The Saga of an Astronomer’s Hat

When a rampaging bushfire tore through Australia's Warrumbungle National Park, home to Siding Spring Observatory, it spared all of the telescopes but destroyed the homes of several staffers — the author's among them. But this anecdote shows that there can be a glimmer of humor even in the midst of such devastation.

An aerial photo shows how fire destroyed the living quarters for visiting astronomers at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia.
NSW Rural Fire Service
As reported here early this week, on January 13th a devastating bushfire swept through portions of Australia's Siding Spring Observatory. The many telescopes there escaped serious damage, but several other structures were destroyed. My partner, Tanya Smith, and I were unfortunate enough to lose our house to the fire. As we waited in Coonabarabran's disaster-recovery center, I recounted the following ironic anecdote to some friends who were likewise affected.

Last October, Tanya and I flew to Europe to visit one of her daughters. Shanna was then working on North Uist, a small island in the far northwest of Scotland, the country where I was born and grew up. After our visit we flew back to Australia. The trip back included an overnight stay in Amsterdam, so for convenience we stayed at the "Yotel" within Schiphol airport. It features tiny cubicle rooms — which, apparently, weren't small enough to prevent me from leaving my new Akubra dress hat on the only shelf in the room. That's where the saga really starts.

Tanya Smith and Rob McNaught (reunited with his hat) pose in front of their intact house prior to the bushfire that destroyed it.
Rob McNaught
How do you get a hat in Amsterdam to a rural town in New South Wales, Australia? Mailing it would work, of course, but I feared the hat might get damaged. Perhaps, I thought, there might be a safer but more circuitous route. Many European amateur astronomers would be flying to Australia to witness November's total eclipse of the Sun in and near Cairns, and there the hat could be handed to one of the many eclipse-chasers from Coonabarabran. Alas, I failed to find anyone flying out of Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.

The solution came after I received an unrelated email from my longtime acquaintance Jaap Vreeling. It turns out that he now works in Amsterdam, and he knew that fellow Dutchman Govert Schilling was coming for the eclipse. Unfortunately, I soon learned that Govert was already in New Zealand. A few further email exchanges led to no solution — until a box unexpectedly arrived in Coonabarabran containing the undamaged Akubra!

Tanya Smith, Rob McNaught, and Shanna Smith stand among the house and trees destroyed by a bushfire on January 13, 2013. Click on the image to see a wider view of the fire damage.
Paul Cass
I was so grateful, and I asked Jaap how I might repay him. All he wanted was a photo of me wearing the hat to round off the saga. Since it's now midsummer Down Under, a hat may be appropriate, but a T-shirt and shorts was insufficiently dressy. So, despite the blazing Sun in our extended heat wave, I put on my Sunday finest. But the photo didn't turn out very well, so I planned to retake it eventually.

On January 13th, that hat — along with our house, sheds, and all contents — were destroyed in the devastating fire. We escaped with our dogs and our lives but very little else. (What little warning we got came from hearing a firefighting helicopter fly overhead.)

So the best I can do is a recreation with the one hat I just happened to have in the car when I drove off: an old Siding Spring Observatory tourist floppy hat. Sorry, Jaap!

Rob McNaught stands with the 20-inch (0.5-m) Uppsala Schmidt telescope at Siding Spring Observatory.
R. H. McNaught / MSSO
Let me add one thing more: Tanya and I have the resources to rebuild, but others are much less fortunate. Anyone wishing to aid the victims of the Coonabarabran bushfire can do so by donating either to the Warrumbungle Shire Council Mayor's Bushfire Appeal or to the ANU Siding Spring Observatory Fire Staff Emergency Relief Fund.


Rob McNaught ranks among the most prolific all-time discoverers of asteroids and comets. (His 50th comet discovery came in 2009.) In recent years he's found them on images taken with the 20-inch (0.5-meter) Uppsala Schmidt telescope at Siding Spring Observatory.

4 thoughts on “The Saga of an Astronomer’s Hat

  1. Govert Schilling

    Rob — I’m so sorry to hear that you and Tanya lost your Siding Spring home to the devastating fire. Also, I was sorry not to be able to help you getting back your hat in November 2012. Finally, I’m even more sorry that I didn’t find the time to pay you a visit (I guess we first met some 40 years ago in the Netherlands, at one of the IAYCs!). Because of an opportunity to visit the South Pole with the National Science Foundation, my Australian travel plans had to be drastically changed. I look forward to meeting you sometime in the future, in whichever country! Good luck with the rebuilding, and best wishes from the Netherlands! –Govert

  2. Jonathan McDowell

    Rob, so sorry to hear about the loss of your home (and hat)
    Devastating to see the impact on buildings I remember from my time visiting SSO in the 1980s.
    Hope you are back in operation soon.

    – best wishes and good luck from Cambridge, MA

  3. Martin George

    Rob, I am so sorry to learn of your loss. My thoughts are with you. I know that your friends and colleagues around the world will be thinking of you, and the fact that you have been able to write this up for us is most appreciated.

    Martin

  4. Philip Corneille FRAS

    Robert, it was privilege seeing You at work with the 0.50 m Uppsala Schmidt reflector of Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales – Australia. Had a great time meeting the active members of the Coonabarabran Astronomical Society. Our thoughts are with the people who lost their homes and we wish You all the best with the ongoing research… Clear skies!

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