various astronomy-related historical images

Biennial History of Astronomy Workshop - ND VI June 19-22, 2003

Abstracts (listed alphabetically)

Andrew Bell, Independent Scholar
“Ambitious Precision: Henry Rowland's Catalog of the Solar Spectrum”
Henry Augustus Rowland's comprehensive catalog of the solar spectrum played a key role in establishing the foundation of modern astrophysics. His ruling engines (together with his invention of the concave diffraction grating) also made him the preeminent supplier of precision instrumentation to the entire first generation of professional astrophysicists, both in the U.S. and Europe. Rowland was famously proud of these achievements ­ perhaps infamously so.

In this paper, I look in some detail at Rowland's claims for the accuracy and precision of his fundamental catalog. Working from the early papers and laboratory notebooks of Rowland's students and research assistants, I have reconstructed the experimental basis for these claims and am examining the sources and relative weights of certain measurement uncertainties (angles of diffraction and line-spacing for the gratings) underlying the calculation of the original wavelength standards.

Marvin Bolt, Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum
“Naming New Worlds” (poster paper)
Herschel's sighting of Uranus in 1781, his subsequent detection of a few of its satellites, and the later discovery of asteroids surprised astronomers and challenged them to work out a system of naming these new worlds. These findings also provided opportunities for science popularizers, who showed the need of general audiences to keep up to date by including and highlighting recent discoveries in new editions of their texts and on improved versions of some of their orreries and armillaries. The Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum's historical collection includes several interesting examples of texts and instruments displaying the novel findings and the variety of labels applied to the new heavenly objects. This poster paper includes many close-up images of several of these materials, including an updated grand orrery (orig. 1740, upgraded ca. 1800) featuring Herschel's spurious observations of 4 Uranian moons. The most intriguing of these illustrates an interesting Copernican armillary (ca. 1850) that includes reference to an unknown world named “Taurus,” an explanation for which I hope will appear during the course of this workshop with the help of those who attend.

John Britton
“On the Origin of the 251 Month Anomalistic Period Relation”
Three anomalistic period relations of the form, p_synodic months (m) = q_anomalistic months (ma) are attested in Babylonian lunar, namely:

14m = 15ma (1.1)
251m = 269ma [System B] (1.2)
6247m = 6695ma. [System A] (1.3)

Of these the first is clearly a crude approximation, attested only in an atypical function using rounded parameters, while the third appears to have been an insensible variant of the second, introduced for theoretical convenience. The second, however, which indirectly underlies System A and appears explicitly in System B, is very nearly dead accurate, raising questions of how it might have been derived and to what extent its accuracy may have been due to luck.

My talk addresses these questions and specifically whether and how this very accurate period relation could have been derived from the so-called “lunar four” - systematic measurements of the intervals between sunrise and moonset and moonrise and sunset on either side of full moon, denoted in texts as SÚ, NA, ME, and GE6. It concludes that this fundamental period relation was indeed probably derived from such observations, and that it was empirically indistinguishable with any confidence from (1.3).

Peter Broughton, Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
“Eavesdropping on Two Harvard Graduate Students in 1929-30”
In 1929-30, Helen Sawyer was working on her PhD, under the supervision of Harlow Shapley, Director of the Harvard College Observatory. Her fiancé, Frank Hogg, had just completed his doctorate as a student of Cecilia Payne and was now on a Harvard traveling scholarship, visiting several European and American observatories. Helen and Frank wrote to each other almost daily and these treasured love letters are now in the Archives of the University of Toronto where they were astronomers for most of their lives. A sampling will be given of what these letters reveal about Helen and Frank, their times, their colleagues and acquaintances.

The Hogg Papers found at the University of Toronto serve as a reminder that sources which comment on third parties may be useful but do not come readily to mind. Perhaps suggestions will be forthcoming as to how the contents of such unimagined sources can best be made known. I have transcribed parts of these letters which I thought were of potential interest to historians of astronomy. Anyone curious to know what, if anything, Helen and Frank had to say about specific astronomer(s) at this time period, is welcome to contact me either before, during, or after the NDVI meeting and I will provide you with any significant and relevant quotes from the correspondence. If you contact me ahead of time, I may be able to incorporate your interest in my presentation.

Dan Burton, University of North Alabama
“Nicole Oresme's On Seeing the Stars: The Discovery of the Curvature of Light Through the Atmosphere”
As light crosses the atmosphere between the stars and our eyes, how does it travel and what is its path? The medieval natural philosopher Nicole Oresme answered, it travels on a curve. In his recently discovered treatise entitled: De visione stellarum (= On Seeing the Stars), Oresme wrestles with a fundamental question: “Are the stars really where they seem to be?” Using perspectivist optics, Oresme ultimately answered that they are not. Two centuries before the Scientific Revolution, Oresme proposed the qualitatively correct solution to the problem of atmospheric refraction, that light travels along a curve through a medium of uniformly varying density, and he arrived at this solution using infinitesimals. This solution had escaped both Ptolemy and Alhazen. It had even escaped Kepler in the 17th century, and up to now, the credit for its first discovery has been given to Hooke and its mathematical resolution to Newton. This previously undetected milestone in the history of astronomy and optics once again confirms that Oresme was one of the most innovative scientists of the pre-modern world. Near the end of his treatise, Oresme realized there were deeper implications to his study of atmospheric refraction; he concluded that nearly nothing in the heavens or on earth is seen where it truly is, calling all visual sense data into doubt.

Harry Collins, Cardiff University
“15 levels of Evidence”
There are 15 levels of evidence used by scientists and historians/sociologists alike. These run from published papers to the participant observer's sense, shared with the community, of what makes sense in science at some particular time. Certain papers in gravitational wave physics, that would look terrifically impressive to an alien, have never been read (literally), and this makes their value to the community zero. The historian cannot just take a document and read its value from its contents. Topics I will introduce will be to do with the relationship between reliability and validity, and how these are related to various kinds of written and spoken source material.

David DeVorkin
“Historical Artifacts Displayed in the Explore the Universe Gallery - How We Got 'Em” (poster paper)
Poster presentation identifying the major historical artifacts collected for the permanent exhibition “Explore the Universe” at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. This presentation will be accompanied by projected PowerPoint shows depicting the process of acquiring and displaying these objects. Major objects include Herschel's original 20-foot telescope and 18.5 inch speculum, a Huygens lens from the 17th century, the Newtonian Cage from the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson, the Hubble Space Telescope's back-up mirror, an original spectrum of one of the first objects to be identified as a QSO, from Maarten Schmidt, etc.

Matt Dowd, University of Notre Dame
“Robert Grosseteste and Astronomy in the Medieval University”
This paper reports on dissertation research into two works by Robert Grosseteste, his De spera and his Compotus correctorius, the first an introduction to astronomy and the second a calendrical work. I argue that both of these texts were written as textbooks for use in the early university at Oxford. I shall discuss especially the influence that the university setting had on the composition of the texts.

John Britton; Dennis Duke, Florida State University; Raphael Patton, St. Mary's College of California; Keith Pickering
“A Zodiacal Armillary Sphere”
A zodiacal armillary sphere has been constructed according to the description left by Ptolemy in Almagest 5.1. This is the instrument Ptolemy claims to have used to measure several lunar and planetary positions, as well as the coordinates in the Almagest star catalogue. The instrument is a full-size (as far as we know) completely working model (a photo is at The speakers will give a description of their experiences with the instrument, plus any implications they see for our understanding of the history of ancient astronomy. The instrument will be left on exhibit during the entire workshop, in order to let attendees use it themselves at their leisure. In addition, if circumstances permit, we will organize an evening session to allow interested users to use the instrument to measure coordinates of the Moon, planets, or stars.

John Britton; Dennis Duke, Florida State University; Keith Pickering; Dennis Rawlins, DIO; John Steele, University of Toronto
“Recent Results in Ancient Astronomy”
Topics include issues surrounding the discovery of the anomalistic period relation 251m=269ma (Britton), high precision fits to planetary and lunar mean motions (Rawlins), re-identification of some entries in the Ancient Star Catalog (Pickering), and recent results on Hipparchus (Duke). Each speaker will also mention the opportunities they see for future progress in their area.

Sven Dupré, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
“Digges, Bourne, and a Sixteenth Century Telescopic Project”
Was there a reflecting telescope in the sixteenth century? Ronan and, more recently, Rienitz have argued that the Elizabethan mathematicians Digges and Bourne were successful at making a primitive reflecting telescope, made of a convex lens and a concave mirror, around 1570. A telescope at such an early date raises many questions, such as (1) did lens and mirror-making techniques of that period allow to make the lenses and mirrors needed for this kind of telescopic design?, (2) how did they arrive at this particular and somewhat unusual design?, and (3) why did it not become a mass-produced instrument like the refracting telescope about 40 years later? It will be argued that contextualizing this instrument, not within a history of the telescope, but within sixteenth century optical practice, is a promising way to answer such questions. It will be shown that the optical knowledge of contemporaneous practitioners explains not only why Digges and Bourne choose this unusual design, and the specific properties of this design, but that it also accounts for its internal limitations that inhibited it to become a mass-product. Moreover, it will be shown that, during the sixteenth century, projects were formulated to develop the machinery necessary to make lenses and mirrors useful for telescopic purposes. The Elizabethan telescopic project will be compared to similar projects, like Della Porta's and Sarpi's. This will help to outline for which purposes this “telescope” was thought to be useful.

Dana Freiburger, University of Wisconsin-Madison, in liaison with David Patten, Witherley (nr. Atherstone), England
“John Thompson and Question 290 Revisited”
At NDIV in 1999, I presented a poster paper titled “John Thompson, English Philomath - A Question of Land Surveying and Astronomy” that explored his land surveying skills in connection with his knowledge of astronomy set in the small English town of Atherstone. When, in 1765, a three acre error in common field land allocation was made as part of the Atherstone Enclosure, Thompson re-surveyed the disputed property and exposed the first surveyor's error; he then used this surveying data coupled with his astronomy knowledge to create Question 290 (Q290) for the 1766 Gentleman's Diary. Q290 utilized astronomy as an essential element in this challenging mathematical question and Thompson enjoyed posturing over the “unmathematical bunglers” of the first survey as well as displaying his own clear astronomical talent to the recreational readers of the Gentleman's Diary. Thus, as a historical document, Q290 presents us with valuable information from both the social and scientific perspective.

After that meeting, my research on Q290 caught the attention of a resident of Atherstone and we have since worked together to investigate further details associated with this 18th century affair, culminating in my visit to Atherstone this past January. From our shared interest and study of Thompson, I want to now revisit John Thompson and Q290 for this NDVI meeting in order to share new insights on Thompson and his astronomical talent.

Robert H. van Gent, University of Utrecht
“The Dutch Transit of Venus Expeditions of 1874 and 1882”
In 1874 and 1882 the Dutch astronomical institutes of Leiden and Utrecht organized scientific expeditions to observe the transit of Venus across the solar disk as part of an international campaign to obtain a more precise value for the solar parallax. The members of the 1874 expedition traveled to the Indian Ocean and set up a well-equipped observation camp on the island of Réunion. The 1882 expedition consisted of a single naval officer who was instructed to observe from the island of Curaçao (West Indies). In my paper I will discuss the preparations of the expeditions, give details on the instruments and the observing techniques adopted by the Dutch astronomers and of course report on the results that were obtained at these events.

Robert J. Havlik, Emeritus Librarian, University Of Notre Dame
“The University Of Notre Dame And The 1874 And 1882 Transits Of Venus”
The next transit of Venus will be on June 8, 2004. It will only be partially visible in the Mid-west. The two previous transits were on December 9, 1874 and December 6, 1882. The first of these was not visible in the Mid-west, but the second, clouds permitting, was observable. This, however, did not diminish the enthusiasm of the general public, students and faculty for information on the events. Both faculty and students published numerous newspaper pieces about the history of the event and their experience in observing the visible transit. This paper summarizes some of the contributions made by Notre Dame at the time, including several humorous printed comments.

Thomas Hockey
The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers: A Work-in- Progress Poster Paper” (poster paper)
The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers will be a first-of-its-kind multi-volume book, and WWW site, that hopefully will fulfill a long-standing need in the history-of-astronomy community and in reference libraries. Here I will present the Table of Contents publicly for the first time, and solicit comment and criticism from the HAW community.

Keith Lafortune
“Women at the Harvard College Observatory: Preliminary Findings from the Observatory Personnel Records, 1877-1919”
During Edward Pickering's directorship of the Harvard College Observatory (1877 ­ 1919), that institution was remarkable both for its prolific output of astronomical data and its unusual staff of assistants. The Observatory's output included the landmark Draper Catalogues of Stellar Spectra; the assistants who classified the spectra were predominantly women.

This is a paper about the wealth of personnel and payroll data from the Pickering era that has recently become accessible to researchers. Since the Harvard University Archives enforce an eighty-year blackout on the release of University personnel records, complete data for the wages and workweeks of Pickering's women assistants is only now available.

While earlier studies of Pickering's women assistants have focused on the specifics of the women's work and the limitations women faced as they entered a traditionally male scientific field, this paper (based on research for my M. A. thesis) uses the Observatory's personnel data to fill in the details of women's experiences there: How many women actually worked at the H. C. O. during the Pickering era? Where did the women come from and how did they find themselves working in astronomy? How do the payroll records corroborate arguments about the limitations women encountered at the H. C. O. and how do the data suggest that these arguments need to be revised?

Jordan D. Marché II, University of Wisconsin-Madison
“'Popular' Journals and Community in American Astronomy, 1882-1951”
Popularization, a practice traditionally denigrated among professional scientists, nonetheless fulfills several important roles beyond those recognized within the culturally dominant view. Popular or trade journals communicate research findings from areas beyond the expertise of specialist practitioners. In that capacity, they represent a significant if unrecognized component of the process of disciplinary professionalization and community-building.

This case study examines the roles of Popular Astronomy, and its predecessor, The Sidereal Messenger, both founded and edited by Carleton College astronomer William W. Payne (1837-1928). Two significant attributions can be assigned to Payne's monthly publications: (a) the pair acquired significant readerships as the discipline's first American trade journals; while (b) they not only served to chronicle professional advancements, but also fostered the cultivation, construction, and critique of those developments, including pedagogical issues. Created during times of rapid institutional growth and significant changes in research practices, Payne's journals both aided the formation and sustained the activities of the American astronomical community, from the late nineteenth through the first half of the twentieth centuries.

I. Pustylnik, Tartu Observatory, Estonia
“Ernst Julius Öpik (1893-1985)”
Ernst Julius Öpik is one of the outstanding figures in XXth century astronomy. An author of more than 800 articles, numerous books and monographs with their topics ranging from the smallest bodies of the solar system to the fundamental problems of cosmology, he astonished his contemporaries with an unbelievable wide scope of knowledge. He was “at home in the sciences and music, in art or literature, the classics or modern languages, in history or politics...” (E.M. Lindsay 1972). Born in Estonia, due to a grim whim of fate he was compelled to leave his homeland at the peak of his scientific career and at the crossroads of historic battles for survival of democracy. An early period of scientific career of E. Öpik in Estonia is of a special interest since undoubtedly he played a crucial role in the twenties and thirties as a founder of school of astrophysics and stellar astronomy in Tartu Observatory. Here we attempt to outline in brief the most important aspects of the scientific legacy of E. Öpik with a special emphasis on his pioneering investigations from the pre-war period - a) cosmological distance scale and a first reliable determination of the distance to Andromeda nebula, b) double star statistics with important evolutionary implications, c) theoretical studies of meteor orbits and observations, introduction of double-counting method, d) elaboration of multicolour photometry equivalent to the modern three color broad band photometric system, e) introduction of the models of unmixed convective cores of red giants stars and elucidation of their origin.

We discuss also briefly in a historic retrospective an intriguing question of scientific priority of some E. Öpik's discoveries.

Matthew Stanley, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University
“'An Expedition to Heal the Wounds of War:' the 1919 Eclipse and Eddington as Quaker Adventurer”
This paper will address the social and political context around a pivotal moment in twentieth-century astronomy, the 1919 eclipse expedition's confirmation of general relativity. This is often celebrated as a triumph of internationalism in astronomy, a field which was often self-congratulatory for being inherently beyond national borders. However, British astronomical opinion during World War I leaned toward the permanent severance of intellectual ties with Germany. That the expedition became remembered as a progressive moment of Internationalism was largely the result of the efforts of A.S. Eddington. Eddington was a devout Quaker, and he imported into the astronomical community the strategies being used by his co-religionists in the national dialogue: humanize the enemy through personal contact and dramatic projects that highlight the value of peace and cooperation. I also address the common misconception in both popular conception and academic work (such as Earman and Glymour's paper on the expedition) that Eddington's sympathy for Einstein led him to intentionally misinterpret the expedition's results. The evidence gives no reason to think that Eddington or his co-workers were anything but rigorous. Eddington's pacifism is not to be found in manipulated data, but in the meaning of the expedition and how it entered our memory as a celebration of international cooperation in the wake of war.

David Strauss, Kalamazoo College
“The Utility of a Thematic Approach to History of Science Biography”
In coping with Percival Lowell as a biographical subject, I emphasized thematic rather than chronological organization. My paper will consider how this approach illuminated his life and career, while suggesting that other history of science biographers might adopt a similar organization for appropriate subjects and under the right circumstances.

In thematic and chronological approaches, the biographer draws on the same material, but constructs different stories by organizing the material differently. The thematic biographer deals with a single issue or theme fully before moving on to another one. Invariably, this theme orientation requires some violation of chronology since most subjects will be engaged in several projects or issues at the same time.

Biographers should take into account two factors before embarking on thematic studies. First, such an approach makes particular sense for subjects like Lowell who have simultaneously pursued diverse projects in apparently unrelated fields and experienced dramatic changes in personal circumstances which impinge directly on their scientific activity. Second, a thematic biography can build nicely on a standard account, which is available for readers who want to view the career both in thematic and sequential fashion.

In a maturing discipline like history of astronomy, new approaches to organizing biographies can yield interesting results. As more chronological accounts are written, it should be possible to focus attention on themes and issues. Even so, chronology will remain an important tool in treating each theme. In fact, a thematic biography will usually take the form of successive chronological accounts.

Christopher Turner
“A Report on Archaeoastronomical Research at the Hopeton Earthworks, Ross Co., Ohio”
South-central Ohio is host to a series of large earthworks whose purpose has challenged Americans since 1700. With the publication of two seminal papers in the early 1980s by Hively and Horn of Earlham College, it has become increasingly accepted that these earthen monuments delineate horizon calendar sightlines. These “geometrical mounds” were constructed by Native Americans of the Hopewell Culture over a 400-year period, beginning circa 50 BC. Fortunately, several of these sites, including the Hopeton Earthworks, were purchased by the National Park Service about a decade ago. Since then, archaeological research has dramatically increased the knowledge of these amazing monuments.

In my own efforts, I have endeavored to combine results from different branches of archaeology, this in an attempt to present a more plausible argument entailing a greater scope. It is the bane of archaeoastronomical studies to find papers offering one-dimensional interpretations, heavy on “numbers crunching,” short on cultural insights. Equally onerous are presentations which rely on a bevy of maps, these scribed with the mélange of perfunctory “alignments.”

This presentation will seek to establish four main points. First, that the Hopewell enclosures arose out of smaller Adena earthworks developing regionally from about 500 BC. Secondly, that the Hopewell were undergoing a period of resource intensification (incipient agriculture) coeval with the commencement of the Middle Woodland period (100 BC ­ AD 400). Third, I will present slides taken at the earthworks themselves, indicating the accuracy of the various solstice sightlines. And lastly, I will give results of probabilistic analyses of the proposed Hopeton sightlines.

Rienk Vermij, University of Utrecht
“The Leiden Interpretation of Copernicus' Theory of the Universe”
In recent years, the 'Wittenberg interpretation' of Copernicus' theory has come to be seen as something like the standard reading of his work in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: while Copernicus was praised for his astronomical work, his ideas on the constitution of the universe were largely downplayed. It appears however that in the Dutch Republic, mainly under the influence of Leiden scholarship (Scaliger, Snellius), people took a somewhat different view. The astronomical details of Copernicus' theories were regarded with some scepticism. His work aroused interest mainly for its novel ideas on the world's system. His ideas on the harmonious ordering of the cosmos were widely shared. True, only a few people, notably Stevin and Lansbergen, became convinced heliocentrists because of this, but other aspects, especially the heliocentric orbs of Venus and Mercury, became a standard view. This positive attitude to Copernicus' cosmographical ideas appears connected with the organisation of learning in the Dutch Republic, in particular the fact that theological influence was minimised.

Craig B. Waff (Encyclopedia Americana), Nicholas Kollerstrom (University College London), and William Sheehan (Independent Scholar)
“The Prediction and Discovery of Neptune: Brilliant Deduction or Illusion of Precision?”
Johann Gottfried Galle's discovery, on 23 September 1846, of Neptune very near the positions predicted for a hypothetical transuranian planet by Urbain Le Verrier and John Couch Adams has often been portrayed as one of the crowning achievements of celestial mechanics. Studies of more than 500 Neptune-relevant letters that we have assembled for a projected collected edition, however, have suggested a more tempered assessment of the event that we present here. The possibility that Uranus's anomalous motion might be caused by a disturbing planet was widely entertained in the 1830s and early 1840s, but contemporary astronomers with the most knowledge of celestial mechanics, such as Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, Peter Hansen, and George Airy, appreciated the complexity of the disturbance and the likely wide zone surrounding a mathematically predicted position within which a planet might be discovered. Given this situation, James Challis's thorough but quite laborious telescopic search for the predicted planet, instigated by Airy, can now be seen as a quite proper approach. Le Verrier's and Adams's estimates of the distance of the hypothetical planet from the sun, which proved to be quite different from Neptune's actual distance, serendipitously did not greatly affect their predicted positions for the 1846 period, and this led to the illusion of prediction precision generally perceived immediately after Neptune's optical discovery. For other times, however, they might have suggested a position in the sky much farther away from the actual planet and led to a far more difficult optical discovery than that made by Galle.

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