12 April 2011

'Keep Looking Up': An Overdue Ode to Jack Horkheimer

(Credit: NASA and ESA; obtained via Wikimedia Commons and subsequently adapted.)
"Confused about the cosmos?  Can’t tell a planet from a star?  Then give us just five minutes, and we’ll show you what they are.”

So says the introduction to Star Gazer, the televised short that each week showcases current sightseeing opportunities for the backyard astronomer—from streaking comets to unusual celestial alignments.

I don’t recall ever seeking out Star Gazer, which has aired on public television since 1976.  Never recorded it, never Tivo-ed it, never made a note to watch it.  Its brief five-minute duration (or the still shorter one-minute condensed version) and irregular placement between full-length programs or immediately preceding PBS’ late night signoff would make it difficult to do so anyhow. 

On the rare occasions, however, when my TV-watching trajectory does coincide with the program’s appearance, I find it almost as enthralling as if it were a solar eclipse or a supermoon itself.  This is as much the case now as it was when I was younger.

When it came on shortly before 1 a.m. central time the other night, after a performance by Spoon on Austin City Limits and just before PBS went dark for the evening, true to form, my hand froze on the remote, and I had the same reaction as I always do:

“Oh, this show is great!  Jack Horkheimer is ridiculous.”

Ridiculous, in the best sense of the word.

I was a little disappointed then to see a guest host filling in on the recent episode that caught my attention.  Not that it wasn't still entertaining, or that the guest host wasn't nerdy enough in his own right, but it wasn’t quite the same without Hork at the helm.  (Gah, too many double negatives.)

Horkheimer, the show’s infectiously goofy host, also produced and penned Star Gazer from his perch as the executive director of the planetarium at the Miami Science Museum.

Perusing Wikipedia after the episode to fact check my own memory of the show, I quickly found that he passed away last August, apparently from causes related to lifelong respiratory problems.

How sad. 

Horkheimer's wide-eyed smile and brown bristle mustache were enough to put a smile on my face.  He was quick to share his good-natured exuberance and to instruct viewers on how to glimpse the week’s most exciting astronomic phenomena.

With a knack for making science intelligible and entertaining, a genial manner, and a wardrobe plucked from a Florida-retirement-community catalog (oh, that blue sweater), he combined elements of Bill Nye, Bob Ross, and Fred Rogers.  And yet he, and his show, were unique.

Barring minor exceptions, I suspect the show’s special effects and editing didn’t change much during Horkheimer’s 34-year run.  Like a weatherman pointing out storm fronts on a green screen, he identified stars and planets on the 2D interstellar canvas projected behind him.  Occasionally, he’d drop down from offscreen to land seated on Saturn’s rings, or walk and talk his way across the solar system.  Sometimes, he’d simply float nebulously in the heavens.

The campiness only added to the charm.

Before I ever got into chemistry or geology, and certainly before I took up science writing, I wanted to be an astronomer.  Or at least I wanted to be able to stare up at the night sky and know what was going on.  I’m not sure if it was this interest that made me perk up as a kid when Star Gazer* came on, or if the show itself partly informed my astronomical inclination.  Regardless, it has a lasting personal value in my life as a recurring motif that reminds me both of my childhood in general, and of when and why my interest in the natural sciences took root.

(*Formerly known as Star Hustler, the program’s name was changed in 1997 after leaky internet browsers began turning up unintended search results.  This is where my fact checking came in.)

Since Jack Horkheimer’s passing, Star Gazer has remained on the air with a variety of guest hosts, although a decision on a permanent replacement is apparently in the offing.

Much like my attention was drawn to the episode the other night, I imagine it will continue to be drawn when I hear the telltale introduction, see the delightfully cheesy graphics, or hear the eerie, ethereal theme music (perhaps the show’s second most recognizable element, after Horkheimer).

And much like the other night, I will miss its former host.

Farewell, and, as Horkheimer used to say in closing, “Keep looking up.”

Watch one of Horkheimer's last episodes as host:

Learn more about Horkheimer and Star Gazer:
Update (added 14 April 2011)
It came to my attention that I should have added an awesomeness rating for good ol' Jack and Star Gazer.  I hereby rectify that omission and designate them as:



    1. You may not know, but I too am a bit of an amateur astronomy buff. I hadn't heard of this show, but wow, it's fabulous.

    2. I had never heard of this show. Thanks for the introduction. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

    3. Great post Tim, I too loved astronomy when I was a kid. I wanted to be an astronaut until I realized that would mean getting a passing grade in college level chemistry, physics, and calculus - which wasn't going to happen. But my love for the stars is definitely what got me into science, and later the idea of being a science writer.

    4. That's really sad -- he did not look old at all, though his voice sounded like it could have come from someone with chronic respiratory disease. I'm sure he would have enjoyed your post.

      Here is a blog post I stumbled on today and loved. It's by freelance science writer Jeanne Erdmann and centers around stargazing. Perhaps you'd enjoy it too: http://www.jeanne-erdmann.com/2011/04/04/galaxy-of-worry/

    5. Thanks as always for the comments. I'm happy to introduce you all to SG.

      Amy: Yeah, to my recollection, he always had a little gravel in his voice. I chalked it up to part of his charm...didn't realize it was (likely) related to respiratory ailments. Thank you for the link suggestion...it's a sad story. It's always fascinating (and sometimes comforting) to hear how people seek solace from their worries...including stargazing.

    6. Super dazzling! (As Horkheimer would say.)

    7. What a fun little show! It is kind of cool to think back on the shows you watched as a kid and how they might have influenced you as an adult. Thanks for giving this "awesome" piece of culture more attention!

    8. This guy reminds me of being a kid. That music makes me sleepy... very comforting. His style was so engaging but not condescending. There is always a story in the stars every day. Horkheimer was a journalist with an intergalactic beat!

    9. Gerat post i heard thath in 2012.12.12 the part of a sun came to earth? What do you think and what is the view of Nasa about it?