Thursday, August 26, 2010

Culture Shock 08.26.10: Remembering Jack Horkheimer, the man who hustled stars

The name of his TV show might have changed, but Jack Horkheimer will always be the "star hustler" to me.

Horkheimer, the host of a weekly astronomy program aired by PBS stations nationwide, died Friday of a respiratory ailment. He was 72.

As executive director of the Miami Science Museum's Space Transit Planetarium since 1973, Horkheimer was already helping to bring the stars down to Earth. But his television show brought them to an entire generation, including me.

His show, "Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler" — renamed "Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer" in 1997 — was a weekly tour of the heavens. It helped make astronomy accessible both to youngsters too young for Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and to adults just learning to appreciate the wonders of the night sky.

"Star Hustler" began on Florida public television stations in 1976 and expanded to PBS stations nationwide in 1985, just in time for the return of 1P/Halley — better known as Halley's Comet — in 1986.

Depending on your local station, each episode ran either 5 minutes or 1 minute. In the '80s, Alabama Public Television aired the 5-minute "Star Hustler" on Saturday nights after "Doctor Who." It was a tag-team of science and science fiction.

Horkheimer's final "Star Gazer," taped before his death, airs next week, but it's already online at

Horkheimer's mission was to make astronomy fun for everyone, but especially beginners. His show focused on "naked eye" astronomy. So, he pointed out things you could see without the aid of an expensive telescope or even binoculars.

Still, a good pair of binoculars occasionally came in handy. Lucky for me, I'd bought a pair for once-in-a-lifetime Halley's Comet viewing.

If there was an interesting planetary alignment or a passing comet, Horkheimer let you know. He also gave his viewers tips for finding particular stars and constellations. For instance, instead of trying to find the constellation Sagittarius, the archer, by looking for the bow, Horkheimer would suggest looking for stars that seemed to form a teapot. Sagittarius is much easier to recognize that way. If only the ancient Greeks, who named the constellations, had known about teapots, maybe they would have thought the same.

Probably not. There's nothing heroic about teapots, but Horkheimer had that covered, too. He told the stories of the constellations, the mythology that drove the Greeks to find their gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters, among the stars.

From Horkheimer, I learned even the stars have stories, like the North Star, Polaris. Located in the constellation Ursa Minor, or the Little Dipper, Polaris guided sailors and let them know how far north they were, based on how high it was in the horizon.

The farther north you go, the higher Polaris is, until, at the North Pole, it's directly overhead.

If Sagan came across as the cool college professor who'd invite you out for drinks after class, Horkheimer came across as a somewhat nutty but lovable uncle. As others observed, his on-air delivery was a lot like comedian Rip Taylor, which I suspect he played up, especially in later years, when, like Taylor, he sported a terrible yet endearing hairpiece. He was also a master of bad puns and catchphrases.

Horkheimer's enthusiasm for astronomy was infectious. Maybe it was his lame jokes or just his personality, but when he signed off each week with his signature, "Remember to keep looking up," I ran outside to see what the sky had to offer.

Long before he died, Horkheimer wrote his own joking epitaph: " ‘Keep Looking Up' was my life's admonition / I can do little else in my present position."

He'd want us to keep looking up, too.

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