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Where Do Observer Codes Come From?

Posted by SXN on May 24, 2011 - 3:25pm

Since the very beginning, AAVSO observers have been assigned observer codes. These letter combinations are used to identify the individuals who have submitted data to the database for a number of reasons. For better or worse, once you have been assigned an observer code it is yours forever.

It was interesting to me to find out some of the stories behind the assignments of these codes. For example, how did I end up with the code SXN? Why do RASNZ observers nearly all have an ‘X’ at their end of their codes? Why do new observers have four letter codes now?
The first observers were assigned one letter observing codes. You may know some of the famous ones. Leslie Peltier was P, William Tyler Olcott was O, Giovanni Lacchini was L. The letter C was assigned to Leon Campbell in recent years for historical archiving purposes.
Who got the rest of the alphabet, and who were these people? Do you know any of them?
Luverne Armfield was assigned the letter A; Ferdinand Hartmann –H; Walter Inglis -I; Eugene H. Jones –J; Sigeru Kanda –K; Franklin Marsh –M; Henry Raphael –R; Franklin Smith –S;  and H. W. Vrooman –V.
Once those were essentially used up (there are some that weren't used; Q, U, Z and X for example) they began assigning two letter codes. We still have active observers who have older two letter codes. Some historical observers were, Clinton Ford -FD, Ed Oravec- OV, Wayne Lowder- LX, Carolyn Hurless- HR. Some present-day observers who are still active are Albert Jones- JA; Marv Baldwin- BM; and David Williams- WI.
All these codes were assigned by headquarters. The basic idea was to use the first letter of the last name and then the first letters of the first names. When these began to run out they began to assign three letter codes and got a little more creative. They were running out of letter combinations for "S" when I joined in 1998, so I didn't get SMA. That was assigned to some guy named Martin Schneider who made 13 observations between 1966 and 2004. So, I ended up with SXN. Even the X's started getting used up near the end of the line!
For the last three decades this job of assigning codes fell to Elizabeth Waagen. She was careful to try to not create words that would be inappropriate, even taking foreign languages into account as much as possible. “I did assign the letters SEX to a 19th century archival observer recently,” Elizabeth said, “Julius F. Schmidt is probably turning over in his grave.” 
Interestingly, almost all the RASNZ observers ended up with an X at the end of their codes. This happened because they already had two letter codes in the RASNZ, but when we began to import their data we needed to assign them new AAVSO codes. So, for the most part they ended up with their old two-letter code and an additional X at the end. Rod Stubbings SR, became SRX. Andrew Pearce became PEX, Peter Nelson became NLX, and so on.
I like to think of the codes as a secret handshake kind of deal. It’s something only we observers in the AAVSO know or care about, and it becomes even more exclusive with time, because it’s the active observers whose initials become familiar to you. When you become one of the active observers in the AAVSO you become a member of a special and relatively small clique of people. After a while we all recognize each other's observer codes when they show up in MyNewsFlash the CVnet Circular or other reports.
I’ve grown used to my initials. My wife says they stand for SeXy Nerd. I can live with that.


Someone should write  a song about that ;-)

Here's an interesting story for you. 

   Last week a couple of us from my Astronomy Club did a Star Party for a school class staying at a local campground. They had a great time and although sky conditions were poor I did show them a couple of Cepheids and Miras. They were particularly fascinated by how red R Leo was. 

   While discussing the type of Astronomy I like to do-mostly LPVs- I happened to mention the relatively small number of us who report visual obs.

   I got an e-mail from one of the kids parents. This week the class went on the AAVSO site and plotted some light curves of several of the stars I showed. They saw my name in the list of observers for R Leo and one of them got real excited and when she got home had her dad look up R Leo and pointed out my name in the observers list and identified "MDAV" as the astronomer who showed her and her dad the "Really , really red star".  

   It would appear that our observer codes put us in the "elite" category in their eyes and we can be considered friends by people we barely know.


Dave Majors

CCAS (Central Coast Astronomical Society)

San Luis Obispo, CA

AAVSO 49 Bay State Rd. Cambridge, MA 02138 617-354-0484