In May 1915, as Ernest Shackleton and the crew of Endurance entered their fourth month trapped in ice on the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea, the ship’s navigator added to the gloom by declaring the Sun would be absent from the sky for the next seventy days. You expect this at above 75° South; but then on the 8th of May something strange happened. The Sun reappeared – several times:
The sun, which had made “positively his last appearance” seven days earlier, surprised us by lifting more than half its disk above the horizon on May 8. A glow on the northern horizon resolved itself into the sun at 11 a.m. that day. A quarter of an hour later the unseasonable visitor disappeared again, only to rise again at 11.40 a.m., set at 1 p.m., rise at 1.10 p.m.. and set lingeringly at 1.20 p.m.
Ernest Shackleton, 19151
Shackleton understood the effects of atmospheric refraction, that temperature and density differences can bend light – especially near the horizon. At sunrise and sunset the disk of the Sun can appear distorted: lengthened or flattened, or displaced from its true position in the sky – where Newton put it.
Mariners knew about the phenomenon, and referenced standard refraction tables to correct sextant readings in navigation; but the system broke down below about 6 degrees, where refraction increased rapidly and non-linearly.
In this case, as Shackleton recorded in his journal, the Sun was 2 degrees and 37 minutes (2°37′) from its true position, 2 degrees more than any refraction table prediction. Plotting position from this observation would place the Endurance 120 miles from its actual location.
What Shackleton experienced was an extreme case of atmospheric refraction known as the Novaya Zemlya effect, first reported in 1597 by Gerrit De Veer2 , one of the crew on Willem Barent’s third voyage to discover a north-east passage. Obliged to hunker down for the polar winter in a safety hut or ‘Het Behouden Huijs‘ built on the Novaya Zemlya island chain north of Russia, De Veer reported the return of the post-winter Sun a whole two weeks before it should have been visible; it was in fact 5°26’ below the horizon. The same thing happened two days later, the Sun still, by the book, 4° below the horizon.
The Novaya Zemlya effect occurs in Arctic regions where tracts of cold air remain uniquely stable over hundreds of kilometers, creating a special instance of a meteorological temperature inversion. The distortion, powerful enough to bend light through four or five degrees, can make celestial bodies like the Sun or Moon appear wholly above the horizon when they are physically below it. (If you imagine looking at the horizon, five degrees is the same as ten Suns or Moons in a row.)
For hundreds of years, Gerrit De Veer’s solar observations, and equally his report of a curiously displaced conjunction of the Moon and Jupiter, were not believed. They said he must have counted the days wrong, or used the wrong sort of calendar. It took the corroborating reports of polar explorers like Shackleton and, as recently as 2003, ray-tracing simulations3 using contemporary atmospheric data, to vindicate De Veer fully.
Time Travel with Starry Night
I’ve set up my own simulations of the celestial events reported by Shackleton and De Veer using the planetarium software Starry Night. The program can’t reproduce the ray traced refraction effects modeled by van der Werf et al3 – whose validity I’m not equipped to comment on by the way, but it’s still satisfying to check the published numbers and get a feel for what the events looked like all those years ago.
Shackleton’s Solar Observation
First up, the view from the Endurance in 1915:
The horizon terrain here is generic Starry Night; apart from being icy-white, the true horizon would run perpendicular to and cross the graduated white Meridian line at zero (0) degrees. The green line is the Ecliptic. Things are clearer for our purposes, if less romantic, if we turn off the daylight effect and fancy terrain and zoom in a bit. It’s now clear the Sun was below the horizon when Shackleton reported seeing it: i.e. with reference to the Meridian on the left, the Sun looks about two and half degrees below the zero degree mark (Shackleton’s 2°37′):
Gerrit De Veer’s Solar Observation
Willem Barent’s crew, marooned 300 years earlier at the opposite end of the planet, made their observations from the ‘Behouden Huijs‘ at coördinates 76° 15.4′ North 68°18.6’ East, Novaya Zemlya. This view from the Huijs at 7 o’clock on the morning of 24th January 1597, shows the Sun was firmly below the horizon when Gerrit De Veer observed it – a whole 5°26′ below (horizon is perpendicular to the zero mark on the white Meridian line, green line is the Ecliptic):
Gerrit De Veer’s Moon-Jupiter Conjunction
The Moon-Jupiter conjunction reported by De Veer physically happened at 0:14 UT on 25th January 1597 (there is a small error in the 0:24 UT time given in the contemporary tables by Scala that De Veer used). Like astronomers today, De Veer identified the moment of conjunction as the time when a line drawn along the shadow separating light from dark on the moon’s surface, the terminator, pointed directly at Jupiter, as in this photograph I took of the Moon-Jupiter conjunction of 21 January 2012:
This is the Starry Night simulation of the De Veer conjunction:
The Moon is barely above the horizon and Jupiter is below it (again, reference the zero on the white Meridian line).
Gerrit De Veer saw this view, but over an hour after it happened: i.e. at 01:27 UT not 00:14 UT. As van der Werf’s analysis explains, De Veer reported the conjunction at 6 a.m. local time, which was 4:33 hours ahead of UT. Such was the unbelievable power of the Novaya Zemlya effect to make this happen that few indeed believed it. De Veer learned about the conjunction from his copy of the Ephemerides of Josephus Scala which gave times for Venice. Here we pick up the story in De Veer’s own words and the spellings of his 1609 translator William Phillip:
Whereupon we sought to knowe when the same coniunction should be ouer or about the house where we then were; and at last we found, yt the 24 day January was the same day whereon the coniunction aforesaid happened in Venice, at one of the clocke in the night [= 1 in the morning of 25th Jan], and with vs in the morning when ye sun was in the east: for we saw manifestly that the two planets aforesaid approached neere vnto each other, vntill such time as the moone and Jupiter stood ouer the other, both in the sign of Taurus, and that was at six of the clocke in the morning;at which time the moone and Jupiter were found by our compas to be in coniunction, ouer our house..
Gerrit De Veer 1597
Yet ray tracing the scenario 400 years later, with Jupiter two degrees below the horizon and the Moon just above it at conjunction, shows that atmospheric conditions raised Jupiter’s apparent position disproportionately to that of the Moon. Moreover, the simulation reproduced what De Veer saw at the time he saw it: a conjunction visible to him at around 02:00 UT. The ray tracing team made a further minor adjustment for the Equation of Time effect, which brought their estimate of when the conjunction was visible to De Veer as 06:20 local time, which is impressively close to his 06:00.)
One More Thing
Although Gerrit De Veer’s vindication now seems complete, there was one little alarm bell went off during my research, and that concerns De Veer’s reference to both the Moon and Jupiter being in the constellation of Taurus at the time of conjunction. Zooming in to see the 1597 conjunction against modern constellation boundaries puts it well into Aries. So what gives?
Maybe the constellation boundaries have changed; let’s have a look at Albrecht Dürer’s beautiful star chart from 1515. The belly of the bull tucks a little further under the ram than in modern charts, but the conjunction is still firmly in Aries.
Maybe the Moon made the stars in Aries harder to see that night, so instead De Veer focused on the sparkling Pleiades and Hyades clusters in Taurus; I’d probably do that if I were standing in a freezing Arctic wasteland staring at the sky at six in the morning. I later discovered Charles Beke4 in a 19th century analysis of the William Phillip translation also noticed the discrepancy. He points out a retrogression of the equinoctial points – the places where the celestial equator intersects the ecliptic – has since De Veer’s day shifted the positions of the constellations in terms of longitude and latitude relative to those references; but that rather suggests in his write-up De Verre placed the conjunction in whatever constellation the numbers dictated, rather than where he saw it? Still a bit of a mystery to solve then – at least in my mind.
E. Shackleton, South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914–1917, MacMillan, New York, 1920
Gerrit De Veer, The Three Voyages of William Barents to the Arctic Regions (1594, 1595 and 1596). London, 1876 (translation of 1609 original).
Modern revolvers have a mechanism that keeps them from firing accidentally if knocked or dropped. Before that, savvy owners learned to carry their weapon with an empty chamber under the hammer. Californian real-estate developer Clarence Austin was not among them.
Picture Austin, one May day in 1909, setting off on a peaceful fishing trip. He parks up his vehicle, ready to meet a connecting streetcar. Running late, he hurriedly unloads his gear, casually throwing a blanket roll to the sidewalk. As the roll strikes the ground, a forgotten pistol consealed in its folds discharges. The bullet rips through Austin’s knee, and lodges, somewhere, in his leg.
“I am shot!” Austin perceptively exclaims – according to the Los Angeles Herald1.
Bystanders rally and Austin is ambulanced home. A doctor arrives, and, with a strange electrical apparatus that emits invisible rays, locates and removes the offending slug. Austin Clarence will live to sell real-estate another day.
As luck would have it, Austin had picked the best possible neighbourhood west of the Rockies to shoot himself in – for his attending physician was Dr Adalbert Fenyes (1863-1937): M.D., neurologist, celebrated entomologist, all-round gentleman scientist, and – importantly for Austin – one of the very few early practitioners in medicinal X-rays. Fenyes lived in a city 10 miles northeast of Los Angeles, a place that Einstein once compared to nothing less than paradise: Pasadena.
Here in Pasadena it is like Paradise. Always sunshine and clear air, gardens with palms and pepper trees and friendly people who smile at one and ask for autographs.
Albert Einstein, 19312
I discovered Fenyes on a recent visit to the Pasadena Museum of History. Custodians of the Fenyes legacy, the museum is situated at the site of the former Fenyes Mansion at 170 North Orange Grove (now 470 West Walnut Street).
While not quite an A-Lister in the Einstein league, Adalbert, taken together with his accomplished artist and businesswoman wife Eva, give us a fascinating glimpse on a bygone age: a lost vignette of turn-of-the-century intellectual life in a city whose attraction for talented people, and especially scientists, persists. Fenyes also opens the door on two other Pasadena scientists I particularly admire: the astronomers George Ellery Hale, and Edwin Hubble: who, like the Fenyes’s, supported their city as well as their science.
Even the most conscientious scientists have to leave their laboratories and observatories sometime, and visiting their former homes and neighbourhoods – often remarkebly unchanged – helps fill that last 5% the biographies seem to miss. The Fenyes mansion is a case in point. You might recognise it from any number of Hollywood movies – most recently The Prestige: part of a tradition started with Eva Fenyes’s close association with the movie industry3. So too the bungalow at 707 South Oakland Avenue, where Albert and Elsa Einstein stayed when Albert visited Caltech in the 1930s.
Orange Grove Avenue has always been popular with the well to do, and not just film-stars; just down the road is the iconic Arts & Crafts Gamble House, once owned by David Gamble of Proctor and Gamble fame. Hale and Hubble also left their mark – as we shall see. But first up, what of Adalbert Fenyes….?
There are no direct British parallels to Fenyes – aristocrat son of a Hungarian Count, but he may be close to a Charles Darwin or John William Strutt – Baron Rayleigh (of Argon discovery and Rayleigh Scattering fame): gentlemen scientists with broad interests and the independent means to work to their own agendas.
Fenyes trained as a physician in Austria, and was doctoring in Egypt when he met American heiress Eva Scott Muse – while on her Grand Tour .
After a spell in Chicago, where Adelbert studied X-ray procedures, in 1896 the couple settled in Pasadena, moving to the new $20,000 mansion in 1907.
Multi-faceted Fenyes M.D. ran a physician’s office downtown – specialising in neurological problems – while Fenyes the entomologist wrote scholarly papers, built an insectorium in the mansion grounds, and travelled to collect specimens4 ; a two month trip to Mexico yielded no less than 10,000 beetles5. Fenyes’s beetle collection is now with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
Fenyes discovered several new genera and species within the order Coleoptera (beetles). Always the gentleman, here is one he named after his wife:
While Adalbert’s insect research appeared in learned journals, the bug-hunting trips became the stuff of society page gossip, alongside the movements of movie stars and business tycoons. Fenyes repaid the attention, albeit to the favoured few, with popular lantern slide talks on his beetle research – including samples – to Pasadena’s exclusive Twilight Club (all male) and Shakespeare Club (all female). The civicly framed “Insects and Their Value to the Community”(1904) 6 betrays Fenyes’ skill as a science communicator, tuning into his business-minded audience. Even insects had to pull their weight in those industrious times.
Within a year of Wilhelm Röntgen’s 1895 discovery of X-rays, and Michael Pupin’s method of imaging developed the following year, medical applications started to appear. Fittingly for our story, one of Pupin’s early exposures, or skiagraphs, shows a hand riddled with self-inflicted buckshot7. In the case of Clarence Austin’s leg, Fenyes was able to see the location and orientation of the bullet, and identify cloth fragments carried into the wound. By replacing the photographic plate with a fluorescent screen it was possible to operate ‘live’, the surgeon’s skeletised hands and instruments visible hovering over the patient’s wound (Gillanders8 ). Portable equipment run off car batteries was in use by 18999.
A prominent researcher in the field, Fenyes led a session on ‘X-ray therapy’ at a 1903 meeting11 of the Southern California Electro-Medical Society in Los Angeles, alongside sessions on ‘Galvanism’ and ‘Static Therapy’. Fenyes studied the effects of X-rays on the kidneys and other organs, and for the treatment of non-malignant skin disease like acne and eczema 12 , personally escaping the worst of the radiation burns and illness that seriously injured or killed many contemporary practitioners. When he moved to Pasadena, he had one of the rare X-ray machines shipped to his home – possibly the equipment used on Austin.
If Pasadena had any single founder, it was George Ellery Hale
Kevin Starr in his history of California13.
Our next urbane utopian is Chicago born George Ellery Hale (1868-1938): best known – at least among astronomers – as the instigator, designer, and builder of the world’s greatest astronomical observatories and telescopes.
Inspired by his first sight of the Lick Observatory as a young man on his California honeymoon, Hale ‘made-it-so’ for the 40-inch Yerkes refractor in Wisconsin, the 60-inch and 100-inch reflecting telescopes on Mount Wilson, and the 200-inch ‘Hale’ reflector on Mount Palomar.
Possessed since childhood of a high-energy passion and interest in all things, Hale explored, studied, experimented, and built machines in his laboratory workshop: basically doing all the fun stuff kids are arguably over-protected from today (anyone whose father bought them a steam-driven lathe for Christmas, as Hale’s did, is bound to turn out right in my book).
As the calendar flipped into the twentieth century, 32 year old Hale, already an established solar astronomer with the invention of the spectroheliograph under his belt, was keen to progress research on stellar evolution started at the Yerkes Obervatory. Hale had in mind a series of newer, bigger, and more capable solar instruments, the siting of which, in terms of atmospheric conditions, would be critical. In 1903, his global scouting mission reached Pasadena.
At first, the test observations looked hopeless. From ground level, a shimmering heat from the baking dessert distorted the Sun’s image. But tests at the top of Mount Wilson, a 5700 foot peak in the San Gabriel Mountains overlooking the city, told a different story. Here, where extensive tree cover insulated the ground and muffled the disabling thermals, conditions were perfect. Mount Wilson commanded a World Class view of our nearest star14.
And so the love affair with Pasadena began, when in 1904 Hale took up the directorship of the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory. Dull, wintery, climates depressed Hale; Southern California would do just fine.
Hale’s contribution to astronomy is well known. Less well known, even I suspect among some Pasadenans – is that the city’s California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Huntington Library, Civic Center, and a host of other organisations, institutes, and clubs, only exist because of Hale’s energy and commitment.
No one could be associated with Hale without falling at once under the charm of his vivid and inspiring personality
Walter S Adams, Biographical Memoir15, 1939
Comfortable in the intellectual gentility of Pasadena society, Hale immediately slipped into a circle of friendship, influence and wealth where he would progressively share his vision of Pasadena as nothing less than a ‘New Athens’ of the West. His influence on millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie had secured Mount Wilson, but there were always new telescopes to be built. Hale kept potential sponsors and the general public informed of his work through a series of popular talks, including – one year into the project – an upate to the good ladies of the Shakespeare Club:
Prof. George K. Hale, the famous director of the Mount Wilson solar observatory, left a driving snowstorm this evening at the observatory and came down to Pasadena to give his first lecture in this city. It was at the instance of the Shakespeare Club, and the beautiful auditorium of the clubhouse was crowded for the welcome occasion. Prof. Hale spoke in an informal manner of the building of the observatory, the difficulty of transporting the instruments and material and of the non-technical progress of the work of investigation….
In his recent photographs of the milky way from the top of Mount Wilson, Prof. Hale remarked that the wonderful photographs indicated in a very definite way the remarkable transparency of the atmosphere in the vicinity of the observatory.
Los Angeles Herald, 190516
The Los Angeles Herald has it slightly wrong here, as Hale’s first Pasadena outing was a year earlier on 28 January 1904, with a talk on ‘The Evolution of the Stars’ to the Throop Institute17: the educational facility Hale would gradually transform and in 1920 see formally renamed as the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Hale also gave popular talks to the Friday Morning Club in Los Angeles and most likely, the Twilight and Valley Hunt Clubs of Pasadena where he was a member.
Four years later in 1909 and things have moved on a bit. Adalbert Fenyes, on his way home from an X-ray session with a certain Clarence Austin, looks up (we suppose) and sees a shiny white tower on the mountain crest: shiny, because the paint on Hale’s new 60-foot solar telescope tower – completed in the Fall of 1908 – is barely dry.
The ‘Snow’ horizontal solar telescope, borrowed from Yerkes, was already at the site; but this new instrument made possible Hale’s most important discovery: that the sun has magnetic fields18 and their association with sunspots. For a description of how he did it, see here (USC history page).
Both the 60-foot, and a 150-foot instrument from 1912 are still used for research today.
Solar telescopes follow the Sun with a moving plane mirror, or coelostat, often mounted at the top of a tower. The light is directed through a stationary lens to a focus below ground, where, because it’s not being slewed around on the end of a long tube, all manner of equipment can be assembled, including Hale’s spectroheliograph to analyse the Sun’s image at specific wavelengths of light. At Mount Wilson, Hale took these ideas to new extremes of scale and sophistication.
All in all, 1908 was a busy year. The solar tower was completed, but so too was the even more ambitious 60-inch reflecting telescope – easily the world’s largest, and this time for night-time use. Bearing in mind the Sun appears 400,000 times brighter than the Moon, and 13 billion times brighter than the next brightest star, Sirius, you need a much larger lens or mirror at night to collect enough scarce photons to make objects visible. Hale trudged his heavy 60-inch diameter glass mirror, and a 150 tons of supporting telescope steelwork, up Mount Wilson by mule train and a primitive mountain truck.
The lead up to the delicate mirror’s installation on 7th December 1908 must have been a particularly stressful time for Hale, and may go some way to explain why on the 19th November he got arrested following a high-speed motorbike chase with the Pasadena Police Department19,20: an offense that cost him $10. (1908 was also a bad year for the “nervous attacks” Hale suffered from for much of his life25.) But it was all worth it, and on the night of 20th December Hale was rewarded with an early Christmas present: the best naked-eye view of the Orion Nebula anyone had seen up to that point.
When Colonel Griffith J Griffith visited Mount Wilson in 1908, and looked through the new 60-inch, the views inspired him to fund the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, proclaiming:
If all mankind could look through that telescope it would change the world!
Colonel Griffith J Griffith, 1908
Today, visitors can look through a 12-inch refractor telescope at Griffith for free, or hire the 60-inch on Mount Wilson at $900 for a half-night or $1700 for the whole night.
1908 was a challenging year for Hale in the roadcraft department. As well as the high speed run in with police in November, he had already suffered a collision with a motor vehicle in March that year: in which he “made a flying leap and landed safely in the road. The front part of his motorcycle was ground to pieces under the wheels of the car.”21
Private road vehicles were popular, available, and accessible to monied Pasadenans. Electric vehicles were favoured by ladies en route to the opera, keen to avoid soiling their gowns with horse muck or the oil and swarf of the internal combustion engine. Eva Fenyes drove one: on one occasion mounting the pavement and virtually inverting the car through a plate glass window22.
The big telescopes aside, I particularly like Hale’s attitude to: (a) investment in science, and (b) the amateur’s role in science. His approach to investment, not just in money, but in time and recognising the need for a long view, is still relevant in the age of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and, indeed, super-telescopes. His enthusiastic support for amateurs resonates with the burgeoning trend for so-called Citizen Science. Writing in 1905, with the challenge of equipping Mount Wilson ahead of him, Hale is uncompromising on what it takes to make progress in scientific research:
A man of science must so direct his efforts as to secure the largest results not within a single month or a single year, but within the entire period of his activities. He can thus afford to devote much time and effort to details of construction, if these promise sufficient advantage in the end. He must work years, if need be, to secure such means of investigation as appear to him needful.
The Development of a New Observatory, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific23, Vol. 17, No. 101, April 10, 1905
Also ahead of the curve on pan-disciplinary working and information exchange – something we struggle with today – Hale often highlighted in his talks the mutual benefits enjoyed when astronomy works closely with physics and chemistry: for example, the spectroscope for determining chemistry in the Sun and distant stars. Hale is popularly known as the father of astrophysics because of the close links he fostered between the disciplines of physics and astronomy.
Hale’s equally unrestrained enthusiasm for amateur science positively bubbles over in his essay Work for the Amateur Astronomer24, where he recalls his own evolution from schoolboy experimenter roots:
But neither in limited or unlimited resources nor in association with public or private laboratory do we find the criterion that marks the amateur. Nor is he to be mistaken for the dilettante of the popular imagination. The amateur is in fact a true lover of knowledge for its own sake, one who works because he cannot help it, swept on by a passion for research which he attempts neither to explain nor to curb, an enthusiasm which carries him over obstacles too high to be surmounted by the perfunctory student or the man without zeal. To the sane enthusiast, whether his talents be large or small, great advances are possible. An impelling interest, even if backed by only a very slender stock of knowledge, may accomplish more than all the learning of the schools...
The passion for research springs early, and the boy of twelve may already feel within him the desire to add to the world’s knowledge. He consults his books, and is fascinated by the experiments they outline. Who can forget his thrill of excitement when the bubbles of oxygen, issuing from the heated retort, rose one by one thru the water-filled bottle, inverted over its tank! The delicious possibility of an explosion (realized all too often with prematurely ignited jets of hydrogen!) and the proud consciousness of actually venturing into the field of the original investigator, are experiences to be felt but not described. Then there was the winding of the first induction coil, the anxious test of the length of its spark, and the dim realization that here was an instrument of research applicable in many fields…
“In recent years, as I have pushed with larger and larger telescopes into the depths of space, I have often been forced to confess that the astronomer never beholds sights more wonderful than those which a drop of ditch-water, on the stage of the cheapest microscope, will afford to any boy.
WORK FOR THE AMATEUR ASTRONOMER, 191624
All good things, and people, come to an end. His mother feared he would burn out early, but in the event Hale put in a very respectable innings before his health, and his psychological demons, caught up with him. Hale suffered a serious nervous breakdown25 in 1921, which led to a wind-down and eventual full resignation from the Mount Wilson directorship. When Hale started out in astronomy, his ever-encouraging father built him an observatory equipped with a 12-inch refractor. Now, in his retirement, he commissioned his own solar observatory for private research – in Pasadena of course.
I drove down Holloway Road to check the site out, but the observatory building on this quiet residential street is not accessible. Looking beyond the ‘armed response’ signs that depressingly clutter many of the driveways round here, the dome at least is still visible. It all looks a bit incongruous – but appealingly eerie. (More on the observatory here at Palomar Skies blog.)
But before leaving Mount Wilson, Hale delivered his greatest telescope project so far: the 100-inch ‘Hooker’ reflecting telescope (1917).
Unlike the solar telescopes, the 100-inch was a laviathan of the night, with two and a half times the light gathering power of the 60-inch reflector Hale installed in 1908. It would remain the world’s largest telescope until Hale outdid himself one final time with a 200-inch instrument on Mount Palomar (operational in 1948, he never saw it completed). And the arrival of the 100-inch, as one element of a perfect storm of capability, knowledge, and inspiration that was about to redefine our concept of the universe, is the perfect cue for our last résident duparadis : Edwin Powell Hubble.
Thanks to Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, it’s no great mystery to most of us that we live on a planet, near a star, in one of many galaxies that make up the expanding universe.
But in 1919, when 30 year old Edwin Powell Hubble (1889-1953) returned from the First World War to work for George Hale at Mount Wilson, that was not the case. William Herschel, as early as 1785, estimated the shape of the galaxy by counting the number of stars he could see in different directions. But he had no idea about size, and assumed the fuzzy patches between the stars – he called them nebulae – were all contained inside the one collection. Hubble was not the first to question this picture of the universe. Dark lanes in the spiral shaped Andromeda nebula looked something like the dark lanes in our own Milky Way: so were we looking at something like a copy of ourselves? And the red-shifted spectra of some nebula suggested they might be separate entities. But solid evidence was lacking, and it would take Hale’s 100-inch telescope, recent discoveries about variable stars, and Hubble’s conviction and skill – a perfect storm – to prove we are part of something much larger.
Using the 100-inch telescope, Hubble could for the first time resolve individual stars in the Andromeda and other nebulae. And by measuring the brightness and periodicity of Cepheid Variables – special ‘standard candle’ stars whose absolute brightness and periodicity Henrietta Leavitt had in 1908 showed to be related, he could calculate the distance of both the stars and their containing nebula.
In 1923, Hubble did exactly that for Cepheid variable Hubble V1 in Andromed. In a delicious example of restrained scientific under-statement, the magic distance number: 285,000 parsecs, or 929,100 light years, appears almost lost in the text of Hubble’s 1925 address to the American Astronomical Association26 (reminiscent of Crick and Watson’s first paper on DNA in its down-play of implications). Our galaxy is 100,000 light years across, so Hubble had, figuratively, expanded our universe by a factor of ten – and that based on Andromeda, which, cosmically speaking, is virtually on top of us. We now think the universe is 150 billion light years across. Hubble went on to measure the red shifts of many different galaxies, which showed these ‘island universes’ to be moving away from each other at a rate proportional to their distance. Not only was the universe larger than we ever imagined – it was expanding too. Hubble’s photographs of Andromeda, with the Cepheids he measured marked in his own hand, are on display in the Huntington Library.
Hubble’s announcement may have set the scholarly hearts of American Astronomical Association members racing, leaving the popular scientific press of the day to translate for the rest of us – as in Science News-Letter‘s enthusiastic headline27:
Sky Pinwheels Are Stellar Universes 6,000,000,000,000,000,000 Miles Away
The Science News-Letter, Dec. 1924
I make it 5.5 x 1018 miles, but close enough. Of Hubble’s observations of a 700,000 light year distant cluster in Sagitarius, the Daily Princetonian28 declared:
Another Universe Exists Beyond Telescope Reach
Daily Princetonian, January 1926
Again, not entirely accurate, but I guess people got the idea. I dutifully drove past Hubble’s house on Woodstock Road, San Marino, where he lived from 1925 till his death in 1953. Designed by Joseph Kucera in 1925, it is the only National Historic Landmark in Pasadena’s neighbour city. It’s also situated in a very nice spot – handy for the Huntington Library, and looks very little changed from earlier photographs. (And today well out of the reach of all but the wealthiest early-career scientists.)
I guess out of the three: Fenyes, Hale, and Hubble – Hubble’s ghost has had the best popular run, mostly down to the space telescope named after him.
But Hubble’s original work, that literally expanded our horizons a billion-fold, is not forgotten, and in 2010 was specially honoured when the telescope bearing his name was turned to once more monitor the brightness of Hubble variable V1 in Andromeda. When the data were analysed, the period of variability derived from the modern measurements was found to be in agreement with the historical values. Or to put it another way, while you are more likely to be run down by a Tesla than a Waverley today, the light curve, like much of Pasadena, has barely changed.
1. Real Estate Dealer Accidentally Hurt. Los Angeles Herald, May 7, 1909
27. ‘Sky Pinwheels Are Stellar Universes 6,000,000,000,000,000,000 Miles Away’, The Science News-Letter, Vol.5. No.191, Dec 6, 1924, pp.2-3. Pub. Society for Science and the Public.
28. Daily Princetonian, Volume 46, Number 170, 25 January 1926
View Pasadena Science in a larger map Further Reading Includes examples of Eva Fenyes painting, article in Hometown Pasadena Journey to Palomar video: Includes background on Hale, more on the 200-inch Palomar telescope, and a look to the future and the planned 30 metre telescope.
Here’s something, or rather somebody, you might like to check out, especially if you’re partial to the ‘Passion Beauty Joy’ (PBJ) interpretation of the universe (as Bill Nye likes to put it). Likewise, if you enjoy the Symphony of Science series of videos, this will be up your street.
On his website, Peter Mayer describes himself as a writer of “songs for a small planet—songs about interconnectedness and the human journey”. Last night he guested at a special live broadcast of the Planetary Society‘s monthly radio show Planetary Radio Live: Science, Nature and Music. I usually catch the show, hosted by Matt Kaplan with Planetary Society regulars Bill Nye, Bruce Betts, and Emily Lakdawalla in podcast form back in the UK. But as I’m visiting family in the US right now, I got myself a ticket for the show at the KPCC studios in Pasadena, California.
Mayer sings about the universe and man’s relationship with it. He sings about stars, planets, galaxies; and evolution too.
Here’s the full recording of the event from KPCC, :
One song Mayer performed on the evening, ‘My Soul’ likens the number of galaxies to snowflakes in a snow storm. Here’s another recording of that track:
Mayer’s background is interesting. Originally trained in theology and having spent time in seminary, he’s no longer a practising Catholic – aligning rather with Unitarian Universalism. That said, I got the impression Mayer is more interested in inclusiveness than the sort of divisions that can follow from too much emphasis on labels.
Incidentally, watching Mayer play an intriguing all-carbon-fibre guitar (by Rainsong Guitars), was an added bonus for me, as I go through something of a revival in my own attempts at guitar – which, believe me, call for cosmic scale inspiration.
You can catch previous Planetary Radio shows at the Planetary Radio website.
More comet PANSTARRS tonight. This time with the crescent moon, and a few aircraft trying to get into shot as usual:
Aircraft getting in on the act:
UPDATED 20:00 PST. 11/03/2013
A couple more PANSTARRS pictures from Monday 11th March 2013 in the hills above Los Angeles. I think the air was even clearer than last night, and there was no cloud to speak of. First shot here includes an aircraft coming into LAX. In the second shot, the bright point below the comet is Mars. Hope to catch the crescent moon in shot on Wednesday 13th.
I was too busy last night finding the thing to notice, but I wouldn’t describe this as a ‘naked eye’ comet – so far. Detectable in 7×40 binoculars; much better in 15 x 70s.
10th March 2013
Here are my first pictures of comet PANSTARRS c/2011 L4, taken shortly after sunset from the hills above Los Angeles on 10th March 2013 between 19.30 and 19.45 PST. I’m hoping to get some more shots when the comet is close to the moon on Wednesday 13th, and will update if successful. Quite a challenging subject and my first comet! Exposure info. for these: Canon 7D, 200mm and 400mm, f.5.0-5.6, 1/4 s to 1s, ISO 800 and 1600.
Picture from here 10th March 2013:
If you missed Pan-STARRS c/2011 L4, come back in 100 million years or so; or make your own comet.
Here’s an even better view of Pan-STARRS C/2012 L4, thanks to NASA:
Jupiter this afternoon is moving in for the closest line-of-sight conjunction with the moon you’ll see until the year 2026.
Jupiter is very bright and easily viewable in the daytime – especially with binoculars; the problem is you can never find it. Because it’s so close to the moon today, that’s no problem: find the moon and you’ve found Jupiter. This is my first pic of the day. I’ll update with new ones every few hours as Jupiter moves in to closest approach and the Jovian satellites start to appear. I have only a reasonable telephoto with me, not a telescope, but we’ll see how it goes.
Get out there now with those binocs!
That’s about as close as it will get: 30 minutes of arc, or a Moon’s diameter. Some folks in the Southern Hemisphere will see Jupiter completely disappear behind the moon – an occultation. But that’s me done for the evening. Happy stargazing!
The asteroid Vesta is well placed for viewing at the moment in the constellation Taurus. From Earth, it appears as a mere pinpoint of light; so here’s an image NASA made earlier with the Dawn spacecraft that’s been orbiting Vesta for much of 2011/12:
Just too dim for the naked eye, at Magnitude 6.34, Vesta is easily picked out with binoculars or a digital camera. I took these snaps on 15, 26, and 29 December in mixed conditions, including a nearly full moon and Christmas lights for the shot on 26th. So not the best quality you’ll ever see, but satisfying all the same – at least for me – to capture a 326 mile wide lump of rock hurtling against the starry background.
Vesta is presently about one and half times the distance of the Earth to the Sun away from us (1.65 Astronomical Units).
Vesta is easy enough to find with software like Starry Night. It also shows up on Sky Walk for the iPad, but not with sufficient accuracy to locate it with confidence. There again, if you simply point your camera at the bright red star Aldebaran in Taurus, and take a couple of one or two second exposures of the area with a few days between them, Vesta will give itself away as the only object moving over time.
Having missed the peak of the Geminid meteor shower this year; or rather experienced it through icy fog in London, it was a bit of a bonus to catch this picture at 3.00 am this morning during a visit to Leicester.
Whatever the meteor shower, this is my favourite bit of sky, so that’s where the camera gets pointed. This is one of a series of 15 second exposures at IS0 1600, f4, focal length 17mm on my Canon 7D.
What more could you ask for: Orion with sword, Hyades and Pleiades clusters in Taurus, Jupiter passing through, and a Geminid meteor to top it off.
Just goes to show it’s worth heading out in the dark and the cold for ‘one more go’.