Looking for supernovae is mostly a matter of not finding them. From 1980 to 1996 he averaged two discoveries a year—not a huge payoff for hundreds of nights of peering and peering. Once he found three in fifteen days, but another time he went three years without finding any at all.
"There is actually a certain value in not finding anything," he said. "It helps cosmologists to work out the rate at which galaxies are evolving. It's one of those rare areas where the absence of evidenceis evidence."
On a table beside the telescope were stacks of photos and papers relevant to his pursuits, and he showed me some of them now. If you have ever looked through popular astronomical publications, and at some time you must have, you will know that they are generally full of richly luminous color photos of distant nebulae and the like—fairy-lit clouds of celestial light of the most delicate and moving splendor.
Evans's working images are nothing like that. They are just blurry black-and-white photos with little points of haloed brightness. One he showed me depicted a swarm of stars with a trifling flare that I had to put close to my face to see. This, Evans told me, was a star in a constellation called Fornax from a galaxy known to astronomy as NGC1365. (NGC stands for New General Catalogue, where these things are recorded.
Once it was a heavy book on someone's desk in Dublin; today, needless to say, it's a database.) For sixty million silent years, the light from the star's spectacular demise traveled unceasingly through space until one night in August of 2001 it arrived at Earth in the form of a puff of radiance, the tiniest brightening, in the night sky. It was of course Robert Evans on his eucalypt-scented hillside who spotted it.