When he was 12, Jack independently discovered the rings of Saturn with his two-inch refractor telescope. When he was 22, he built his first telescope, which turned out to be the largest in Winnipeg. Today, at 61, he leads expeditions to watch all manner of eclipses, beta tests star-finding software, and sits on the board of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific as the only non-Ph.D. There are six supernovae and six astronomy books that bear his name. His astrophotography, particularly his pictures of the sun, has been published everywhere.
About four years ago, Jack decided to retire early from Marks & Spencer, in Victoria,where he'd worked as a store manager for most of his life, and open the Observatory B&B with his wife, Alice. It wasn't a particularly hard decision. More than 5,000 astronomy buffs, including several unannounced busloads of German tourists, had already traipsed through their living room and into their observatory on Vancouver Island; charging for it and serving a hot meal seemed like the logical next step. They concluded that Osoyoos, an unfussy, fifties-style lake destination just north of the Washington State border, was the ideal spot. Because it is located in Canada's only desert, Osoyoos offers ample clear evenings to stargaze. (It also offers a range of activities for indulgent spouses who can't be bothered with astronomy: swimming, waterskiing, boating, biking, golfing, and winery hopping.)
The Newton home sits at the near-peak of a 5,000-foot mountain, far above the light pollution of the town below, and the only high-hanging light fixture on the property is a solitary 40-watt bulb above the porch. ("Because the law requires it," says Jack.) Inside, it's hard not to notice certain recurring motifs: the dining room table is covered with sun place mats and starry napkins; Alice buzzes about the house in an apron covered in planets; Jack's photos of assorted galaxies hang on the living room walls; and the comfortable guest quarters—the Moon Room, the Eclipse Suite, and the Saturn Suite—are accented with star rugs and moon night-lights, planet shower curtains and sun tissue boxes.
But the real giveaway that the Newton house sits in a universe apart is the conversation. "It's wild," says Jack. "Especially when it's all techie." No one chats in strained platitudes at this B&B breakfast table; it's all strictly celestial stuff, and Jack has satchels of stories. Ask him someday about the time he captured, on his own film, the giant oxygen clouds streaming out of Apollo 14 on its way to the moon. Or about all the intelligence he has pried out of American military officials. "They're sworn to secrecy, but they leak just enough," he says. "And I know how to bait 'em." Once, he casually mentioned to a general that he'd seen three satellites flying in formation over Big Pine Key, Florida, during a winter star party. "I was on that project," the man responded, astonished. "We were looking for Soviet subs."
And then there's the vocabulary of astronomy itself. Solar prominences, the Cat's Eye Nebula, the Magellanic Clouds. The largest moons of Jupiter (Callisto, Io, Europa, Ganymede), the comets from the Oort Cloud, the asteroids of the Kuiper Belt. Astronomers live with the whole universe pulsing and swirling in their heads, making it possible for them to look through the eyepiece and see more than just grime.
"I'm very attracted to people who like astronomy," says Alice, who tells a great story herself (and makes a killer breakfast). "I appreciate the humor and the whimsy. And the passion. They're certainly not in it for the money."
Alice had tried to dissuade me from reserving for the fall weekend I did: the moon would be nearly full—light pollution. But the only other available weekend, I couldn't go.
I should have found a way. Our first morning, a thick sheet of cloud has sealed off the sky. The weather does not clear in the evening. So all of us grab a glass of wine and pile into the Newtons' home movie theater, tricked out with three tiers of club chairs and a 65-inch high-definition TV, for a presentation of Jack's photographs. It's not the same as milling about in his $100,000 observatory, but I'mmesmerized, and Jack has a lyrical flair. Comets are "dirty snowballs, as hell-bent as sperm." One cubic centimeter of a particular star "weighs as much as an aircraft carrier." A black hole "can't be photographed, though I can tell you what's going on in the neighborhood."
Jack reminds us, "There are another 200 billion galaxies in the universe, so if someone says, 'We're alone in the universe,' give your head a shake. It's mathematically impossible." I realize, with some sadness, that the last time I'd actually sat through a lecture about something I knew nothing about, I was still in college. I feel grateful. And I feel certain I'll be back.
Another couple, the Pfeiffers, clearly feel the same way. "This is the most wonderful B&B I've ever been in," declares Randi, a jeweler, as she hugs her hosts good-bye. "As soon as we get home, we're going to call, and you can tell us the best week to come next year, astrologically."
"Astrololologically. Whatever. You know what I mean."
Jack thanks her, gives me a smile, shrugs. "They're new."