Friday, August 28, 2009

August 28: George Alcock

George Eric Deacon Alcock
August 28, 1912 – December 15, 2000

George Alcock was an English astronomer. He was one of the most successful visual discoverers of novae and comets.

Initially, his interest in astronomy involved observation of meteors and meteor showers, but in 1953 he decided to start searching for comets and in 1955 began searching for novae. His technique was to memorize the patterns of thousands of stars, so that he would visually recognize any intruder.

In 1959 he discovered comet C/1959 Q1 (Alcock), the first comet discovered in Britain since 1894, and only five days later discovered another, C/1959 Q2 (Alcock). He discovered two more comets in 1963 and 1965. He later discovered his first nova, Nova Delphini 1967 (HR Delphini), which turned out to have an unusual light curve. He discovered two more novas, LV Vul (in 1968) and V368 Sct (in 1970). He found his fifth and final comet in 1983: C/1983 H1 (IRAS-Araki-Alcock). In 1991 he found the nova V838 Her.

He was awarded an MBE, and the asteroid 3174 Alcock is named after him. He also maintained an active interest in meteorology (the study of weather, unrelated to his interest in meteors).

His achievements were fairly remarkable, and with the modern invention of CCDs and photometry and automated and computerized search programs that make his visual discovery techniques seem entirely quaint and obsolete, it is unlikely that such achievements will ever be repeated.

George Alcock was also a very good (probably under-respected) teacher of the 4th year at Southfields Junior School in Stanground, Peterborough.
We never really knew how well known or respected he was in astronomical circles. He sparked my interest in astronomy, showed us how to view sunspots on a wall or sheet of paper using binoculars, he also used to take small groups of us birdwatching in the fens in his own time. He called me "Spider Young" - said my handwriting looked as though a spider had fallen in a pot of ink and crawled over the page. - Philip Young (Southfields 1972)
Alcock won the Jackson-Gwilt Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1963 and Amateur Achievement Award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1981. After his death, a plaque was placed in Peterborough Cathedral in his memory.

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