Rod Stubbings – Patience, Persistence and Purpose

In early February this year, Rod Stubbings wrote to me to tell me he had discovered a new Z Cam star. Since this was his independent discovery, he wanted to write a paper on it, and asked if I would be a co-author, since I was, as he put it, the “Godfather of Z Cam stars.”

He explained in an email that he had selected this star, OQ Carinae, from a list of CVs whose optical behavior was essentially unknown at the time. “I just noticed OQ Car in in one of the CV catalogs when I was adding more dwarf novae to my observing list,” Rod explained. “Being an under-studied dwarf nova is what interested me. I was searching for every dwarf nova that was basically ignored and wanted to find out how they behaved.”

No one else was paying attention to what seemed to most a garden-variety dwarf nova. Nearly all the data ever collected on this star were Rod’s visual observations. “My first observation of OQ Car was on July 16, 2000, so it’s been almost 14 years.”

So, what motivates an observer to keep observing a star that no one else thinks is interesting or worthy of his or her time? “I like detecting outbursts and I soon realized that OQ Car was very active, so it was always good for an outburst,” said Rod.  

But in January OQ Car began to behave differently. Rod was the only one watching. “I knew the star very well and after a normal outburst around 14.2 it had its usual fade to around 14.6. I expected it to fade further the next night. It didn’t; it stayed at 14.7 for a few nights and I thought, ‘now this could be interesting.’ After a week at the same brightness I knew it was in standstill. Two weeks later there was no doubt.”

His patience and persistence had paid off. By the time Rod contacted me OQ Car had been in standstill for 30 days. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind he had discovered a new Z Cam star either.

Now Rod wanted to write his first paper as a primary author. He explained the motivation, “I knew no one else was observing OQ Car. Basically, 90% of the observations were mine over a 14-year study. I have always wanted to write a paper myself, so this was the perfect opportunity to present what I had found.”

Rod learned it takes some patience and persistence when it comes to getting a paper accepted by a peer-reviewed journal too. “When the first remarks came back from the referee I was a bit surprised,” said Rod. “It was so obvious to me it was a Z Cam, as I had observed this star for over 14 years. What I learned is that you can have all the observational data you think is necessary, but you still have to make your case and prove it in the paper.”

After some minor revisions were made and additional data were added, the paper was accepted to the JAAVSO and the pre-print was published on arXiv March 4, 2014. OQ Carinae: A New Southern Z Cam Type Dwarf Nova, by Rod Stubbings and Mike Simonsen,

Rod's discovery story is a testament to the value of patience, persistence and visual observations. He has given his visual observing program purpose by learning about the potential targets that are out there to observe, and what there is to learn from them. Then by consistently, purposefully observing those objects year after year he has contributed to science and made a discovery only he can claim. It doesn’t matter that a CCD might have been more precise, or been able to measure OQ Car at fainter magnitudes. You can’t go back and measure the outbursts, quiescences and the one standstill in the history of this star with a CCD. It’s too late. It’s a good thing Rod was observing with his eye at the eyepiece night after night.

He has some advice for visual observers who might be feeling overwhelmed by the digital detector revolution. “I know we are in the era of so many robotic surveys covering the sky but there is still plenty of work for visual observers. Instead of wondering what to do, make up our own projects on variable stars. For example, ASAS3 has been around for a long time and collected data on so many stars you might ask, why observe them? I have been looking at the ASAS3 light curves and noticed a lot of stars with incomplete light curves or in some cases no observations.”

I asked him recently what other under-observed or under-appreciated stars he might be monitoring. He told me, “I started to observe SY Vol in July 2000 (also 14 years ago) which has never been monitored well. But so far it has shown typical dwarf nova behavior, although not as active as OQ Car.”

“The Wolf Rayet star WR 53 is a total mystery to me,” he added. “It's not listed in VSX because it is a constant star as observed by ASAS and other CCD data, yet I see variations as well as other visual observers. At one stage my observations were showing an RR Lyrae star, but it's a Wolf Rayet star. Then I have a stage where it was constant at 10.6 for months, and lately it’s started to vary again. I don't understand this one, but I will keep watching.”

Who knows what other interesting behavior visual observers might detect patiently and persistently observing their objects of interest night after night, year after year. One thing is certain. If you’re not looking, you won’t see it.

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