History of the Variable Star Section

A summary compiled by David Scanlan in 2008

When I took over as Variable Star Section Director on the 1st February 2008 I was interested to know in whose footsteps I would be following in so I decided to track down and record some of the history of the section for future prosperity.

Unfortunately this has not been an easy task and the history of the section has not been recorded in detail but here are my findings. Where ever possible I have contacted previous section directors and asked them to write in their own words what they have done for the section.

The section was founded in 1961 and to date has had a total of 10 directors including myself. The section, from 1961 to 1971, observed 6 suspected variable stars but when no changes in their brightness were noted they were dropped from the programme and known naked eye variables were added.

Keith Brackenborough 1961 – 63

The first director was K Brackenborough who was section director from 1961 to 1963. Mr Brackenborough said the following about the section:

“It was a long time ago when I was Director of the Variable Star Section of the Junior Astronomical Society.

I can say that the idea of a Variable Star Section first came from a visit I made – I think in the early 1960s to the home of Sir Patrick Moore in East Grinstead. I remember I couldn’t stop to use his telescopes as the last steam train home left at 8.30pm!

I was saying that I was interested in Variable Stars and thinking of joining the BAA section. Patrick said that there were some bright Variables which were not covered by the BAA programme and suggested a few stars – mostly irregular Variables that I could observe. However what was needed was a national observing programme for such stars.

He then suggested that a Variable Star Section be formed and that I should be the first Director. Patrick was, of course, one of the main founders of the Junior Astronomical Society – later the SPA.

I was not actually Director for very long. I became more involved in the Croydon Astronomical Society becoming its Chairman in 1965 and felt that I could not do two jobs.”

K J H Phillips 1963 – 67

Information not available.

G Cowie 1967 – 69

Information not available.

John Isles 1969 – 71

“I don’t remember all the exact dates, but I first became Director of what was then the Junior Astronomical Society’s Variable Star Section in, I think, 1969, on the invitation of the President, Peter Lancaster Brown, who collared me for that purpose one day in the RAS Library. At that time I was finishing my Astronomy degree at Edinburgh and together with James Muirden had recently formed the Binocular Sky Society which was mainly devoted to observing variable stars with binoculars. Previous directors of the JAS VSS had been Keith Brackenborough, Ken Phillips, and Geoffrey Cowie, all of whom I knew or corresponded with at various times, though until then I hadn’t been a member of the JAS myself.

If I recall correctly, Keith Brackenborough had first set up the programme of observing several naked-eye variables, and produced a chatty magazine on the subject named Betelgeuse. Ken Phillips was a very assiduous observer. He reformed the programme and issued revised comparison-star lists based on the Revised Harvard Photometry. Geoffrey Cowie replaced these with lists of photoelectric V magnitudes, and added a few telescopic variables to the programme. An increasing number of suspected variable stars also crept into the programme over the years.

When I became Director the section was inactive with almost no observations coming in. My smartest move was to ask Paul Sutherland to become Section Secretary and Editor of a Section Circular. Paul and I revised the programme to drop the telescopic variables, which nobody was then observing, and the suspected variables, which never seemed to do anything. The JAS had no comet section at that time, and since comet magnitudes can be estimated using similar methods to variable stars, the Council agreed that we could include those in our programme. By good fortune there were several bright novae and comets at this time, giving rise to a flurry of circulars. Many observers were attracted to the Section and our stars again all had good coverage.

In 1972 I became Director of the BAA VSS, which left me less time for the JAS section (or the Binocular Sky Society). Paul Sutherland, and after him Peter Hornby, took over the JAS section. (The BSS was eventually merged with the BAA VSS Binocular Programme.)”

Paul Sutherland 1971 – 74

“It is all so long ago, but I do remember being invited by John to become his secretary and produce a VSS Circular. By chance there was the most amazing rapid sequence of discoveries of comets and novae so that I was duplicating alerts and posting them out far more frequently than I had imagined. No email in those days to make life easier, unfortunately!

When John asked me to succeed him, I basically carried on running the section in the way that he had so successfully revamped it. I recall that we published a report based on the section’s observations which was duly dispatched to professional observatories around the world. A surprising result of this was that I was sent a complete, free set of the General Catalogue of Variable Stars published by the Academy of Sciences in what was then the Soviet Union.

In 1974, I handed over the section to Peter Hornby after I was asked to take over as Editor of the society magazine, which was then called Hermes.”

Peter Hornby 1974 – 80

Information not available

John Isles 1980 – 92

“In 1980, a few years after I’d retired from the BAA VSS Directorship, my personal life allowed my to find more time for astronomy so I expressed interest in taking on the JAS VSS again. Peter Hornby was happy to be relieved of the job. I bought a Commodore 64 computer and keyed in almost all the historical observations for programme stars. Unfortunately this computer died before I was able to find a way to convert the data to a successor format, so I don’t know if my successor Tony Markham was able to use the floppy disks of data that I sent him. Anyway, this exercise yielded some interesting light curves for JAS Circulars and other publications, and using Fourier analysis I was able to find some interesting multiple periodicities in the semi regular variables. (My day job, before I moved to Cyprus, was as a statistician.) Our light curve was particularly good for Mu Cephei. After analysis and publication, the JAS observations of stars that were also on the BAA programme were merged with the BAA records.

From 1987 to 1992 I was running the section from Cyprus, where I was living in a small Greek village and was able to make some wonderful observations myself. (See here for my light curves of Algol and Beta Lyrae.) The section’s work was still entirely visual then, though I was beginning in photoelectric photometry, and the JAS/SPA programme was still largely confined to the naked-eye variables. Tony Markham became Director when I moved to the United States in 1992.

I still do an occasional bit of writing, but I’m mostly retired now. We have 48 dark acres in rural Jackson County, Michigan, and I’m planning to get my observatory built here this year.”

Tony Markham 1992 – 2000

“I was Director from July 1992 through to September 2000.

The observing programme I inherited was very much focussed on naked eye variables. However, I have always been of the belief that although naked eye variables are easier to locate, altitude/haze factors can make it difficult to make brightness estimates (and increasing light pollution was meaning that many observers struggled to see stars such as R Lyr and zeta Gem with the naked eye).

I decided to make the programme more interesting by adding binocular variables such as RZ Cas and R Sct that can be relied on to vary by significant amounts and some Mira variables such as chi Cyg, U Ori and R Tri that were both easy to locate and which spent a few months each year at binocular magnitudes. Later additions to the programme included U Cep and R CrB. Some of the least interesting variables such as Kappa Oph (Observations from many astronomers, including the SPA, eventually concluded this stars variation to be only minimal and observations of this star are now not encouraged. Ed. Director SPA VSS 19th May 2013) and Epsilon Peg were dropped. Epsilon Aur was also dropped because its next eclipse was nearly 20 years away …. although it is getting close now.

Lettered sequences were also introduced. This was particularly helpful for the naked eye variables. During my period as Director, I sent copies of SPA VSS observations to the BAA VSS for storage in their database and also keyed in observations of Alpha Ori and Eta Gem going back to the 1960s and it was sometimes quite challenging to interpret the ways in which observers wrote certain Greek letters. Finder charts were provided for all of the new variables as well as some of the existing programme stars such as Mu Cep and R Lyr for which there had previously only been lists of comparison stars.

In terms of methods used, the ‘beginner’s method’ was phased out and observers were encouraged to use either the fractional or step methods.

The reporting of observations in 1992 was wholly paper based. However, the increasing use of PCs , e-mail and the Internet allowed improvements to be made. In particular, the demand that observers work out the Julian Date and decimal for each observation was dropped as it was straightforward to work this out using a spreadsheet on my PC (spreadsheets also greatly aided the calculation of phases for EBs !).

The arrival of the SPA web pages also meant that predictions and results could be published on-line.

One of the innovations I brought in was an annual newsletter to summarise the observations submitted during the previous year. This allowed more light curves and more detailed results to be published than using the SPA Circulars alone. Copies of these newsletters were also made available on the SPA web pages.

Although the society still saw itself as primarily catering for younger observers (it was still the Junior Astronomical Society in July 1992), it was probably the case that most queries I received were from people over 50 who no longer worked and were now following their lifelong interest. There were younger observers of university age, but these tended to drop observing when they started work and no longer had the time or had moved to less favourable locations for observing.”

Mike Clarke 2001 – 2008

“If I had to pick out one thing that has changed so much during the last seven years, then it would surely be the enormous growth of the internet. Gone are the days when you could only contact the director by post. When I took over the section, the largest proportions of observations were received in paper form by post. The situation has now completely changed with only one member submitting observations by post.

Also, the large growth of the internet chat rooms and forums, where people seem happier to post observations and images in general, rather than contacting the section.

With the rise of the internet, the director was being contacted by people who were being put off the variables due to the reporting method required when submitting observations. In response to this, the director changed the method, so that it would appeal more to the casual observer.

On taking over the section, the observing programme had a good varied selection of variables that are suitable for a beginner, and thus it was decided not to make any changes. However, during the SPA Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2003, two previous stars from the original 60s observing programme were re-introduced. So after a period of 32 years, delta UMa and beta Leonis returned back into the section.”

David Scanlan 2008 – 2015

“I took over the Variable Star Section on the 1st February 2008 after Michael Clarke stood down in January 2008. Upon my appointment I decided to expand on the list of variable stars that were in the SPA programme. I made the addition of 4 naked eye variable stars which included Zeta and Epsilon Aurigae, Lambda Tauri and P Cygni plus the creation of a binocular and telescopic programme aimed at keeping more advanced observers contributing to the sections observations.

After conducting a few surveys in the astronomical community I came to the conclusion that many amateurs do not pursue variable star work because of the misconception that its too difficult to estimate magnitudes or that you need large aperture expensive telescopes to make a worthwhile contribution..this is wrong on both accounts and I have made it a personal aim to educate and inform people that they can make a worthwhile contribution to the world of astronomy with nothing more than their naked eyes and a little practice.

Late in 2008 I introduced the Variable 30 a programme of 30 easy to see variable stars aimed specifically at introducing newcomers to the wonderful world of variable star work.