A treatise on Vainu Bappu's Comet

By amar_universe; Published 07 Jun 2011

This matter should serve as a biography on Bappu's Comet, and easily the biggest compilation about the matter on the web! Since long, I had been wanting to get whatever information on the only comet discovered by an Indian, by none other than the pioneer of Indian Astronomy - Manali Kallat Vainu Bappu (August 10, 1927 – August 19, 1982).

Now I am slightly content in the fact that, I have a deal more of facts to share after considerable finding.

Some matter is taken from an article titled 'The Bureaucrat and the Stargazer' (Tuesday, January 20, 2009. Mid Day, B'lore) which I stumbled upon from the online archives of Indian Institute of Astro-physics (IIAP). Here goes...

[After obtaining his Masters degree in Physics from Madras University, Vainu Bappu joined the prestigious Harvard University on a scholarship. Within a few months of his arrival at Harvard, a comet was recorded on a photographic plate taken at the Oak Ridge Station at the Harvard Observatory.

(On the early morning of 2 July 1949, Vainu Bappu took a 60 min exposure plate in Cygnus, for a special program, with the 24-33 inch Jewett Schmidt telescope, the plate of which was developed the following afternoon)

Officially designated as C/1949 N1 (Bappu-Bok-Newkirk) and sometimes also referred to as Comet Bappu-Bok-Whipple, was discovered on July 2, 1949. This was a purely accidental discovery but among those who discovered it was an Indian student who was working towards his doctoral degree at Harvard.

The ripples of this discovery reached India soon enough, but there were no congratulations offered from the government; the government felt that none was due. The Education Department of the Indian Embassy in Washington DC sharply reprimanded the young man asking him to focus on his research and implying that he should not go about discovering comets!

The reprove came in the wake of a cable that the Hyderabad government had sent the Embassy instructing them to convey to the student that he was to undertake research according to the terms of his scholarship. “See that your government’s wishes are carried out in every respect,” the letter commanded.

It was Fred Whipple who undertook to write an amusing rejoinder to the bureaucrat. “This is the first occasion in my experience,” Whipple wrote, “in which a foreign government has taken on itself the criticism of our educational methods in the Astronomy Department of Harvard University.” It would be better for the Hyderabad government, he suggested, to communicate the reasons for their criticism to the Harvard authorities instead of “reprimanding the student in such a way that he finds it difficult to follow our guidance in his advance education.

Whipple then explained that the nature of the discovery was purely accidental - the student’s failure to note this unusual object on his photographic plates would have been ‘a sin of scientific omission’ and his failure to announce the discovery would have been ‘a serious neglect of his duty to the scientific world’.

Explaining the importance of background training that is so necessary for doctoral studies, Whipple sardonically pointed out that if the Government insisted on the student confining his research to a narrow field, then it had erred in sending him to Harvard for sure. This delightful exchange is preserved in the Archives of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, which none other than he founded.]

An article from the online version of The Harvard Crimson (it's online archive now extends back to 1873) dated April 28, 1956 details:

[Observing for the first time at Agassiz Station, Bappu exposed a plate for sixty minutes in the small hours of the morning of July 2, 1949. Plates such as these are ordinarily sent back to Cambridge for processing, but Professor Bart Bok suggested that Bappu develop it himself.

When the plate was developed, the graduate student announced, "Now I'm going to look for comets." Bok, amused, chuckled. "Ha, ha, everyone looks for comets." But upon inspection Bappu spotted one, and Gordon A. Newkirk and Bok confirmed his discovery. This was a comet discovered of only the 13th magnitude in Cygnus.]

Further, it was announced in IAU Circular 1778 (which had references for other comets like Humason (1961e), Seki (1961f), periodic comets Forbes (1961a) and Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak (1858 III = 1907 III = 1951 IV).

However, he was awarded the Donhoe Comet-Medal (1949) by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, elected as Honorary Foreign Fellow of the Belgium Academy of Sciences and was an Honorary Member of the American Astronomical Society. He was elected President of the International Astronomical Union in 1979.

This is the orbit diagram of the Comet from NASA JPL's Small-Body Database Browser (enable Java). Play with it!


The perihelion date was October 26, 1949, and perihelion distance (nearest to Sun) is 2.05 AU, with apehelion distance (farthest from Sun) being 3033.60 AU.

This is how the bureaucratic system posed a challenge to him even then. After all, our tributes are for the first legendary Indian to have discovered a comet (but not from Indian soil).

Any additions to this content (from anyone, or even the people worked with him, or scientists from IIAP) are greatly appreciated, in order to make this an exhaustive memoir on Bappu's Comet. I am exclusively looking for the original photographic plate discovery image.