Category Archives: books

Treknology looks at Star Trek gizmos

Star Trek first hit the airwaves over a half century ago, and Dr. Ethan Siegel finds it amazing how many of the gizmos, gadgets, and technologies imagined by the various Trek television series have become reality. Siegel, theoretical astrophysicist and science writer, is author of the new book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017). Treknology is scheduled for release on October 15 and is available for pre-order on Amazon now.

Siegel, a Trek fan since discovering The Next Generation (TNG) as a kid, figures he was just the guy to dig into Star Trek’s technology.

“That intersection of an interest in Star Trek and Sci-fi, of an interest in what it means for humanity, and a knowledge of physics, all of those have come together to make this book possible,” Siegel said.

Treknology devotes a separate chapter to 28 different technologies that were used in the various series.

“These technologies that were so futuristic that they were imagined centuries in the future, some of them don’t appear to be that far off,” Siegel noted. “Some of them are already here and in widespread use. Others that we thought just a few years ago were going to be far-future technologies look like they’re coming to fruition.”

We’ve got that Treknology already

Siegel noted that it was The Original Series (TOS) that came up with the automatic sliding door, now a staple in every airport and supermarket. Your tablet is also cooler than anything Trek came up with.

“What you’ve got in your smart phone is much more impressive that anything that were on those touch-screen pads that Star Trek envisioned,” Siegel said. “Here we are with something that’s smaller, that’s more compact.”

That goes for pretty much all of the computers, he noted.

“We’ve gone way beyond what Star Trek would have envisioned much more quickly than anything that came about in the original series,” Siegel said. At the time of TOS in real life we had room-sized computers that had less computing oomph than today’s pocket calculators. When TNG came around, they figured they had to jazz up the computing and came up with something new and fancy—digital storage.

“Your flash drive is more powerful than a Star Trek isolinear chip,” Sigel noted. “As far as computation goes—ships computer, pads, isolinear chips—we’ve blown away what Star Trek would have envisioned.”

Medical technology

Siegel

Dr. Ethan Siegel, author of Treknology, during a lecture in Portland last year. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

As an astronomy and physics guy, Siegel said he was especially interested in learning about the medical technologies and biological situations that Star Trek dreamed up. He noted that we may soon be able to use synthehol, a substance with the positive effects of booze without the negative impacts.

“Synthehol is on track pharmacologically to become real,” Siegel said.

We may also be close to helping sightless people see, ala Geordi La Forge—the TNG character played by LeVar Burton—who wore a special visor that allowed him to see the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

“If we can make an implant somewhere in your brain’s visual cortex, and we can wirelessly feed an external signal to that implant,” Siegel said, “this is a potential way to restore sight to the blind,” even if they have no eyes or optic nerves at all. NASA actually tinkered with sight-improving technology in the late 1990s, and called its project JORDY: Joint Optical Reflective DisplaY.

Not there yet

There are other Treknologies that aren’t so close yet. Warp drive is at the top of that list. He says it’s mathematically possible, but it will be tough to make it work in our universe.

“It depends on if you can either have negative gravitational mass or negative energy,” Siegel explained. “If you can, then great, we can build warp drive. If that’s a physical impossibility—and we haven’t discovered anything like that yet—then I don’t know how warp drive can be possible.”

“This is probalbly one of the most difficult technologies to acheive, but I still don’t want to rule it out and say it’s impossible,” he added. “I want to look at what it would take to make it possible.”

A few other technologies such as subspace communication and transporters would require “extensions” to our current physics to become reality, Siegel said, and we’re a ways from life-like androids and holodecks, too.

Sigel has written widely. His first book was Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe (World Scientific Publishing Co., 2015). He writes the Starts With a Bang blog on Forbes, and produces a podcast of the same name. Siegel can be found under that handle on Twitter and Facebook. He expects to be touring conventions and bookstores around the country in support of Treknology. We look forward to the book’s release next month.

Podcast of our interview with Ethan Siegel:

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Late-breaking eclipse and lodging opportunities in Oregon

There are people who have been planning for the August 21 total solar eclipse for 20 years or more. If you’re more of a procrastinator, there are still outstanding opportunities popping up for us ten days ahead of the much-awaited event.

Two of these are available from our friends at Orbit Oregon, the Portland-based publisher of The Big Eclipse and The Big Eclipse Activity Book, a great pair of eclipse guides for kids and families. (Check our article and podcast about The Big Eclipse.)

The Big Eclipse Family Weekend will happen August 19–21 at Western Oregon University in Monmouth. In addition to viewing of the eclipse on Monday, August 21, the camp includes lodging and meals, a t-shirt, eclipse glasses, and copies of the book and activity book. The camp is best recommended for kids ages 5–12 and their families, and will include hands-on activities related to eclipses and space science.

Check out the website for tickets and more information.

The other event is a little more adult-oriented. The Wine Country Eclipse is a three-day music and wine festival that will take place at the Polk County Fairgrounds in Rickreall, Oregon. It is a benefit for Solar Oregon, a not-for-profit organization bringing solar energy to the state.

The best news for those in need of lodging is that a festival ticket can include a room at Western Oregon University or tent or RV camping accommodations at the festival site. Check the website for tickets and more information.

Planned activities include:

  • Live music all three days
  • A square dance lesson on Saturday
  • A sing-along to eclipse tunes on Sunday
  • Wine and spirits tastings
  • The Totality Tent – a 21-and-over wine garden near the concert stage featuring wine, beer, and special cocktails including Totality Punch, Sungria and Moonaritas
  • Local artisan fare and crafts for sale
  • Displays featuring solar and renewable energy
  • Educational seminars about wine, astronomy, and eclipse photography

That last item is especially exciting because it includes a talk titled “Get Offa My Cloud: Adventures in Seeking a Glimpse of Old Sol,” by Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer. You don’t want to miss that!

As with all things eclipse related, tickets for these events are likely to be snapped up quickly, so hurry!

 

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Solar eclipses and the stature of science

A total solar eclipse that crossed the American West in 1878 helped ignite a great boom in science in the United States. David Baron is hoping that, in an era in which people have to march in the streets in support of science, the total solar eclipse that will cross the nation next month will be similarly inspirational. Baron, a former science editor for National Public Radio, is the author of American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright, 2017). He spoke about the book last week at the Pacific Science Center, part of the center’s Science in the City lecture series.

Baron saw his first total solar eclipse from Aruba in 1998.

“I was just dumbfounded,” he said at the sight of the eclipse, which revealed stars in the daytime and Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus. “There, among the planets was this thing; this glorious, bewildering thing. It looked liked a wreath woven from silvery thread and it just hung out there in space, shimmering.”

It was the Sun’s corona, and Baron said the photos you’ve seen don’t do it justice. Soon, the eclipse was over.

“The world returned to normal, but I had changed,” Baron said. “That’s how I became an eclipse chaser.”

He said he decided that day, on the beach in Aruba, that he wanted to write a book about solar eclipses. He also figured 2017 would be the year to release it, with public interest in solar eclipses likely to be at its apex because of this year’s eclipse. So his book has been 19 years in the making. He said the work started in earnest about seven years ago, when he went researching for interesting eclipse stories to tell.

The American eclipse of 1878

Battle Lake markerBaron came upon a historical marker next to Battle Lake in the Wyoming Sierras, which claims that Thomas Edison came up with the idea to use bamboo as a filament for an electric light bulb while fishing at the lake in 1878. Baron found no evidence that this was actually true, but Edison was involved in eclipse watching in Wyoming that summer, for the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878. The eclipse ran from Montana south down across the American frontier through Texas. At the time, Baron noted, Europeans were the clear leaders in eclipse science.

“Here was America’s chance to shine—or an opportunity to slip up and embarrass ourselves—but if all went well we would show the rest of the world what we were capable of as a scientific nation,” Baron said, “and so the eclipse was a big, national undertaking.” The eclipse and the expeditions to observe it received in-depth coverage in the newspapers.

Edison was among a group that went to Rawlins, Wyoming to view the eclipse. The group included Norman Lockyer, who had discovered helium on the Sun and founded the journal Nature; and James Craig Watson, an astronomer at the University of Michigan, who was in search of the hypothetical planet Vulcan that could explain orbital anomalies of Mercury.

David Baron

Author David Baron spoke about his book American Eclipse on July 19, 2017 at the Pacific Science Center. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

Also out west was Maria Mitchell, professor and director of the Vassar College Observatory, who brought a group of Vassar students to Denver to show that women could do science, too. For Edison’s part, he was anxious to test an invention he called the tasimeter, intended to detect minuscule changes in temperature. Astronomers were interested in the device, which might reveal if the Sun’s corona gave off heat.

“These three main characters of mine had a lot on the line,” Baron said, and on the day of the eclipse they declared great success and the press was highly positive, though neither Edison, Watson, nor Mitchell really achieved their set goals.

“Maria Mitchell did help open the doors of science and higher education to women, but it’s not like male scientists suddenly embraced their female counterparts,” Baron noted. “It was the beginning of a long, hard, continuing struggle.”

Watson didn’t find Vulcan, of course; the precession of Mercury’s orbit was explained later through Einstein’s general relativity. Edison’s tasimeter never lived up to the hype. He did head home and start work on the light bulb, though not in the way the Historical Landmark Commission of Wyoming would have you believe.

“The eclipse of 1878 did not illuminate America in the way the historical marker claims,” Baron said. “However it did enlighten America, helping to push this upstart nation toward what it soon would become—the undeniable global superpower in science, a country that would, in this intellectual realm, eclipse the world.”

Learning from history

Baron sees an interesting parallel with next month’s total solar eclipse.

“Once again the Moon’s shadow will visit us at an interesting time in our intellectual development,” he noted. “Today the issue isn’t whether America can rise up and take on the world in science, the question is whether America can maintain its global lead.”

It will undoubtedly be the most widely viewed total solar eclipse in human history. We’ll see whether it has the power to change hearts, minds, and the course of history.


You can purchase American Eclipse though the link above or by clicking the image of the book cover. Purchases made through links on Seattle Astronomy support our ability to bring you interesting astronomy stories. Thank you!

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Astronomy on Tap plus Nordgren eclipse talk highlight week’s events

Another episode of Astronomy on Tap Seattle is on the calendar for this week, and astronomer, artist, and author Tyler Nordgren will visit the Museum of Flight to talk about his latest book about total solar eclipses.

The whole premise of Astronomy on Tap is that astronomy is even better with beer. This month we go even one step further, learning how beer isn’t possible without science as we go “From Stars to Beer.” The gathering will be at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 26 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard.

AoT co-host Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein will give a talk titled, “An Unbeerlievable Tale: How atoms come together in stars to make the most glorious structure in the low-redshift universe: beer.” That may be the longest subtitle ever, too! Dr. Meredith Rawls will discuss her research about “Weighing Stars with Starquakes” with a fantastic technique called asteroseismology.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. It’s free, but buy beer. Bring your own chair to create premium front-row seating in Peddler’s outdoor beer garden.

Nordgren on Eclipses

We’ve covered a number of talks by Tyler Nordgren over the last several years. Nordgren, astronomy professor at the University of Redlands, is also an author, artist, dark-sky advocate, and entertaining presenter. He’ll be at the Museum of Flight at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 29 to talk about his latest book, Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses (Basic Books, 2016).

The book is part travelogue covering some of Nordgren’s recent eclipse-chasing adventures, part history of eclipses and the myths and science surrounding them, and part primer for the total solar eclipse that will be visible from the United States next month. It’s a marvelous volume and we recommend it highly.

Nordgren spoke about the book at Town Hall Seattle back in January. You can read our re-cap of that talk and our review of the book. Nordgren will sign copies of Sun Moon Earth following his talk Saturday. Grab the book by clicking the book cover or link above; it helps Seattle Astronomy exist!

Star parties galore

The Seattle Astronomical Society will be involved in three star parties this weekend. The Covington Community Park star party will be held at 10 p.m. Friday, July 28 in said park. Volunteers from the Boeing and Tacoma societies also help out with this event.

SAS will hold its free monthly public star parties at 9 p.m. Saturday, July 29 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Bad weather cancels these star parties, so watch the SAS website or social media for updates. But hey, we’re on a good-weather roll!

Jazz Under the Stars

Jazz Under the StarsThe Tacoma Astronomical Society and Pacific Lutheran University physics department will lead stargazing at PLU’s Keck Observatory on Thursday, July 27 following the PLU Jazz Under the Stars concert. The artist for the free concert, which begins at 7 p.m. in the outdoor amphitheater of the Mary Baker Russell Music Center at PLU, is Anjali Natarajan, a Brazilian jazz vocalist out of Olympia. If the weather is bad the stargazing may be off, but the concert will just move indoors.

Jazz Under the Stars concerts will also be held on the next two Thursdays, August 3 and 10.


 

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Breaking barriers in the early ’60s space program

NASA played a key role in the integration of the workforce of the south during the early 1960s, and a recent book tells the tale of how that came about and of the African Americans who were key participants in that movement. We Could Not Fail: The First African-Americans in the Space Program (University of Texas Press, 2015) was written by Richard Paul and Steven Moss. Moss spoke about the story last week at the Museum of Flight.

It wasn’t altruism that drove NASA. After President John F. Kennedy made his man-to-the-Moon speech in May of 1962, the agency and its contractors suddenly needed about a quarter of a million engineers and rocket scientists to achieve that goal. They couldn’t afford to discriminate. In fact, Moss pointed out that Vice President Lyndon Johnson made a speech in Seattle in 1962 about NASA recruiting the best talent regardless of race. JFK knew getting the Civil Rights Act passed would not be a speedy process, but he made an executive order to address discrimination in federal employment. It was essentially the first mention of equal employment opportunity.

Policy doesn’t always make it to the streets immediately. Moss said that Houston Power and Light actually turned off the electricity to the Pelican Island Destroyer Base near Galveston, Texas because the utility didn’t approve of the nondiscrimination order. LBJ leaned on the local congressman, noting that if a naval base couldn’t be powered, Houston might not fare well in its efforts to land the Manned Spaceflight Center.

“The Navy got its power very quickly, and in September Houston got its space center,” Moss said.

NASA gets on board

Moss and Hawks

Author Steven Moss, left, and Harvey Hawks, a Museum of Flight docent, after Moss’s talk June 14 about the book We Could Not Fail. Hawks said during the Q&A period that, though he didn’t try to work for NASA, he faced similar challenges after graduating with an aeronautical engineering degree in 1963. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

At the start of this process in 1962 NASA was near the bottom of federal agencies in the hiring of African Americans. That began to change quickly, but again it took political pressure. In May of 1963 Attorney General Robert Kennedy discovered that, despite a large African American population in Birmingham, Alabama, only 15 African Americans held jobs with the federal government there. Kennedy leaned on Johnson, who leaned on NASA administrator James Webb, who leaned on Wernher von Braun, who was head of the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Over the next six weeks NASA does more to engage in the hiring of African Americans than it has at any other time in its history,” Moss noted. In October of 1964—just before the presidential election—Webb threatened to move management personnel out of Huntsville over the Alabama’s discriminatory policies.

“Qualified people—blacks and whites—refused to work at Huntsville,” Moss said. “They refused to go to Alabama because of its laws, because of its violence—not just its reputation, but the very real violence against people.”

They also had trouble keeping people there.

“The turn-around at Marshall was pretty high compared to some other places, because people just did not want to be there once they saw it,” Moss said.

Von Braun became something of a “point man” on civil rights, according to Moss. He made a visit to Miles College, a historically black institution, in November of 1964 for the opening of a new science building.

“Von Braun goes there and it is a very bold statement,” Moss said, “that (NASA) is going to stand up for civil rights and for the African American community.”

The other great stand happened at Marshall. Governor George Wallace was gearing up for a presidential run, and organized a tour of the facility in Huntsville, bringing 200 Alabama state legislators with him. Von Braun made sure to be there to speak against Wallace’s segregationist policies.

“He tells them that Alabama’s hope for industrial growth is jeopardized by its racial policies,” Moss said, “and he tells them that attracting and keeping the best people would succeed if Alabama offers the same opportunities as other states.”

“The only federal official that could stand toe to toe with George Wallace was Wernher von Braun,” Moss said.

Moss noted that von Braun likely didn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart. Through co-author Paul’s conversations with Mike Neufeld, a historian at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and specialist on von Braun, and their own research, they concluded that von Braun was completely driven by launching rockets, and would do what it took to keep that going.

The pioneers

Officialdom was slow to conquer Jim Crow and the Klan, which were still strong forces in the south. Much of the book is devoted to profiles of some of the African American pioneers who helped make it happen despite the barriers. Moss highlighted several of them during his talk.

Montgomery

Julius Montgomery (Photo: FIT)

Julius Montgomery was the first African American hired as a professional at Cape Canaveral. He was the first African American to sign up for classes at the Florida Institute of Technology, which at the time was known as Brevard Engineering College. He played a key role in integrating the college. Today FIT offers the Julius Montgomery Pioneer Award to African American students who make outstanding contributions to the community.

Clyde Foster promoted compliance with equal employment opportunity at NASA. He helped Alabama A&M in Huntsville start a computer science program. A great many of the African Americans who worked at NASA began their careers at A&M. Foster also convinced NASA to do advanced training in management there—before this it was nearly impossible for African Americans to get such training and advance their careers, because the sessions were held at segregated institutions or hotels.

Crossley

Frank Crossley. (Photo: We Could Not Fail on Facebook)

Frank Crossley was one of the first black Navy officers, and was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering.

“Although he was never a NASA employee, the work he did with metals and with alloys is significant for NASA’s success,” Moss said.

Charlie Smoot was hired by NASA as a recruiter. As an African American he could visit colleges and bring real information to prospective students about what it was like to be black and work for NASA. He organized presidents of black colleges and universities to help build a pipeline of qualified students.

George Carruthers is an astronomer who built the first observatory ever deployed on another celestial body, a UV telescope used on the Moon during the Apollo 16 mission.

Morgan Watson was one of NASAs first black engineers. Moss played a sound clip of an interview in which Watson gave what turned out to be the title of the book.

“We felt that the image of black people was riding on us as professionals,” Watson said. “We could not fail; we had go forward and do our best.”

“The pressure to succeed and the fear of failing was understood,” Moss noted.

In another clip Watson said that the space program changed the south by integrating African Americans into the workplace.

“By showing that there were black professionals that could do that,” he said, “it helped to break the walls down; it helped change people’s perception of black people in the south.”

As with the recent book Hidden Figures, Moss noted that the stories of the people he and Paul profile are not well known. In fact, they ran across cases in which the people’s own children or grandchildren had no idea of their accomplishments. Moss also said that, sadly, many of the African American NASA employees of the era are aging and in poor health, and were unable to participate in interviews.

We Could Not Fail promises to be a good read for the space history, but even more so for the stories of the courageous people who made that history.


You can purchase We Could Not Fail through the link above or by clicking the book cover image. Purchases through links on Seattle Astronomy help support our efforts to bring you great space and astronomy stories. We thank you!

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Plan your space vacation today!

There’s a place in our solar system where you could be like Superman! You could leap over the tallest building in the world in a single bound if it were built on the Martian moon Phobos. Burj Khalifa in Dubai rises to 2,722 feet, and you could clear it in one hop because gravity is not very strong on Phobos. This and other fascinating facts about the solar system are revealed in the new book Vacation Guide to the Solar System: Science for the Savvy Space Traveler (Penguin Books, 2017). Authors Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich spoke recently at Town Hall Seattle.

Koski and Grcevich

Olivia Koski (left) and Jana Grcevich with their book Vacation Guide to the Solar System and their snazzy, official Intergalactic Travel Agent hats. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

The book sprung out of the work of an organization called Guerilla Science, which connects the public with science in unique ways. Koski, who is head of US operations for Guerilla Science, describes it as “an organization that believes that science is a tool of empowerment that belongs to everyone.” It was founded by graduate students in England, and Koski helped bring it to the US.

One of Guerilla Science’s projects is an Intergalactic Travel Bureau, which Koski calls a “pop-up agency where anybody can come and plan their vacation.” Five years ago she recruited Grcevich to be one of the bureau’s agents.

“I was procrastinating in writing my Ph.D. thesis,” she joked.

They’ve planned zillions of space vacations at live events and pop-up bureaus. The problem was that when people visited, they could typically squeeze in discussion about only a couple of possible destinations in any one sitting.

“We wanted to give them something that they could take away,” Koski said. “That’s how the book came about; we wanted to give them something that gave them the whole suite of options.”

Space vacations and reality

The authors say space vacations are not feasible just yet, but argue the concept isn’t so far-fetched.

“Assuming we don’t destroy ourselves first, humans will go to the places we describe in this book someday, almost without question,” Grcevich said. “With the right resources, and most important the will, we can travel to distant worlds.”

Thus from Vacation Guide to the Solar System Grcevich and Koski offered a bucket list of their top ten places to visit and things to do in the solar system:

  • Moon hop Jupiter (It has 67 of them)
  • Jump over the world’s tallest building on Phobos
  • Sleep in microgravity
  • Marvel at the geysers of Enceladus
  • Float in the skies of Venus
  • Meditate over Saturn’s hexagon
  • See a Martian sunset (They’re blue!)
  • Skydive into Jupiter
  • Ski the pink mountains of Pluto
  • Fly on Titan

The last would be Grcevich’s top choice.

“If I could go anywhere on vacation, I would go to Titan,” she said. The moon of Saturn has a thick atmosphere and low gravity, so people could fly under their own power using winged suits. Titan also has methane lakes and sand dunes, so it would be like a beach vacation (except it’s 300° below zero Fahrenheit.) “It would be fascinating to visit,” Grcevich added.

There were a great many kids at the talk, at least one of them a skeptic, a little girl who in the Q&A section asked, “Can you actually do any of those things?”

Koski said they get that question a lot. While it can’t happen right now, she noted that, a century ago, folks thought a trip to Mars would take 46 years. Now it’s six months.

“It’s pretty incredible to think about how much technology has changed in 100 years,” she said. Who knows what’s next?

“We’re very hopeful that we’ll be able to go on vacation to Neptune soon,” Koski added.

Go to the Moon today!

Since we can’t go now, they’ve created the next best thing: the Intergalactic Travel Bureau has built a free virtual reality app so you can enjoy a space vacation anyway.

“This is an app that turns your smart phone into a rocket ship,” Koski said. It features a virtual trip to the Moon, and vacations to Mars and Europa are in the works.

“We believe that space vacations are something that should be accessible to everyone, not just the people who can afford the ticket price that Elon Musk is charging to go to the Moon,” Koski added.

We recommend Vacation Guide to the Solar System enthusiastically. It’s a handsome volume with great illustrations by Steve Thomas, and it’s packed with interesting stuff about our solar system. The guide is a great way for kids and adults to learn the latest about what’s out there.


You can purchase Vacation Guide to the Solar System through the link above or by clicking the book cover image. Purchases through links on Seattle Astronomy help support our efforts to bring you great space and astronomy stories. We thank you!

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Herschel’s observation of comets

To say that Woody Sullivan is interested in William Herschel would be quite an understatement.

“I have dressed up as Herschel for Astronomy 101 half a dozen times,” said Sullivan, a professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of Washington. He started a file on Herschel, the 18th and 19th Century astronomer, some 30 years ago, but can’t exactly pin down why he was so drawn to him.

“I have eclectic interests,” Sullivan said. “I’m always looking for what I call astronomy on the edges: astronomy and music, astronomy and astrology, history, literature, sundials.”

“Herschel was that way to some degree,” Sullivan added. “Perhaps that was it; I saw a fellow traveler there.”

Woody Sullivan

Prof. Woody Sullivan at the May meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

Sullivan noted that it was nine years ago that he started doing more serious research into Herschel with the intent to write a biography. While there have been many penned, including a couple in the last decade or so, Sullivan noted that none have been particularly scholarly, and so that’s a void he’s aiming to fill. After all of that research, the actual writing has begun.

“I do need to get on because I’m getting on,” Sullivan quipped. He spoke about his work at the most recent meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society, discussing Herschel’s work on comets, about which few biographers have gone into much detail.

While his sister Caroline Herschel discovered eight comets, six of which bear her name, William never found one, though he came close a couple of times. He once reported a comet discovery, but the French astronomer Jean-Louis Pons had already found it a month before. Then in 1781 Herschel reported another comet discovery. But after six or eight months of observation, astronomers more skilled in the calculation of orbits found this new object to be in a nearly circular one well beyond Saturn’s. It was a new planet: Uranus.

First to “discover” a planet

“It’s hard to think about what a new planet means. What planets did we have before? We had the same planets that we had had since Ogg the caveman,” Sullivan noted. “Herschel was the first one to find a planet telescopically, and this made him instantly famous.”

William Herschel

William Herschel. (Photo: Public domain)

Herschel parlayed that into a gig as the court astronomer for King George III. It was actually a pay cut from Herschel’s work as a professional musician in Bath, but he supplemented his income by building and selling telescopes, and by marrying a rich widow. Herschel was mostly interested in deep-sky objects, but comets came to his attention on occasion, in part because he was interested in change.

“A comet is change par excellence,” Sullivan said. “It just appears in the sky, it’s different every day, you never know what’s going to happen.”

While Caroline wanted to discover them, William aimed to understand what they were. Sullivan noted that this wasn’t what most astronomers were doing then.

A different sort of astronomer

“Astronomy at that time was measuring accurate positions of things; planets and their moons and comets and stars for catalogs,” he said. “That’s why you had the Greenwich Observatory. The government was paying for that, not because they loved astronomy but they loved the navy, and you needed that for navigation.”

Herschel’s observations of the great comets of 1807 and 1811 were interesting. Sullivan pointed out that astronomers at the time thought there might be a planet or other object at the nucleus of a comet. Herschel was the first to claim he’d spotted one. When others couldn’t find it, Herschel chalked it up to the superior optics of his telescope. By the 1811 comet, he was trying to figure out if the nucleus reflected light from the Sun, or generated its own light. Herschel declared that the nucleus of this comet was perfectly round, and thus self-illuminated, because if it reflected light it would show phases. Sullivan, after poring through Herschel’s logs, concluded that he had fallen into a trap that scientists need to avoid.

“There’s just no doubt that he was picking and choosing the observations that fit into his concept,” Sullivan said. It was a bit of a reach to claim to be able to determine the roundness of an object of perhaps an arcsecond in width within the fuzzy coma of a comet.

“He’s getting all of his theory and observations mixed up,” Sullivan said. “This can get you in trouble.”

Though Herschel missed on this particular analysis, Sullivan noted that Herschel made some interesting conclusions, particularly in describing the tail of a comet as its atmosphere being pushed away by pressure from the Sun. Though it’s not the atmosphere, but dust and gasses, nobody to that point had really postulated that the Sun might be pushing on things. Other descriptions Herschel made of the mechanics of comets are not so far off from what is held true today.

Sullivan’s presentations are always interesting, and we look forward to the completion of the book and to learning about William Herschel, a fascinating character in the history of science.


 

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