Alan Barber (1904-1984) « Michael Byers

Alan Barber (1904-1984)

Lowell Observatory staff astronomer
companion to Clyde Tombaugh

Born in Belleville, Ohio, Alan Barber studied orbital mechanics at Indiana University, going on to earn his Ph.D. at Harvard where he studied under Cecilia Payne (later Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin) and Harlow Shapley. Barber was a companion to Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, supporting Tombaugh’s photographic work with a mathematical search, using the statistical work of Percival Lowell as a blueprint. Like Lowell before him, Barber believed he could determine a set of orbital residuals — essentially, wobbles in the orbits of the outer planets — and by determining where the wobbles were coming from, pinpoint the exact location of Planet X. Barber’s musical talent made him popular with Emma Slipher, wife to V.M. Slipher, Director of Lowell Observatory. Alan Barber married Mary Hempstead in Flagstaff, March 1929. Barber would later join the faculty at Indiana University.

Then up from below would come his mother’s voice, singing just for the pure lungwork and joy of it, and it would draw him down to the door of the music room, hat in his pocket, the steel cables of the piano twanging in the old cabinet, his mother’s hard shoe going athump. Standing there he would be flushed with a sweating love for his mother which had to it an element of physical delectation, he wanted to climb into her lap (he was of course too old for this) and to put his flesh on her flesh, he wanted to be taken up into her somehow, and while he understood this was wrong it had a shameful intestinal urgency to it, stirring something low in his groin that had never been named in his hearing. It was a lurid, helpless feeling but one he could not resist when he heard her there, sounding the rhythm with her foot and pounding out the octaves. Then one afternoon when he was seven and outside, he found that the motion of the rope swing suspended from one of the elms was matching itself to the song that played in his head, and that even as the swing slowed and he covered less and less of the scrubbed-out dirt underfoot he could keep up the same pace as he sang. Galileo had discovered this, the isochronous nature of the pendulum, in 1581, but for Alan this was his first mathematical experience.