How I discovered Nova Cygni 1975

One of the most memorable days in my life was the 29th of August 1975.

It was the day when I discovered a nova star, one of rare cataclysmic celestial events, a star that undergoes a dramatic eruption before it settles down on much modest means of living. When this happens, the star becomes much brighter, so much that it may become visible to the naked eye. Where there was no star before, now you see what appears to be a new star, hence its name "nova," meaning "new" in Latin. 

To the best of my knowledge, I was the first European to spot the nova, and most likely the youngest of all who discovered it independently of each other. I was only 14 at the time, having been keenly interested in astronomy for about 3 years or so by then.

In Poland, where I was born and lived at that time, the star was discovered by a few more teenagers like myself, and one of them, one year my senior, was a student in my high-school in the class of 1979. He discovered this star a day later. Nova Cygni 1975, as it has come to be known, was first discovered in Japan, where the dusk begins much earlier than in Europe, by two high-school students, 2-3 years older than me. 

I am sure that I would have discovered that star sooner or later, but it was sheer yet curious a coincidence that I happened to spot it first in Europe. Namely, that night I planned to watch a certain variable star in the constellation Cygnus that happens to be exactly in the very area of the sky where the nova appeared! The first thing I did after getting outdoors was to look in that direction. I could not miss it! It was too bright. My watch was showing that it was sharp 20:00 Central European Time (or 19:00 GMT). Just a couple of minutes of observations convinced me that this was not an artificial satellite for it was not moving at all. I easily determined the brightness of the star, which at that point was not yet at the maximum, and the following day I sent a letter to the Polish Association of Amateur Astronomers (PAAA) in Cracow, Poland, in which I reported my discovery.

It may seem quite unusual to discover a nova star. However, what happened to my letter was even more so. The letter never made it where it was meant to. Instead, it went to Philadelphia, PA! There it was postmarked and returned back to Poland. Someone in the post office in Philadelphia wrote on the envelope: "Cracow, Poland". I was very surprised to see it back, with the postmark of an American post office, on top of that. I quickly realized that it had never reached the PAAA. The road to Cracow turned out to be longer than the road to Philadelphia. Moreover, I paid just a regular express fare and not an airmail one. At that point, some two weeks after my original observation of the nova, the discovery of this star had already been confirmed by professional astronomers and I knew that it had also been noticed by other amateurs. Yet, none of them had spotted it sooner than me. 

I decided to inform the editor of Urania, the journal of the the PAAA, the late Dr. Ludwik Zajdler, a recognized expert on the Maya and other ancient calendars, about my adventure. I did not expect that my priority would be acknowledged and, in fact, I was not really concerned about it. I sent him the envelope of my letter to the PAAA, the letter itself, and an explanation of what had happened. I was quite taken by what he wrote me back. A few months later a brief article appeared in Urania describing my unusual adventure. The story was found to be so remarkable that it was soon commented on in a few dailies and weeklies, and eventually it made it to two popular astronomy books in Polish, where my name is mentioned as the discoverer of Nova Cygni 1975 in Poland.

The discovery of this type of astronomical object is not accompanied by any particular recognition, unlike the discovery of a comet. The nova is not named after the discoverer, which, I believe, is quite fair. The discovery of a comet comes usually as a result of many nights of searches with the aid of binoculars or telescopes, whereas to discover a star like that one just needs to have a fair amount of luck and a very good knowledge of the starry sky. This does not mean that one can discover a comet without luck. This is hardly so, in part due to a strong competition in this field.

Nova Cygni 1975 turned out to have an extraordinary amplitude of the outburst. Before the explosion, the star had been a very dim object, so dim that it had not even been recorded in the Palomar Sky Atlas. Its brightness had therefore been lower than 21 magnitude, whereas after the explosion it reached about 1.7 magnitude. These days, its brightness is about 18 magnitude. It is now a variable star, with the period of 0.1396 day, called V1500 Cygni. It is located in this region of the sky.

While spotting a nova is hardly a commonplace event, oddly enough this was not the most unusual celestial event that I ever witnessed. But that's another story that I hope to write about some other day.

Years later ... but still on planet Earth ... the story continues.

In October 2014, I have come across online issues of Urania from the days long bygone, including the year 1976, when Urania published the article about my discovery of Nova Cygni 1975 in its January issue. Those online issues are, of course, digitized versions of regular paper editions. It's nice to see them freely available online now.

The article about my discovery can be found here, but in Polish only. Still, you can use Google to translate it and if you do so, you will find out that Google insists on rendering my last name as "gunsmith," which is pretty correct, as mine is one of those names like Carter, Turner, and so on, that derive from the names of professions, but since it is a personal name, it should never be really translated like that, meaning literally. It's silly, like translating the name of Einstein as Onestone, or something. Artificial intelligence these days ...

And here is an image of this article preserved for futures generations' sheer amusement. "Digitized? What's that grandpa? You mean, it did not come implanted?"

Yes, that was certainly a very unusual story, but just because it was unusual does not automatically mean it's not true. The article you can check out above confirms it. And, as I also said above, that was not the most unusual astronomical event that I have ever observed. The thing is, I doubt anyone else observed it, and so I am not sure if it makes sense to talk about it.

Updated on November 2nd, 2014.