Tag Archives: history of astronomy

The Coming Storm

Reports are coming in that an ‘extreme’ solar storm is heading towards Earth, and is likely to affect communications and power grids tomorrow (Friday or Saturday, depending on where you are).

This won’t be the first or last such event, but it’s only since we became so dependent on satellites, electricity, and global communications that a solar storm has had the potential to cause havoc. Before we relied on electricity, no doubt people just enjoyed the pyrotechnics as the sky lit up with the Aurora Borealis or (for the minority of us in the southern hemisphere) the Aurora Australis – and attributed the display to supernatural phenomena.

One of the largest such events to be recorded in detail took place between 28 August and 2 September 1859. Continue reading

Thomas Brisbane: the star-gazing governor

Congratulations to our new Nobel Prize winner, Brian Schmidt from the Australian National University – and, of course, to our Ignobel prize winners as well.  We don’t do enough to publicise science in Australia.  Very few scientists enter politics, for instance.  We might have a more sensible debate on issues such as climate change if they did.

Yet in the past, science and scientists were better recognised here.  The cities of Darwin and Brisbane are both named after scientists who never visited the places.  We all know Darwin – but how many people these days would know of Sir Thomas Brisbane if it wasn’t for the city that bears his name?  He probably pronounced that name differently, too – BrisBANE, rather than BRISbane.

Brisbane was Governor of New South Wales for 4 years, 1821 to 1825, covering the period when the Brisbane River was discovered and named after him, and a settlement began here that eventually became Brisbane.  These 4 years, though, meant much less to Thomas Brisbane than they do to Australian historians.  For him, his main achievements were as a soldier – and an astronomer.

Governor Brisbane

Sir Thomas Brisbane, from Wikimedia Commons

Brisbane was born in 1773 into a wealthy Scottish family, and joined the army, as so many Scots did.  In 1798, he was sailing home with his regiment from Jamaica when the ship was almost wrecked when the captain made a navigational miscalculation – not an unusual event in these days.  This triggered his interest in celestial navigation.  He bought books and instruments, and took to carrying a pocket sextant and chronometer with him wherever he went.

In 1808, Brisbane built an observatory in the garden of his estate, Brisbane House, at Largs, Ayrshire.  He ordered the newest chronometers and the first ‘mural circle’, built by the most respected instrument maker of his day, Edward Troughton.  ‘Mural’ in this instance means ‘wall’, and a mural circle consists of a circular frame mounted on a wall aligned north-south.  The circle is marked from 0 to 360 degrees, and a telescope is clamped to the circle, so that both telescope and circle can be pivoted in different planes.  In this way, you can observe and measure the angular height of a star.  Brisbane’s mural circle was two feet wide; in 1810 Troughton built another for the Greenwich Observatory, based on the Largs design, which was six feet in diameter.

Brisbane spent his spare time developing this private observatory in Ayrshire, but his day job was as a soldier.  Britain was in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, and he served in Spain and southern France, as the British army gradually fought its way north.  Wellington’s army needed all the mathematical and engineering skills it could get, and Brisbane’s hobby was a valuable asset.  Throughout the Peninsular War, Brisbane kept daily observations with his pocket sextant, and according to the Duke of Wellington, it was Thomas Brisbane who ‘kept the time of the army’.

In occupied France after the defeat of Napoleon, Wellington asked Brisbane to work out a table so that soldiers could tell the time easily from observations of the stars and planets.  He also drew up a table comparing English weights and measures with those of France, to help the British commissaries when they were buying supplies in French measurements.  This means he was one of the first Britons to get his head around metric weights and measures.

In 1816 Brisbane was unanimously elected a corresponding member of France’s premier scientific institution, the Institut de France, not because of his scientific reputation, but because he stopped allied soldiers from sacking the premises – what a pity he never got to Baghdad!

In 1821, Brisbane replaced Lachlan Macquarie as Governor of New South Wales, on Wellington’s recommendation.  It seems that he took the job largely because it would give him a chance to observe the stars in the southern hemisphere.  He brought out with him many of the instruments he had set up at Brisbane House, including the mural circle and a transit telescope, also built by Edward Troughton, which is now in the Powerhouse Museum.  He also brought out at his own expense two assistant astronomers, James Dunlop and Christian Rümker.

Brisbane set up an observatory at Government House, Parramatta.  At the time, the most important study of the southern sky was the work of the Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, who in 1763 had published a catalogue of nearly 10,000 stars called the Coelum Australe Stelliferum, based on his observations at the French island of Reunion.  Brisbane and his assistants reviewed Lacaille’s work, a matter of checking the location of many thousands of stars.  They also recorded the return of Encke’s comet on 2 June 1822.  After Halley’s comet, which returned as predicted in 1759, this was the first time a comet’s predicted return could be verified, so Brisbane’s work in Australia was really very important.  He also observed the transit of Mercury on 3 November 1822.  Despite the claims of his many critics that the Governor spent too much time on ‘star-gazing’, in fact Brisbane was far too busy with administration to do much astronomical work himself, though he personally observed the winter solstice of 1822.

In 1825, Sir Thomas Brisbane was recalled to Britain after just four years as Governor.  He left behind his astronomical instruments and 349 volumes of his scientific library as a gift to the colony, saying that he wanted his name to be associated with ‘the furtherance of Science’; the government took over his Observatory at Parramatta, and appointed his assistant Christian Rümker as the first Government Astronomer.  After Rümker left, Dunlop became Government Astronomer in 1831.

Meanwhile Brisbane returned home to Scotland.  In 1826 he built another observatory, this time at Makerstoun, near Kelso.  He was a member of the Royal Society of London from 1810, a member of the Astronomical Society, an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, and presided over the 1834 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Edinburgh.  In 1832 he was elected president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  He died in 1860.

Governor Brisbane was undoubtedly the father of astronomy in Australia.  Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium in Brisbane was named after him, and several of his instruments, including a portable telescope, are held there, on loan from the Museum of Brisbane.  The remnants of the mural circle he brought to New South Wales are in the Powerhouse Museum.  Otherwise few would now remember Sir Thomas’s important scientific work, though there’s information about him on the Sydney Observatory’s website.

Except that in 2006 the curator of the planetarium, Mark Rigby, asked the Scottish-Australian astronomer, Robert H. McNaught, if he would name a newly discovered asteroid after Sir Thomas Brisbane.  McNaught was delighted to do so, particularly as he was born just 20 km from Sir Thomas Brisbane’s place of birth and death in Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland, on the 96th anniversary of Sir Thomas’s death.  So Brisbane – the man and the city – have just been recognized with the naming of a mountain sized lump of rock, ‘a new namesake that is literally out of this world’.

Hamlet’s University

Shakespeare’s geography is occasionally rather dodgy.  ‘The sea coast of Bohemia’ in A Winter’s Tale, for instance, provokes endless debate about whether he was deliberately describing a fanciful never never land – or just confused about where Bohemia actually was.

But when Shakespeare sent Hamlet to university at Wittenberg, he got it exactly right. Wittenberg lies on the Elbe River, which flows from east to west across north Germany, reaching the North Sea at Hamburg.  In Shakespeare’s day, travel by water was the fastest and easiest form of travel, so no doubt Hamlet and his friend Horatio travelled by ship from Elsinore around the coast to Hamburg, then upstream to Wittenberg.  Or if they rode, they would follow the river valley as the most convenient route.

For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire,

says his uncle Claudius, and Gertrude adds,

I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.

That’s the trouble with universities, they make men dangerously independent in their thought.  Wittenberg University was founded in 1502 by Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony – and chief protector of Martin Luther, the university’s most famous academic, who triggered the Protestant Reformation there in 1517.

Tycho Brahe was here, Wittenberg

Tycho Brahe in Wittenberg

Hamlet was not the only gloomy Dane to spend time in Wittenberg.  Tycho Brahe was a rich Danish nobleman, keen astronomer and alchemist.  There were no telescopes in his day, but with his vast wealth, he was able to build his own observatory, Uraniborg, and design his own instruments for observing the sky.  On 11 November 1572, Brahe observed a new star in the sky in the constellation Cassiopeia, and published his observations in De nova stella (1573).  The star, romantically named SN 1572, was a supernova.  It caused an intellectual sensation at the time, because contemporary opinion viewed the heavens as unchanging.

In 1599, Tycho Brahe was invited to move to Prague by the Emperor, Rudolf II.  The Emperor had shifted his capital to Prague, capital of Bohemia, retreating from Vienna, which had become too close to the Ottomans for comfort – they also used the river routes, gradually moving up the Danube towards Vienna.

Of course Brahe accepted the invitation, especially as he had meddled once too often in Danish politics.  Like Hamlet, he followed the same route along the Elbe from the North Sea, stopping for about 6 months in Wittenberg before travelling on to Prague, which is on a tributary of the Elbe, the Vltava (German: Moldau).

Tycho Brahe from Wikimedia Commons

Brahe built a new observatory near Prague, and took as his assistant the mathematician Johannes Kepler.  In 1601, however, he died suddenly and unexpectedly, aged 55.  He may have been murdered; various candidates have been put forward including Kepler (very unlikely) or an assassin from the Danish court (possibly).  Tycho Brahe’s moustache remains in Prague – as his portrait shows, this was a magnificent object, though why it has survived into the 21st century escapes me.  Recently it was analysed and showed that Brahe had been ingesting mercury – something of an occupational hazard for alchemists – but there’s a sudden suspicious spike in the level just before his death, confirmed by a later exhumation.

Rudolf recruited Brahe because he had a genuine interest in the new science – as well as a fascination with the occult.  Part of the work of an astronomer was quasi-political, for they were expected to cast horoscopes – and the way horoscopes of important people were interpreted could have political implications.

Kepler's horoscope of General Wallenstein

Kepler's horoscope of General Wallenstein, from Wikimedia Commons

So scientists could be suspect, as Shakespeare suggested in his portrayal of Prospero in The Tempest.  A different English playwright, Christopher Marlowe, tackled another Wittenberg scholar who was even more suspect, Dr. Faustus – though Marlowe’s magus who made a pact with the devil is a long way from Johann (or possible Georg) Faust of Wittenberg, about whom we know almost nothing.

Just as Shakespeare got the geography right in Hamlet, he also apparently got the astronomy right.  In Act 1, Scene 1, just before the Ghost puts in an appearance, Bernardo sets the scene.

Last night of all,
When yond same star that’s westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one…

According to researchers from Southwest Texas Statue University, ‘westward from the pole’ suggests that this star was in the constellation Cassiopeia, and likely to be Brahe’s supernova, SN 1572.

Shakespeare chose it because a new star in the heavens foretold disaster.  The original meaning of ‘disaster’ was ‘an unfavourable aspect of a star or planet’.  The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word from 1598, only a couple of years before Hamlet was written.  So let’s give Shakespeare the last word here:

As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen. –
But soft, behold! lo, where it comes again!

Clearly Hamlet should have gone back to study at Wittenberg as quickly as possible.  It might have been retrograde to Claudius’s desires – but retrograde is another astrological term: it means going backwards.