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astronomy

The European Space Agency has just released the first all-sky map from the Planck satellite. The centre of the map is dominated by purple swirls from the dust around our Galaxy, but Planck’s main business is to look closely at the blobby structures visible in the map’s outer regions. These ‘blobs’ show temperature fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the remnant radiation from the Big Bang. Irregularities in the CMB became the seeds of today’s galaxies. The fluctuations in the background radiation were first mapped by […]

Blame the manager, the ref, the team… I blame the satellite. Before the space age and communications satellites there was no live TV coverage of the World Cup and we could all get on with our work and jobs around the house and garden. It was just another international sporting event covered by radio, recorded television reports and on the back pages of the newspapers. There was less tension, less hype and, to put it bluntly, less interest. Oh, how times […]

A few days ago I drove past the ‘umbilical’ tower for NASA’s new (but now postponed) Ares rocket programme. Although smaller it is reminiscent of the far taller structures of project Apollo. Both Ares and Saturn were ‘mated’ to their respective towers inside the vast Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and then rolled out on a ‘crawler’ to launch pad 39 A or B at the stately rate of 1 mph. The towers for the soon to be terminated Shuttle programme, […]

Walk into any museum curator’s office and you’ll encounter a mass of books and papers. It’s not that we’re messy – well okay, I am – but a lot of the material we use can’t always be found on the web. Even on Stories from the Stores. One of my favourite books on my shelves is Astronomy Explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles by James Ferguson, who was born 300 years ago last Sunday. Published in 1785 (the first edition […]

On Tuesday I attended our annual ‘Fellows of the Science Museum’ reception, in which we recognise the contributions of leading scientists and educators. This year we were particularly celebrating female scientists, with a speech from new Fellow Jocelyn Bell Burnell.  In 1967, Jocelyn was a PhD student at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge. Her job was to analyse data from one of the telescopes for the characteristic twinkling of quasars. One day she noticed a ‘bit of scruff’ on the telescope’s […]

Great to see Caroline Herschel making the Royal Society‘s list of influential female scientists. Although she’s often been overshadowed by her brother William, her own contribution to astronomy was immense. In 1772, Caroline escaped a life of domestic servitude in Hanover to join her brother in Bath. William had forged a successful musical career and needed someone to keep house. Caroline, with her fine soprano voice, joined him in many performances. However, she soon discovered that what William really wanted was someone to indulge his passion for astronomy. ‘Almost […]

Lots of talk about the budget this week – and science funding is still uncertain. But as these examples from our Cosmos & Culture exhibition show, astronomers have always had to rely on a combination of persuasion, impressive results and skilled PR to keep their work funded. Tycho Brahe’s observations of the ‘new star’ of 1572 (a supernova explosion) impressed the Danish King Frederick II. He subsidised Tycho’s research by building the finest astronomical observatory of the times. The next King stopped the subsidy, so […]

As today is St Patrick’s Day and I’m of the Paddy persuasion myself, here are a few objects with Irish links in our astronomy collection. This is one of the earliest mechanical models of the Solar System, on display in Science in the 18th Century. It was made for the 4th Earl of Orrery, Charles Boyle. His County Cork title gave its name to subsequent planetary models. Another Irish peer with a keen interest in astronomy was William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse.  He built several […]

This week in 1977, astronomers discovered faint rings around Uranus. Or did they? It’s just possible that William Herschel beat them to it by almost 200 years. Herschel’s notes for February 22, 1789 say ‘A ring was suspected’. It was assumed he was mistaken, but Dr Stuart Eves, inspired by one of our objects, has a theory that could explain Herschel’s observations. A few years ago, Stuart visited our Blythe House store to see this orrery, or planetary model – the only surviving one of this design. It shows Uranus with six moons. […]

While growing up, when I wasn’t busy playing with hammers, I was intrigued by the Moon and I would act out Lego explorations of the Lunarscape. Two interests that that I have in common with engineer James Hall Nasmyth – whose invention of the steam hammer I explored in an earlier post. Astronomy was one of Nasmyth’s passions and when he retired in 1856, he had more time to devote to scientific investigation. He used this 20-inch reflecting telescope for […]

Eighty years ago today, a young American astronomer discovered tiny Pluto. Clyde Tombaugh was searching for a predicted ‘Planet X’ that might explain oddities in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus. Tombaugh spent months painstakingly photographing the same sections of sky and studying the images with a blink comparator. On 18 Feburary 1930, he noticed that on photographs taken a few nights apart that January, one ‘star’ had moved, indicating that it was actually a nearby object moving against the fixed […]

With President Obama’s new NASA budget proposals to slash the Constellation programme, it might be a while longer before someone adds their footprints to the last left on the lunar surface by Gene Cernan in 1972. But in the meantime, here’s a virtual journey to the Moon, via our collections. One of the reasons given for cancelling Constellation was lack of design innovation. Perhaps NASA’s engineers should take inspiration from this ingenious method of transport from 1648: However and whenever they get there, […]