Chester Martin Remembers Dr. Hujer, Eclipses And Comets

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 - by Chester Martin
Dr. Karel Hujer
Dr. Karel Hujer

Dr. Karel Hujer was Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for many years. He had been invited to come to Chattanooga from his position at Iowa State University by University of Chattanooga President Dr. David A. Lockmiller. Dr. Hujer had earlier been employed by the University of Chicago, and had worked at their famous Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin, which houses the largest refracting telescope ever built. Lockmiller offered Hujer the Directorship of our Clarence T. Jones Observatory, along with an Associate Professorship at the University - an offer Hujer accepted without hesitation. Dr.

Hujer arrived in Chattanooga shortly after the end of World War II and immediately began to rescue the observatory from years of neglect and misuse. Dr. Hujer's enthusiasm was very compulsive, and he immediately began making friends and inspiring students. This happened before the very first "classic" sci-fi movies had been made, which started about 1950. No rockets or artificial satellites had yet appeared, and still existed only in comic strips such as "Buck Rogers". "Alley Oop", (a fictional "cave man" type), only had a terrestrial Time Machine, which could not fly through space! Jules Verne, the French writer famous for his early (19th Century) sci-fi books and stories had conditioned the imaginations of many readers, world wide, for what was about to happen next on the world stage.

Suddenly - and literally out of the blue - "flying saucers" burst onto the scene in 1947, about the time Hujer arrived in Chattanooga. These new phenomena became the "hot" topic du jour, causing quite an international stir, suddenly replacing Jules Verne's - and a handful of other writers of 19th Century Science Fiction. As a walking encyclopedia of scientific information, Hujer shunned such spurious fiction. His enthusiasm was directed toward what was "pure science", and he shared that enthusiasm with his students, including the public in general.

Eclipses of the sun and moon were his great delight, after the stars themselves. He would frequently open the observatory for such special celestial events, and this attracted a wide audience of spectators. Students got extra credit for attending. While "It Came From Outer Space" and other "Aliens" genre movies were starting up in full force (about 1950), Dr. Hujer stuck to the pure science involving eclipses, comets, and "transits".

Dr. Hujer had made special studies of all these celestial phenomena - had gone to Egypt to study Ancient Egyptian astronomy, and the same for both Peru and Mexico. He loved to show slides and describe such favorite places as Stonehenge, where he could virtually transport you back to the time of the Druids. These Druids, although primitive people by modern standards, had learned over the centuries how to calculate both solar and lunar eclipses, and we know that Stonehenge was principally an astronomical observatory, predicting sunrise on the Summer Solstice.

Eclipses were very important to Dr. Hujer, as to every astronomer I have ever known. In his younger years he travelled around the world more than once, always in quest of some scientific interest. One year, back in either the 1920's or 1930's, he had ventured off to the island of Hokkaido - that northernmost of Japanese territories. In that day it was far more primitive than now, and very difficult to get to. No big jets back then - only small boats that rolled and pitched in the rough Pacific waters. And all that effort for only two minutes of near-total darkness at midday! Consider that if that long-planned-for special day happened to turn out to be cloudy, all would be lost! It was fortunately a clear day for our Karel Hujer, and he spoke of the occasion frequently.

Solar eclipses are much rarer than the lunar sort. And they are restricted to a narrow band where total darkness occurs. Lunar eclipses, on the other hand, are much more general, and the "blood red" appearance of the moon's surface, which writers like to describe, is actually a dull, rusty brown color that your kids might best describe as "ikky"!

There are some good stories about lunar eclipses in the past - and one famous one tells how Christopher Columbus used his superior knowledge of one such eclipse to save his men from starvation. It happened in Jamaica in 1504 - and you can Google it for yourself.

A coincidence of the upcoming August 21st 2017 solar eclipse will be that I have a friend in Eugene, Oregon who will see it on the Pacific coast before it comes to our area, and then I have friends in Camden, South Carolina who will see it soon afterwards. Camden is not precisely a coastal city, but in this case let's claim it as being on the Atlantic (and make this a more interesting story, where both coasts are included!) Actually, Chattanoogans will not see it in its totality as we are a just a few miles south of that zone. Spring City, Tennessee, some 50 miles north, DOES lie directly in the eclipse's path, and every room that is rentable in that area has already been grabbed up for a year or more, by people from around the globe! And that is the power that eclipses continue to have over the human race in general - not just astronomers.

Let me mention this one small phenomenon connected with sun eclipses: Once when my daughter was in grade school, there was a partial eclipse of the sun visible here in Chattanooga. I was very anxious to see it and set up some recommended way to view it without using the naked eye. I was standing under one of my Japanese maple trees and aiming the device I was using toward the cloudless sky. As the surroundings got darker and darker I happened to look down and noticed that the sun was dappling down through the small leaves of the maple...and every tiny space between the leaves acted just like a camera obscura! For there on the brick of my front walk were thousands of perfect little images of the eclipse! I happened to have my (now long obsolete) film camera handy and got some shots of the eclipse by looking DOWN! DO try this at home!

Besides eclipses, Dr. Hujer would always tell us when there was a newly discovered comet in the sky. Amateur astronomers world-wide are constantly on the lookout for these, as they customarily get to name the new discovery for themselves! (Hale-Bopp was such a comet from about 20 years ago). Most famous comet of all, is HALLEY'S COMET, of course - and Dr. Hujer always liked to point out that the name was pronounced just like the "Cali" in California...or like in the "galley" of a ship - NEVER like "daily" or "Bailey". Everyone has heard of Halley's Comet, for sure, and it has quite a history, being first noted by Chinese scholars 200 years or more BCE! Halley's Comet appears all through history, once showing up just in time for the medieval astrologers and soothsayers to read meaning into it. In 1066, for example, it appeared just before the Battle of Hastings in England as a bad omen to King Harold, the last Anglo Saxon ruler of Britain. It was a good omen, however, to the victor, "William the Conqueror", from whose reign we date modern England. It appears regularly about every 76 years, doing so only a few years ago (1993). A recommended place to view it was from Chickamauga Battlefield. My family and I - plus a neighborhood kid or two - drove down to see it. We were underwhelmed, though, as it was just a fuzzy object, not terribly bright at all, and low on the southeastern horizon. No dramatically long tail, as we had read about in its past apparitions; but we saw it - as did a medium-sized crowd of other viewers.

So there you have a bit about both eclipses and comets. But back at the beginning I mentioned "transits". What, you ask is a "transit? It is nothing more than a very minuscule eclipse created by either Mercury or Venus when it crosses the face of the sun. Dr. Hujer offered us extra credit to visit his observatory to view a transit of Mercury about 1954. I believe we projected the image from the telescope onto a piece of cardboard to watch the tiny black dot (Mercury) pass between earth and sun. Only Mercury and Venus can do this, as they are the only two planets INSIDE the earth's orbit.

Before I go, I want to school you again in the correct pronunciation of that famous comet's name: Dr. Hujer would think it remiss if I did not remind you: it rhymes with "Alley", "Valley", "Tally", etc. Let's all just try to please the old Professor and say, "HALLEY'S Comet"! (And he might give us ALL extra credit if we do it!)


Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at

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