Category Archives: Astronomy

From blazing skies to bogus shamrock: Giants’ Shoulders 57

Today we’re hosting The Giants’ Shoulders, a monthly event providing a taster of some of the best history of science the blogosphere has offered this month.

News of a meteor breaking up over Russia and the close approach of an asteroid inspired many bloggers including Rupert Baker at the Royal Society Repository, Darin Hayton, Lisa Smith at the Sloane Letters Blog and Greg Good at Geocosmohistory. On the Board of Longitude Project blog, Alexi Baker surveyed how attitudes to inanimate objects such as meteorites have been affected by changing beliefs and the status of the person or technology mediating them.

An exploding meteor, 23 November 1895, by Charles Prichard Butler (Science Museum).

As the horse meat scandal rumbled on, Mary Karmelek uncovered some 19th century Scientific American articles advocating dining on Dobbin. Historians at the University of Manchester provided the Crufts dog show judges with a precedent: a pointer called Major. More exotic creatures featured in My Albion, which traced the development of illuminations of the bonnacon and elephant, and National Geographic, where Brian Switek explored how crocodiles and tortoises were recruited in 19th century studies of Chirotherium tracks.

Several bloggers, including Teal Matrz at the Royal Society and David Bressan at Scientific American, tied in with International Women’s Day. While women have a much greater presence in the sciences than they did at the time of this Nature article uncovered by John Ptak, Christie Aschwanden and Ann Finkbeiner argued that profile authors need to stop defining female scientists by their gender.

Anniversaries abounded. Frank James celebrated the bicentenary of Michael Faraday’s appointment to the Royal Institution. For the bicentenary of John Snow’s birth, the Wellcome Trust displayed his famous cholera map, while the Guardian recreated it for today’s London and Richard Barnett at the Sick City Project revealed the man behind the hero myths. There was more myth-busting at Genotopia, skewering some of the stories that have been built up in the 60 years since the discovery of the DNA double helix.

Myth in the Museum: the famous double helix model on display in our Making the Modern World gallery is a post-1953 reconstruction using the original components. (Science Museum)

Finally, for St. Patrick’s Day, a quick roundup of some blogs on subjects with Irish links. On The H Word Rebekah Higgitt explored Jonathan Swift’s satirical attacks on the Royal Society and Isaac Newton, while Collette Kinsella highlighted the often-overlooked John Tyndall.  Unfortunately for the 17 March souvenir trade, Mary Mulvihill revealed on Ingenious Ireland that there’s no such thing as shamrock.

Next month’s Giants’ Shoulders will be hosted by Mike Finn and Jen Wallis at Asylum Science Blog on 16 April. In the meantime, you’ll find links to plenty more blogs I didn’t have space to mention at Whewell’s Ghost or on Twitter.

Viewing Venus

UK astronomy enthusiasts are in for a serious case of Venus envy next week, as the planet transits the Sun. People in other parts of the world will have a good view, but while the 2004 transit was seen across the UK, this year’s – the last until 2117 – mostly happens after nightfall in these parts. Only the final stages will be visible at sunrise on 6 June, but that’s not stopping intrepid observers, who will be hoping that Britain’s infamous summer weather proves kind. Here’s a map of events if you would like to join in.

Venus starts its journey across the Sun's face in 2004 (Jamie Cooper / Science and Society).

Or, if an early rise doesn’t appeal, why not concentrate on past transits instead? There are recorded observations for six transits from 1639 onwards (here’s a map of where some took place) and it’s a rich history of ambitious voyages, international collaboration and competition, precision instrumentation and personal sacrifice.

The most famous transit expedition is that of Captain James Cook, who sailed to Tahiti to observe the 1769 transit – although the main aim of his voyage was to claim the Southern Lands for the British Crown. From today, there’s a small display on the transit at the rear of our Exploring Space gallery, featuring one of the astronomical quadrants made for the Royal Society’s 1769 expeditions. These were used to establish the observers’ locations and help check timings, so that measurements from around the globe could be correlated in an attempt to establish the Earth-Sun distance.

Astronomical quadrant made by John Bird for the Royal Society (Science Museum).

We can’t say for sure that this instrument was the one used by Cook – his account of the voyage states that the quadrant was taken and dismantled by the Tahitians, and had to be hastily repaired; this one bears no obvious signs of mending. We do know that one of the clocks made for timing the transits, now on display in our Making the Modern World gallery, accompanied Cook on his third South Sea voyage in 1776.

Regulator clock made by John Shelton for the Royal Society (Science Museum).

Although less celebrated today, the two 19th century transits (1874 and 1882) also saw major expeditions, and were widely reported in the public sphere. This image shows the set up for the New Zealand station of Britain’s 1874 expeditions. It’s not clear if it was taken there,  or at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where the equipment and observing huts were assembled and tested prior to departure.

British Transit of Venus expedition to New Zealand, 1874 (Science Museum).

In the 21st century, there is no longer an imperative to mount large-scale co-ordinated expeditions, as the Earth-Sun distance is readily measured by other means. But it’s still an opportunity for interesting science: the Hubble telescope is going to use the Moon as a mirror to observe the Venusian atmosphere, contributing to the search for extrasolar planets. It’s also a great chance for people around the world to take part in amateur observations, which can be done without expensive equipment.

You can read more about previous transit expeditions in recently-published books by Andrea Wulf and Nick Lomb. And if you are going to try and see the transit for yourself, here’s how to do it safely. Hopefully you’ll have more luck than Guillaume le Gentil, the most desperately unfortunate transit-chaser ever. Happy viewing!


How to clear your calendar (the extreme way).

The 29th of February, a Leap day, is coming up again. On this mysterious date 20- year- olds celebrate their fifth birthdays and so on. What has this got to do with this beautiful armilliary sphere , on display in The Science Museum, London?


Armiliary sphere by Sisson (credit: Science Museum)

The sphere was made in 1731 for Prince Frederick , son of George II,  who died before his father, hence he never came to the throne. Both he and Princess Augusta, were interested in what we would now call science. They commissioned this instrument, which shows the planets circling the Sun, from Jonathan Sisson, a leading London instrument maker. The ‘horizon ring’, the horizontal ring  round the instrument, is engraved with the days of the year and the signs of the zodiac.

However, the first day of spring, or first point of Aries, is not marked as the 21st of March but the 10th. The  equinoxes, when the days are the same length as the nights, had been moving backwards ever since Julius Caesar set the calendar in 46BC. This was because the 29th of February, coming every 4 years, was too frequent. In 1752 , in the reign of George II, the UK moved to the new calendar, when the 29th Feb was not quite every four years. In a stroke we lost 11 days-the 3rd to the 13th of September.  The painting by Hogarth ”An Election Entertainment’ has suggested there may have been riots over this loss, but there is no evidence.

 In some ways the UK was a conservative country and we were slow to make the change to the new calendar. In the 21st century precision timing rules our seasons.

A star-crossed birthday for Dickens

Today, people around the world are celebrating Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday. Hopefully they’ll enjoy themselves more than Dickens himself did on a youthful birthday outing:

‘Slow torture’ … ‘it was awful’ … ‘very alarming’ … ‘I thought if this were a birthday it were better never to have been born’.

Is Dickens recalling that terrible birthday? (National Media Museum)

Dickens looked back on this beleaguered birthday in an All the Year Round article of 1863. The subject of his ire was an astronomical lecture, a popular entertainment of the time. The young Dickens was unimpressed with the ageing and shabby demonstration instrument, ‘at least one thousand stars and twenty five comets behind the age’, with poor likenesses of the celestial bodies and malfunctioning light effects. The lecturer also droned on, tapping away at the model ‘like a wearisome woodpecker’.

Dickens might have had better luck with Mr Bartley’s lectures. Bartley was a comedian for most of the year, but turned his talents to astronomy when the comedy shows stopped for Lent.

Would Mr Bartley have entertained Dickens? (Science Museum)

19th century astronomical shows were often spectacular theatrical events – perhaps why Dickens was so disappointed with the shabby and outdated performance he encountered. Lecturers travelled the country, advertising their wares with increasingly outlandish names for their demonstration instruments.  Audiences might encounter the Eidouranion in Rochester, or be dazzled by the Dioastrodoxon in Wakefield.

You can find out more about scientific showbiz in Richard Altick’s The Shows of London, or Iwan Rhys Morus’s When Physics Became King. Or why not sample the Science Museum’s present-day versions? I wonder what Dickens would have made of them…



Our stormy Sun

Astronomers have announced that they can now track sunspots forming before the tell-tale dark spots reach the Sun’s surface.

The spots are caused by magnetic activity inside the Sun, and are associated with solar storms, massive bursts of material coming from our star. NASA recently released these staggering observations of our little blue planet being swamped by a sunstorm.

Better prediction of solar storms is vital to protect our communication, navigation and power systems. In 1859 the biggest solar storm on record zapped telegraph systems around the world, with some equipment even bursting into flames. Magnetic compasses went haywire. Aurorae lit up the sky. In today’s wired world, a big storm could be catastrophic.

In 1859, Richard Carrington observed a large group of sunspots, and two solar flares. The flares' path is marked A-C and B-D. This was one of the first observations of solar flares, which Carrington suspected were the cause of the disruption on Earth. (Science Museum)

Accurate space weather predictions would allow authorities to prevent the worst effects of a solar storm by taking satellites offline and shielding power grids. With changes in the Sun’s cycles of sunspot activity, this could become increasingly important over the next few decades.

Today’s solar weather forecasters are the latest in a long tradition of sunspot-spotters. Here are a few illustrations from our collections.

A 1612 illustration of Galileo's observations of sunspots. Galileo was one of several astronomers who independently observed sunspots with a telescope in 1610 (Science Museum).

James Nasmyth's painting of a sunspot, 1860, reveals the extraordinary detail visible through his 20-inch reflecting telescope (Science Museum).

This X-ray map of the Sun's active regions was based on photographs taken from the Skylab space station in 1975 (NASA / Science & Society).

While solar weather can be troublesome, here’s hoping for sunny weather of a different sort for the last few weeks of school holidays. Once again, the Great British Summer has been a bit of a damp squib. Some things never change…

Braving the chill on Brighton Beach in 1966 (NMeM / Tony Ray-Jones).

Einstein was right!

We sometimes find that objects in our collections suddenly become newsworthy because of events beyond the Museum. This beautiful, but small and unassuming, object on display in Cosmos & Culture is now one of them.

Small, but perfectly formed (Science Museum)

It’s a prototype gyroscope from the Gravity Probe B experiment, which has been testing predictions made by Einstein’s general theory of relativity: that a massive body such as the Earth should warp and twist the space-time around it.

Four spheres like this one – among the most perfect ever made – were set spinning on a spacecraft precisely pointed towards a guide star. Scientists spent several years ploughing through data to see if the angle of the spheres’ spin was altered by the warp and twist, and yesterday NASA announced the results. They’re just as Einstein predicted.

We acquired the gyroscope back in 2005, while the spacecraft was busy gathering data, and I was lucky enough to meet chief scientist Francis Everitt.

At the time he was non-commital about what the experiment might reveal: ‘There’s many reasons for thinking that as magnificent as the advance General Relativity gives, it’s not quite the final answer. Whether, for example, in our experiment or not one will find anything different from Einstein, I’ve no wish to make any prediction about. Our job is to do the experiment. But physics advances, science advances, by measuring things’.

The results are a huge vindication for the Gravity Probe B project - it was in the planning for over 40 years and the mission faced cancellation several times. But, as Everitt says, we still may not have the final answer.

General relativity is so complex that there are many other predictions of the theory which are yet to be confirmed, and other scientists are busy making their own measurements. Some of the experiments haven’t even started yet. This is a prototype part for Advanced LIGO, a ground-based experiment due to be completed in 2015.

Will Advanced LIGO also prove Einstein right? (Science Museum)

Here‘s how it works … and here‘s how we put it together for exhibition display (cue lots of head-scratching from our Workshops team). Some time after 2015, might this object also be hitting the headlines?

Great Men and gruesome mementos

A few weeks ago, Stewart talked about relics in our collections – often mundane objects that have gained mystique through association with famous historical characters. Recently, I got a close-up look at what’s possibly the ultimate scientific museum relic: Galileo’s body parts.

The middle finger of Galileo’s right hand has been on display at Florence’s history of science museum for many years. The museum’s recently been refurbished and (in what’s possibly a cunning marketing tool to entice visitors from the Uffizi around the corner) renamed the Museo Galileo. A gallery which contains the only surviving instruments made by Galileo himself has the finger in pride of place – and also another finger, thumb and tooth that were recently found.

Galileo's fingers on display (Alison Boyle).

The display stands, made in the 18th and 19th centuries, reinforce the idea of saintly reliquaries. It’s questionable whether these remains can tell us much about Galileo and his work – certainly less than studying the instruments he made, or his books and papers in the Museo’s archives. But during my visit they were by far the most popular objects in the gallery.

There’s an enduring fascination with the relics of ‘Great Men’.

Several apple trees around the country are claimed to be descended from Newton’s inspiration for the laws of gravitation, despite the story being almost certainly apocryphal: he only related the tale of watching an apple drop a few years before his death (possibly with a view to furthering his posthumous fame) and the story only gained wider currency centuries later.

It’s now unstoppable – a fragment of ‘that tree’ has even been taken into space. But if you prefer something a bit closer to the man himself, a number of Newton’s death masks survive.

An engraving based on Newton's death mask (Science Museum).

Almost anything associated with Einstein is highly collectible – his brain, removed during autopsy, had its own adventure, including a road trip across the US in the boot of a rental car. You can read more about the strange story of Einstein’s brain on our Ingenious website, or in Carolyn Abrahams’ book Possessing Genius.

We seem to crave such relics of genius – and the more gruesome the better.

Could studying Einstein's brain ever reveal his reasoning? (Associated Press / Science & Society)

A glass act

Today in 1839, John Herschel made the first photograph on glass. The plate, with the image now faded almost beyond recognition, is in the care of our colleagues at the National Media Museum.

The first photograph on glass, 1839, is kept in a commemorative case (National Media Museum / Science & Society).

The image was of the 40ft telescope built by John’s father William, something of  a tourist attraction due to its size. By the time this photograph was taken only the telescope support frame remained, with the tube already removed – the structure had begun to rot after years of disuse and John set about dismantling the telescope for the safety of his small children.

This is one of only 25 prints made from the original photograph (Science Museum).

A few years later, Herschel discovered the cyanotype or blueprinting process. His friend Anna Atkins used this process to make the first book with photographic illustrations, Photographs of British Algae.

Anna Atkins's cyanotype of a British Fern, 1853 (National Media Museum / Science & Society).

In 1867 another female pioneer of photography, Julia Margaret Cameron, made this extraordinary portrait of the ageing Herschel, who had been a longstanding supporter of her work.

Herschel at 75, by Julia Margaret Cameron (NMeM / Royal Photographic Society / Science & Society)

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed by now that I tend to bang on about the Herschel family a lot (like here, or here). It’s rather hard not to, as various members were hugely influential across a wide range of the sciences. And I haven’t even started on the younger members of the family yet … more blogs to follow, no doubt!

The Meteor Man

Have you had any luck with the Perseid meteor shower? Some UK skywatchers were foiled by the weather, but many people here and around the world enjoyed stunning views.

1866 was also a good year for the Perseids. Alexander Herschel observed the shower from his family home at Collingwood in Kent. For several years, Herschel had been carrying out a regular programme of meteor observations, using a spectroscope to look for the characteristic signatures of different elements. As well as the Perseids, he observed the Leonids, Orionids and many less well-known showers – once, according to a friend, making use of the good viewing conditions at Ipswich Racecourse.

Alexander Stewart Herschel (Science Museum)

As well as his spectroscopic observations, Herchel helped to identify the radiant points of various meteor showers, and link the appearances of the showers to various comets. His work on the Leonid meteors enabled Giovanni Schiaparelli to pinpoint their source as Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

Alexander was the son of John Herschel, and was born in Feldhausen during his father’s famous observing trip to the Cape of Good Hope. The family returned to England when Alexander was two. 

John Herschel's observing site at Feldhausen, 1834 (Science Museum).

Alexander’s career took in the Royal School of Mines and physics professorships at Glasgow and Newcastle. After retirement, he moved back to his grandfather William‘s old home at Observatory House in Slough. In later years he became reclusive, devoted to his meteor studies and often forgetting meals. He is buried at St Laurence’s Church, Upton, close to his illustrious grandfather. You can find a more detailed account of Alexander in this article by Peter Millman.

Take a peek at the Perseids

It’s that time of year again, when the annual Perseid meteor shower lights up the skies. This year’s display promises a good blaze, weather permitting, as there’s no interfering moonlight.

The meteor shower occurs as the Earth passes through debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle and meteoroids burn up in our atmosphere. It gets its name because the radiant, the point in the sky the ‘shooting stars’ seem to come from, is in the constellation of Perseus. Look for this near the familiar W of Cassiopeia.

A woodcut of the Perseus constellation, 1488 (Science Museum)

People have  observed meteors for thousands of years, but their origins were unclear. When this print of the great meteor of 1783 was made, there was still debate over whether meteors originated in the Earth’s atmosphere (‘meteor’ comes from the Greek for ‘in the sky’) or from space.

The meteor of 18 August 1783, observed from Windsor Castle (Science Museum).

By the time of the spectacular 1833 appearance of the Leonids, another annual shower, it was becoming apparent that the celestial streaks had an astronomical origin. Some decades later, Giovanni Schiaparelli linked the Perseids to Comet Swift-Tuttle.

This 1850s teaching card on comets and aerolites (another name for meteors) shows the 1833 Leonid showers in the corners (Science Museum).

If you fancy having a go at Perseid-spotting over the next few nights, here are some tips. And if you’re lucky enough to see some, why not contribute to the Great Twitter Meteorwatch?