SAN DIEGO — Ben Mayer is about to make history--again.
On Friday at the Bahia Hotel, the 60-year-old amateur astronomer will cross the ideological barricade between astrology and astronomy--two disciplines that, until the 17th Century, were practiced simultaneously by some of the greatest minds in history, including Galileo and Johannes Kepler.
Mayer, author of "Starwatch," "Halley's Comet Finder" and "The Cambridge Astronomy Guide" (with William Liller), will speak before 1,000 astrologers expected at the United Astrology Congress at the Mission Bay hotel.
At some risk to his hard-earned credibility, Mayer will be urging his audience to return to the practice of physically observing the stars, which once formed a large part of the astrologer's practice. It was astrology that supplied thousands of years of observation data for the first astronomers.
Mayer's lecture and 140 other speakers scheduled between Thursday and July 1 will be open to the public, according to convention organizer Angel Thompson. Topics will range from the astronomer's passionate introduction to astrophotography to "palimony" attorney Marvin Mitchelson's address on the "transformation of human rights."
It will be the largest astrological convention ever held, Thompson said.
Thompson's friendship with Mayer has much to do with his plan to address the conference. Since they met years ago on an eclipse-chasing cruise, the two casual friends (both Scorpios, by the way) have broadened each other's perspectives, they said. They believe it is time to open a line of communication between the long-feuding disciplines.
The German-born, English-educated Mayer made his first historical impact in 1975 when he captured the first-ever recorded photographs of a nova (an exploding star) before, during and after the 36-hour cataclysmic event.
Incredibly, Mayer, still a beginner, took his photographs of Nova Cygni on the roof of his house in light-polluted West Los Angeles, using a standard lens on a 35mm camera and a lawn sprinkler timer he rigged up himself to open and close the shutter at periodic intervals. When they didn't reveal the meteor streaks he was looking for, Mayer threw all his photos in the trash.
Word of the nova's "discovery" by a Japanese observer sent him scurrying home to that wastebasket. The nova was there--smack in the middle of the constellation Cygnus (also known as the Northern Cross). Mayer was soon on the phone with Boston's Center for Astrophysics of the Harvard College Observatory and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, excitedly registering his first claim to serious recognition by the astronomical community.
"The reason I did it is because I did not know I could not do it," he explained recently by phone from his home in Bel Air.
Mayer eventually resigned as chairman of his successful architectural and interior design corporation to pursue his love affair with the stars full time, putting his son in charge of the company and focusing his Royal College of Art background on new inventions to simplify amateur astronomical discoveries.
Since then he has co-written a book with a highly respected Harvard professor of astronomy, published several articles, illustrated and written two books, been named "amateur of the year" by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and had an asteroid named after him in honor of his invention of a photo-comparing device called PROBLICOM.
"To me the word amateur, which stems from the word amore, from the word love, is a delightful word and I think no place is it better used than in astronomy, where the amateur since the beginning of time has done truly meaningful and useful work, because he or she observes with no prejudice, because he has no brownie points to rack up. He doesn't have to give a paper on Monday. He is a lover--he does it for love," Mayer said.
"I knew nothing about the limitations of astronomy, and this is why I will be in San Diego. This is why I will try to enthuse people down there to embrace the same philosophy that I have always felt and lived by."
It is Mayer's admitted passion for astronomy that is leading him on this particular campaign. He wants to show astrologers how easy it is to "collect starlight" on film, using a coat hanger, some plastic wrap and a star map to find their way in a simple system he outlines in "Starwatch" for people who love the stars as much as he does.
"I'd like to have them, when they go out in the desert or on the roof of their house, say, 'Oh, God, look up there! It's the constellation Saggitarius--it looks like a teapot!' "
Mayer's enthusiasm poured through the telephone in a German-accented melody.
"Go out some night . . . to a dark-sky location and look at the heavens," he urged. "It's like a sky filled with diamonds spread out on a velvet black cloth--and anybody can play in this sandbox filled with diamonds."
If his friends in astronomy look askance at his communion with astrologers, Mayer is not likely to be concerned.