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Thomas Bopp, amateur astronomer and discoverer
of Comet Hale-Bopp
Oct. 15, 1949–Jan. 5, 2018
Thomas Bopp wasn't looking for a comet when he peered into a telescope on Saturday, July 22, 1995. In fact, he wasn't looking for anything. By day, the 47-year-old worked for a cement company, where he made a passing mention of his interest in astronomy to Jim Stevens, who ran an auto parts store in Phoenix. It was a hobby started when Bopp was just a boy growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, when his father gave him his first telescope. Stevens, it turned out, was also interested in telescopes. By night, the two became amateur astronomers, going stargazing with Stevens' homemade telescope in the Arizona desert, with Steven serving as Bopp's mentor.
That was exactly what they were doing that night, when Stevens trained his lens on a cluster of stars in the Sagittarius constellation shortly after 11 p.m. Stevens was eager for Bopp to take a look. But what he didn't realize was he had aimed his telescope directly at an unidentified flying object – what Bopp would later describe as "a little fuzzy glow."
In reality, it was a 46-mile-wide hunk of ice 577 million miles away, hurtling through space toward Earth.
The stakes were high – comets are a coveted catch for astronomers, since they are conventionally named after those who discover them. But first Bopp and Stevens had to notify Harvard University to officiate the discovery. This was not an easy task in the Arizona desert in the '90s.
After studying the object for several minutes to make sure it was not a star, Bopp got in his car and drove 20 miles to a truck stop to try and call Western Union from a pay phone to send a telegram to the Central Bureau of the International Astronomical Union at Harvard University, because yes, you could still send telegrams in the '90s. The Western Union representative didn't have an address, so Bopp hung up and got in his car and drove home. Around 3 a.m., he barged into his bedroom, woke his wife, found the address in an astronomy book, and sent the telegram with the comet's coordinates.
The next morning, Bopp got a call from the International Astronomical Union. Unbeknownst to Bopp, another astronomer – a real astronomer, Alan Hale, with a doctorate in astronomy and everything – had also spotted the comet within minutes of him, and had already emailed the coordinates to Harvard from his home in New Mexico. But once again, the stars aligned for Bopp: By what he later described as "bizarre chance," an IAU associate director happened to be in the office that Sunday and received the telegram. The comet, formally designated C/1995 O1, would be named Hale-Bopp, after both astronomers.
Bopp quit his day job to attend to the media maelstrom that followed. In 1997, the comet reached perihelion, or its closest point to the sun. It lit up the night sky for more than 18 months, its long tail visible to the naked eye to millions of people in the Northern Hemisphere. It was the biggest, most visible comet since the Great Comet of 1811.
The comet brought some misfortune, too. In March '97, 39 members of California death cult Heaven's Gate committed mass suicide, believing their bodies would be transported to an alien spacecraft following the comet. In the spring, when the comet was the closest to the Earth, Bopp's brother and sister-in-law were killed by a car while photographing the comet. "This has been the best week of my life," he told National Geographic. "And the worst."
In recent years, Bopp worked as a shuttle driver at a Toyota dealership. He died at a hospital in Phoenix at age 68 from liver failure.
"I can find another job, but this is something that happens once in 10,000 lifetimes," he told Newsweek when he quit his job to bask in the glow of Hale-Bopp. The comet is expected to next pass Earth in 4897. — Lee DeVito
Ursula K. Le Guin, trailblazing speculative novelist
Oct. 21, 1929–Jan. 22, 2018
More than 20 novels, not counting several of her earliest works that remain unpublished. A dozen books on poetry. More than 100 short stories, collected throughout multiple volumes. Seven essay collections. Thirteen books for children. Five volumes of translation, including the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu and selected poems by the Chilean Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral. Oh, and a guide for writers.
Even stingily speaking, the career of author Ursula K. Le Guin – one of the 20th century's pioneering science fiction and young adult writers – was prolific. Arguably her most enduring work, The Left Hand of Darkness, inspired legions of genre writers, including contemporary savants such as Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, John Scalzi and the widely acclaimed Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale. Some critics argue that no single work did more to upend the genre's seemingly predictable conventions than that of the Nebula and Hugo Award-winning novel, which imagined a world whose human inhabitants have no fixed gender; instead, their sexual roles are determined by context and express themselves only once a month. She would later refer to the story as a "thought experiment." "I eliminated gender to find out what was left," Le Guin told The Guardian in 2005. It remains one of speculative fiction's academic touchstones to this day.
The only daughter of two anthropologists, Ursula Kroeber was born the youngest of four children in Berkeley, California, in 1929. Her father studied Native American tribes based in California, while her mother, Theodora Kracaw Kroeber, gained prominence in the same field with her acclaimed book Ishi in Two Worlds, which chronicled the life and death of the state's "last wild Indian." Throughout her youth, with dinner-table talk of lost worlds never far out of earshot, Le Guin would use her family's deep understanding of the world as a jumping-off point as she immersed herself in mythology, classic fantasies and the science fiction magazines of the day.
In 1951, she graduated from Radcliffe College, then earned a master's degree in romance literature from Columbia University in 1952. From there, Le Guin was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study in Paris. While aboard a steamer set for France, she met the historian Charles Le Guin, whom she married a few months later. Later in life, the two would settle down and start a family in Portland, Oregon, where they lived in a Victorian house on a steep street just below the city's Forest Park. As the Paris Review noted during an interview with Le Guin in 2013, perhaps appropriately for a science fiction author and much like the worlds she'd bend within her fiction's narratives, their home appeared "larger on the inside than it does from without."
On Jan. 23, 2018, with one last conflict within a story to resolve, Le Guin passed away peacefully at her home in Portland. Her family did not cite a cause other than poor health due to old age. Le Guin was 88 years old. — Xander Peters