The Men Who Stole the Stars
by George F. Bass
In 1979, Peter Stanford, editor of Sea History asked George Bass if he would write an
article on the difference between archaeology and treasure hunting. Bass began a letter of
response, and in the middle began to turn the letter into a short story to make his point. Since
Sea History, that part of his letter has now been published in several other American and Dutch
magazines as “The Men Who Stole the Stars.” Except for substituting the word “stars” for
“shipwrecks,” everything in the story is based on fact.
When I looked into the sky that night, I thought at first that a cloud covered part of the Big Dipper. But the crisp night air had not a trace of moisture. After cleaning my glasses and looking again, I realized that Mizar simply was not there any longer. I called the observatory of the university nearest me.
“There's a star missing,” I said. “Mizar isn't there any more.”
“We have no comment at this time,” was the reply.
The next issue of Tempus, our leading news magazine, provided an explanation. Under the “Science” heading was a brief news item:
Astronomer Claude Blakely, after years of research and experimentation, has of last developed a method of capturing stars. For an undisclosed price, he has sold Mizar to an anonymous dealer in Geneva. The dealer, through a Near York spokesman, assures the public that the star will be put on display in a private planetarium within the next two years, and that hundreds of citizens will be able to see it there.
I began a flood of outraged letters to magazines, syndicated editorial writers, and politicians. The stars, I said, belong to everybody. Astronomers were supposed to map the stars, measure them, and study them in the most minute detail. But, I added, astronomers were supposed to be after knowledge. They were not supposed to own the stars. I didn't believe that Mr. Blakely should really be called an astronomer.
“Your attitude strikes me as hoity-toity,” replied one of the best known of the columnists. “Claude Blakely knows more about astronomy than any Ph. D. or he couldn't have gone out and netted that star. And anyway, why should professional astronomers have all the stars? There are enough to go around. You're just jealous that you didn't make a buck out of it.”
My response that the public as well as astronomers had a right to the stars, and that future generations had a right to see them, went unanswered.
Some of the public did write to their congressmen, but since most lived in smoggy cities and never saw the stars anyway, few letters were sent. A young congressman from one of the states with an exceptionally clear sky did, eventually, introduce legislation to ban star catching. By then, however, Blakely had sold rights to his star-stealing device to a number of partners
“The clammy hands of big brother government are trying to take away the hard-won spoils of the last of the great inventors,” thundered the columnist. “Claude Blakely and his partners represent the last frontier of free enterprise.”
The night that I noticed Sirius was no longer in the sky, I opened the Newsletter of Private Star Lovers that had arrived in the afternoon mail. It had as a logo a bald eagle holding a star in its talons, flanked by waving American flags.
”Fellow citizens. Write to your congressmen about the communist-inspired plot to take away our rights to catch and sell stars. There are millions of stars in the heaven, as any schoolboy knows. You can't even see some of them they are so dim. There cannot be any rational reason to keep them all up there. Especially when there are billions of dollars to be made by private investors. Stand up for your rights as Americans. Stand up for free enterprise.”
By then the night sky was beginning to look a bit faded. Investors were after the really bright, sparkling stars first, so the first-magnitude stars were disappearing at an alarming rate.
Astronomers made joint and private outcries about what was happening. “Precious knowledge about the creation of the universe is being lost forever. It doesn't do me any good to see Betelgeuse in the cavern of some Austrian duke,” one wrote. “It's being taken out of context.”
A senator from a rather foggy state submitted a piece to a family weekly:
At last astronomy's making money, not simply spending. Millions of dollars of National Science Foundation grants will now be saved that would otherwise have been wasted on larger telescopes and more radio telescopes. Have all the astronomers, spending all that money for centuries, ever made a dime for the public? They talk about knowledge. Claude Blakely is the first one ever to show common sense!
When Polaris was snatched, I was sure that the tide would turn in favor of amateur star gazers and professional astronomers. But, except for a few yachtsmen, most people were watching their TV screens and couldn't be bothered about it.
“Why didn't he use Loran to navigate!” my sister asked when she read the article about the sailor who lost his way because of the disappearing stars and ended on the rocks. 'That's what all those satellites am for, anyway, isn't it?”
“They'll be snatching satellites next,” I answered. I let the sharp photographs of the starry night drop one at a time in a pile on the floor between my feet. “That's the way it used to be,” I mumbled.
George F. Bass, INA
published Oct '01, with kind permission
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