Sand and Stars

Stargazing with Antonín Bečvář

atlas-coeli-11 Oct 2016

Just when I thought that observing under these amazing Kalahari skies couldn’t get any better, it did.

Last night I got to use the most elegant star atlas of all – Antonín Bečvář’s Atlas Coeli 1950.0. It is simultaneously a work of art, a painstaking presentation of voluminous astronomical knowledge and a magnificent paean to the skies.

I’ve wanted this atlas for a long, long time, and it arrived yesterday in the mail with a big parcel of books from Harry Kanowitz. Harry, after a lifetime of astronomy (he joined ASSA Pretoria in 1966 and served as Chairman in the late 60s and early 70s), found it tough to observe any longer, so he had packed it in some time ago and sold his scopes and – oh joy! – last week posted his astronomy books to me.

Opening that parcel was like coming across buried treasure… the Atlas Coeli; Hartung’s Astronomical Objects for Southern Telescopes (not the updated Malin and Frew edition, but the original 1968 edition, another book I’ve always wanted); Hans Vehrenberg’s Falkauer Atlas, Photgraphischer Sternatlas (1964, a photographic star atlas covering the entire sky in 464 loose sheets in an archival cardboard box); a 1962 Norton’s Star Atlas; Fred Hoyle’s classic Astronomy (1962) just to list a few treasures among the many. And also stuffed into the parcel were newspaper cuttings from the 1960s, photos, 16 magnificent black and white Palomar Observatory prints (going to frame them for my space room) and other absolute gems.

But last night was all about Antonín Bečvář’s masterpiece.


I confess, I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to printed atlases. I love them. Yes, I agree, a planetarium programme blows any book clean out of the water.  But it’s books on my observing table, not the laptop. I love books. I love the feel of books. I love the smell of books. I love the sight of books. I love maps. I love the look of the skies on paper. I love turning the pages out in the dark, red torch between my teeth. I love the way paper atlases depict deep sky observing as a voyage over great distances. No matter what they do with computer-based atlases, I will never, ever quit using books.

I can’t describe the feeling with which I carried Bečvář’s Atlas Coeli 1950.0 and laid it out on my observing table. Its rough tan linen cover, thick sheets printed on one side, the 16 hand-drawn, meticulously crafted large format charts (16″ x 22″, 3.3° to the inch), the glorious colours (green nebulae, scarlet galaxies, yellow star clusters, grey dark nebulae and dust clouds, and the teal blue Milky Way), the exquisite key card written in Latin (surely the last to do so?), the mylar grid overlay, the way the enormous atlas takes up my entire observing table when open… it all  encapsulates the passionate relationships I have with the stars and books.


Antonín Bečvář was born  on June 10, 1901 in Brandýs nad Labem (some 30 kilometres northeast of Prague) in the former Czechoslovakia, and he died there on January 10, 1965.

Antonín Bečvář (1901-1965)

He was educated at Charles University where he received his degree in meteorology. Fragile health delayed the commencement of his professional career until well into his thirties, when he accepted his first post as a Government climatologist.

He was the founder of the Astronomical Observatory at Skalnate Pleso and became its first director (1943-1950). In 1945, risking his life, he managed to ward off the “dynamite squads” of the retreating German army who had been ordered to blow up his institution as part of Hitler’s scorched earth policy.

The greatest contributions Bečvář made to science are in the field of astronomical cartography: he was the author of the Atlas Coeli Skalnate Pleso (1948) with a catalogue (1951), the Atlas Eclipticalis (1958), the Atlas Borealis (1962) and the Atlas Australis (1964).

At the time it was first published, the Atlas Coeli was unique because it presented stars to visual magnitude 7.75 and all deep sky objects (star clusters, galaxies, planetary nebulae, etc.) visible in a 200mm (8″) telescope.

Until the mid-1970s when it went out of print, the Atlas was indispensable for night sky observers all over the world. Indeed, it was the standard atlas until Wil Tirion and Roger Sinnott’s Star Atlas 2000.0 in 1981 (which adopted all of Bečvář ‘s cartographic symbols).

The crater Bečvář on the moon and the asteroid 4567 Bečvář (which was discovered in 1982 at Kleť Observatory in the Czech Republic) were named in his honour.


And here it is, 60 years later, and Antonín Bečvář’s magnificent atlas was taking another night sky observer on a deep sky voyage. It took me to visit old friends, and make some new, but I didn’t make any detailed observing notes. This night’s observing wasn’t about that. It was about the atlas.

Using this old and beautiful and unique atlas to find my way to the stars, reminds me of the beautiful words of the Chinese poet, Chang Ch-ao: First we look at the hills in the painting. Then we look at the painting in the hills.

Thank you so much, Harry.

Copyright © Susan Young 2016