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astronomy

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, […]

With last week’s opening of 1001 Inventions, we’ve been celebrating cross-cultural collaboration, and astronomy has plenty of examples. At the entrance to the exhibition you can see a display of objects from our collections, including this astrolabe made by Jamal al-Din in Lahore in 1666. The astrolabe is a two-dimensional model of the universe that can be held in your hand. It is also a beautiful demonstration of the way knowledge is shared between cultures. The first astrolabes were probably developed by […]

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 has now been officially ‘closed’ at a ceremony in Padova (timed to celebrate Galileo’s observations of Jupiter’s moons, which you can read about in a previous blog). It’s been a really successful global project, with 148 countries signing up and thousands of people around the world taking part in events ranging from backyard observing to major international collaborations. The participants of IYA2009 produced a huge amount of promotional and outreach material – posters, stamps, coins, calendars, T-shirts, badges, books, […]

Four hundred years ago today (well, tonight) Galileo Galilei trained his telescope on Jupiter and spotted what looked like three stars nearby. The next night he looked again, and the stars had changed position. Tracking their motion over the next week, he established that there were four of these ‘stars’, and they were in fact moons orbiting the planet. In March 1610 he published his observations in Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger). It was a small book – if you […]