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Professor emeritus Gordon Walker casts a shadow over a projected image of Jupiter, which has roughly the same mass as the exoplanet he discovered. (DARRYL DYCK)
Professor emeritus Gordon Walker casts a shadow over a projected image of Jupiter, which has roughly the same mass as the exoplanet he discovered. (DARRYL DYCK)

Lost world: How Canada missed its moment of glory Add to ...

"It was deadly," Prof. Walker says of the psychological challenge. "You never knew from one night to the next if you were observing anything. You could only tell when the data were reduced, about once a year, whether we were seeing trends."

But by 1987, they believed they were seeing something no earthling had before - stellar wobbles caused by orbiting planets. That summer, at a press conference at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Vancouver, Mr. Campbell announced their preliminary results. They showed a half-dozen stellar wobbles, but one star's motion was particularly intriguing: that of gamma Cephei.

It was a fitting star for the Canadians. Bright and located 45 light years away, gamma Cephei is visible from Canada year-round, shining in the night sky near Polaris, the pole star. Mr. Campbell described how, from their detailed measurements, they'd seen that gamma Cephei had a periodic 2.5-year-long wobble. As viewed from Earth, the star appeared to move toward us and then away - evidence, they thought, of a gravitational waltz with an otherwise invisible exoplanet.

"I presided over Campbell's press conference and remember to this day the charged atmosphere and excitement that greeted his announcement," says Steve Maran, who recently retired as the long-time press officer for the American Astronomical Society.

The New York Times headline read Planets Outside Solar System Hinted. "They were calling us planet hunters. We were on the track," Bruce Campbell recalls from his island home near Victoria.

His professional colleagues weren't as impressed. One astronomer told The New York Times he wouldn't call anything a planet until he could walk on it. No one even attempted to confirm the results.

Rather than a high point, Prof. Walker says, the press conference was the beginning of the end. It increased the pressure to squeeze results from a project that, by nature, was deeply long-term.

NIO HARD EVIDENCE, NO REAL JOB

Two years later, the team still had nothing conclusive and, worse, Mr. Campbell didn't have a secure job.

A Vancouver native, he was determined to keep his family in the area, but a decade of effort had not led to a permanent position at UBC, UVic or the National Research Council's Victoria-based Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics.

The problem "had a lot to do with the fact that planet-searching was still not above the radar," Prof. Walker says. "It all started to unravel."

Further alienating Canada's astronomy establishment, Mr. Campbell publicly bemoaned the state of astronomy funding in Canada. Disheartened and distanced from the academic community, he took a final, renegade approach with the help of an influential supporter - the guru of popular astronomy and a leader in the search for extraterrestrial life, Carl

Sagan.

The two met as members of a panel at the U of T in the late 1980s, and "I remember telling Carl Sagan, 'We think we're going to be able to do this.' He was somewhat incredulous at first, but then I convinced him and he became a great friend and supporter."

Buoyed by the great man's endorsement, Mr. Campbell raised $125,000 privately to support an endowed chair in planet-hunting at UVic. However, matching funds were required from the federal government, whose guidelines at the time specified that only tenure-track professors could qualify, not an adjunct professor such as Mr. Campbell.

This was in 1991, and at the age of 42, he decided that a salary and family stability were more important to him. "When it all came to naught," Mr. Campbell says, "I decided to walk away."

When he did, he went supernova. In a final burst of anger, and a major breach of research etiquette, he erased his university computer account, deleting a decade's worth of analyzed data. Then he turned his back on the uncertainty of the stars and took up one of life's great certainties: taxes.

"It was the advent of electronic filing of tax returns in Canada that got me involved," he says, describing how he became a personal tax consultant. "Many accountants were hesitant to get into computers, and I pretty much knew how computers worked, so I had the edge there."

Although stunned by the loss of his colleague, Prof. Walker pressed ahead. It took almost a year of painstaking work for Prof. Yang, fortunately by then also UVic's computer-systems manager, and colleague Alan Irwin, to recover the lost data.

When that was done, Prof. Walker came to a conclusion about the most promising of the possible exoplanets, the one around gamma Cephei.

In a 1992 paper, he and several co-authors said the star's 2.5-year "wobble" was probably due simply to its own expansion and contraction.

"Nobody," says Berkeley's Geoff Marcy, "argued with Gordon Walker … that the data warranted the proclamation of a planet being detected."

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