Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dear Mr. Horkheimer

Let me be straight with you. You never were exactly my cup of tea. In fact, ten years ago, I’d never even heard of you. But then I became an avid amateur astronomer, and I learned of—and watched a few episodes of—“Star Gazer” on PBS.

I never publicly vilified you, as some did, but neither did I leap tall buildings to defend you. Let’s just say, when it comes to communicating astronomy to the general public, I’m more partial to gushing enthusiasm a la Carl Sagan than buffoonery.

But darn it if your campy shtick didn’t get the job done for a lot of people, as evidenced by the recent outpouring of affection, nostalgia, and starry-eyed wonder on Internet sites around the planet. Certainly you made the universe accessible to many and launched many a lifetime interest in stargazing. You championed, as I do, naked-eye astronomy, but in contrast to my little blog, you reached millions.

When it comes to showmanship, you took the cake and chewed the scenery. And, incredibly, won incredible allegiance. There’s a lesson in that for all of us who bring astronomy to the public, regardless of our respective approaches.

Here’s the thing. In reading on various web forums about your recent passing, I’ve learned that your over-the-top TV persona was a complete fabrication and a conscious choice you made. Apparently, you played it straight for many years as the “Star Hustler” (a flat-out cooler moniker, by the way) before your producer implored you to get a gimmick. I really have to respect that you did so reluctantly, and I now imagine that you may have even cringed a bit at your own antics.

After all is said and done, what we can—all of us: fans, detractors, and mere nose-wrinklers—say is that you were a good storyteller. And you made people look up. Perhaps if I had seen one of your shows 30 years ago, I would have looked up a whole lot sooner.

Now, you put me in mind of one of my favorite sayings, a message I found in a fortune cookie (where all real wisdom lies) and then taped to the computer monitor where I write:

“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”

You, sir, were really something.