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No. 49: Jan-Feb 1987

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Optical Bursters

For years astronomers have been puzzling over the significance of "bursters"; i.e., short bursts of radiation from various spots in the heavens. With sophisticated terrestrial and satellite-borne instruments, they have detected gamma-ray, X-ray, and infrared bursters. The visible portion of the spectrum has been neglected because of the slow development of sensitive, high-time-resolution detectors capable of monitoring large areas of the sky. Of course, the human eye is an excellent instrument for searching for optical bursters, but professional naked-eye astronomers are few and far between nowadays. It has fallen to amateur astronomers to pioneer this field, as first mentioned in SF#39, where we introduced those optical flashes seen in Perseus. At last, the professional astronomers are taking more interest in this class of bright, unexplained flashes in the night sky. Those amateur astronomers, with their "primitive" instrumentation, have actually had a paper published in the highly technical Astrophysical Journal. Their abstract follows:

"Between 1984 July and 1985 July, 24 bright flashes were detected visually near the Aries-Perseus border by eight different observers at a total of 12 sites across Canada. One flash was photographed, and another was seen by two observers at different locations. Their duration was usually less than 1 s. The estimated positions of 20 of the events and another seen in 1983 were close enough in the sky to suggest a common celestial origin."

The brightest of the flashes was of magnitude -1 and lasted about 0.25 second.

(Katz, Bill, et al; "Optical Flashes in Perseus," Astrophysical Journal, 307: L33, 1986.)

Comment. Hurray for Katz and the cooperating amateurs in the U.S. and Canada. One can wade through a 10foot pile of the Astrophysical Journal and not find another paper based on naked-eye astronomy. Does this mean that science is at last going to take an interest in other transient luminous phenomena on earth? Unfortunately, this does not seem very likely.

From Science Frontiers #49, JAN-FEB 1987. 1987-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987