs on your arm are those three bright stars in the heavens and they belong to you’.

“The three bright stars were the stars in Orion’s Belt,” explains Bill, (Who at the time was 62) from his workshop at his home in Kromdraai in the Cradle of Humankind less than an hour’s drive outside Johannesburg, where he builds telescopes.

Bill watched those three bright stars closely each night and noticed how they moved across the sky. He was intrigued and fascinated, and spent night after night gazing at the heavens on his grandfather’s cattle farm in what was then the Western Transvaal. By the age of nine his grandfather’s ‘star obsession’ prediction was proved true when in 1957 Bill saw the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, moving across the sky.

“We heard on our little valve radio that the Russians had put a satellite in space – they were miles ahead in the space race back then. Few people knew what a satellite was in those days – I certainly didn’t – but when I saw this star moving across the sky I was absolutely hooked.”

Master of the night sky

Astronomy, Bill Hollenbach

Bill Hollenbach indulging in his lifelong obsession – the stars.

By the age of thirteen, he had made his first telescope. “I was schooling at Paarl Boys High and my science teacher helped me find a book in the local library on how to make a Newtonian telescope,” he explains. “I made it with two fairly thick pieces of glass and it worked! From then on I would head out onto the school sports field night after night and look at the sky. I could not believe how much more I could see than with my binoculars.”

Telescope making proved an ‘incurable disease’ and to date he has made about 50 telescopes. “It’s quite simple really,” he says.

His largest is the 600 millimetre, two-ton telescope at the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve in the Cradle of Humankind. “This one was a passion of insanity. It took me 18 months to grind the lens and another seven months to polish it. I can say with pride that it is optically smooth. If you enlarged the lens to the size of the earth, the biggest bump or flaw would be no more than two metres,” explains Bill, adding that it is a pleasure to give public astronomy talks using a telescope of this magnitude ‘because it really brings the night sky alive’. His talks are legendary and he is widely recognised as a master of the night sky.

It took Bill a while to appreciate his talents because the path of greatness is rarely smooth. Despite being a brilliant maths and science student at school, he struggled to read and was sent to a clinical psychologist who announced that he was ‘a bit slow’. In fact, he had dyslexia, but it was not diagnosed for many years.

Silver 22 versus Silver 27

The 7 Sisters

After school, he joined Eskom and continued to study the stars. “I was part of a team that was building substations all over the country and we would work at all these little dorpies with amazing night skies,” recalls Bill, who built a 10-inch telescope at the age of 25 that he took everywhere with him. He would sky-watch each night and write to his family in the Cape about all the beautiful heavenly objects he was seeing.

The only books he could find at the time to help him learn about astronomy were by legendary British astronomer and BBC television presenter of The Sky at Night, Sir Patrick Moore. There was no amateur astronomy society at that stage but that did not deter Bill. Armed with his Norton’s Star Atlas he would reference where he was in the night sky.

At the age of 33 Bill was posted to Koeberg where he overheard some physicists discussing the degeneration of uranium to cobalt. “They incorrectly mentioned Silver 22 and I couldn’t help myself saying ‘No, it’s Silver 27’. I knew this because I had been reading an insurmountable amount about physics.”

Irrespective of what Silver 22 versus Silver 27 means, this was a breakthrough for Bill because the physicists mentioned what had happened to his boss. “He called me in and I thought I was in trouble for overstepping my station. Instead, he sent me for tests at the University of Cape Town and that is where they picked up the dyslexia.

For the first time in his life Bill was told that he was the polar opposite of ‘a bit slow’, and Eskom seconded him to the high-voltage research lab at Stellenbosch University.

He immediately started attending university astronomy courses, and he took up astrophotography, capturing all the heavenly objects he knew so well with a self-styled telescope and tracking device that he built with a variable speed control. “I attached my camera to the telescope – an old mechanical Pentax K 1000 – and used 400 ASA film that I would push two stops. In other words, I would develop it as a 1000 ASA film, and I took some really good photos of comets, the Orion nebula, gas clouds in Scorpio, the Seven Sisters, the Sun, the Moon and other pretty things. I sent some of them to Sky & Telescope and they were published.

“Hello Bill, this is Patrick Moore”

Astronomy, orion

The Orion region of the night sky.

By this time an amateur astronomy club had been formed by an astronomer at the Observatory in Cape Town, Dr Peter Mack. It was here that Bill made firm friends with two other skilled astronomers, Chris Forder and Wayne Trow, and the three of them joined forces in 1979 to build the Cederberg Astronomical Observatory, high in the Cederberg Mountains on the farm Dwarsrivier, home of Cederberg wines.

Bill was living his dream, continuing with his job at Eskom while immersing himself in astronomy, photographing the night sky, making telescopes and giving public talks on the night sky.

He had also married, and he and his wife Maureen had set up home in Cape Town. Maureen does not share his obsession with astronomy. “She says the night sky is my space,” he smiles.

One morning in 1984, while they were living in Cape Town, the telephone rang and Maureen told Bill that ‘a Patrick Moore’ was on the line. “I picked up the phone and the voice on the end of the line said, ‘Hello Bill, this is Patrick Moore phoning from England. I would like to know if you would be interested in taking photographs for my books,” says Bill.

“I thought it was one of my mates pulling my chain, and I put down the phone,” laughs Bill. Fortunately, Patrick phoned back and so began their collaboration, culminating in an internationally acclaimed work called The Photographic Atlas of the Stars, published in 1997.

“That was a dream come true for me,” says Bill who still spends most nights in communion with the stars. “Unfortunately it’s getting more difficult to star gaze here in the Cradle of Humankind because the urban sprawl is causing light pollution,” he explains.

Astronomy of the Karoo

Cederberg Astronomical observatory

Wolfberg, home to the Cederberg Astronomical Observatory which Bill helped construct.

So where does he escape to experience clear, unpolluted night skies?

“The Karoo,” he says. “Places like the Karoo National Park outside of Beaufort West or any of the back roads in the Karoo offer incredible skies. All you need is a pair of 10×50 or 8×40 binoculars and a good star map. Albert Jansen’s Star Maps for Southern Africa: An Easy Guide to The Night Skies is excellent. Or download a freebie programme called Stellarium and you’ve got yourself a potent little planetarium programme. Then you can sit with your laptop (make the screen go red so it doesn’t affect your night vision and use a headlamp with red LED) and you are all set to gaze at the stars.

Albert Jansen was fortunate or unfortunate enough to pass away the day his book was published. “That’s why astronomers don’t like to write books or have night sky objects named after them, because then it’s your time to go – it’s a dark joke in astronomy,” says Bill, who would like to die next to his telescope with a meteor falling on his head. “Because it will be a first and I’ll go down in history forever.”

He’s not too concerned with where we go when we die but he is confident there is intelligent life out there. “I’m very into possibilities and the possibilities for life out there are incredibly high. Consider that there are at least 10 million stars like our sun in our galaxy alone, and that there are billions of galaxies out there, each with at least 180 million stars. And you want to tell me we are alone?

“For me the indisputable proof that there is life out there is the fact that they have never bothered to contact us. If anybody or another species is capable of jumping between stars using gravity or artificial black holes or anti-matter, they are not going to come down here and say, ‘Hi my name is Glawk’. No, they are first going to observe us and they are going to see riots, wars, murders and bombings. Now tell me, would you introduce yourself to a family who is having a full-out brawl? Of course you wouldn’t because you’d know what’s going to happen to you if you do.”

Pictures Heather Dugmore and Bill Hollenbach

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