Tag Archives: astronomy

Dinosaurs and the Martian Canals: From Tucson to Tuba City

Road trip! Day one, a long driving day to get up past the sprawling monster of Phoenix, up up to the top of our enormous state. This all used to be two lane highway when I was a kid, but it’s four to six now most of the way…and has traffic to fill it. If you build it bigger they will drive it say the planners, and they are right.

Tucson to Phoenix

I just realised there is almost no traffic in this picture. But honestly. It’s there. It is anything but carefree. I kind of admire the effort some planner put into this though:

Tucson to Phoenix

We put a lot of effort into destroying the desert too… sucking up the groundwater reservoirs to grow crops, leaving the rest of the valley dry as dust edged with an unbelievable green:

Tucson to Phoenix

Like the efforts of a corporate chain pretending they have any kind of authentic history, but without making too much of an effort:


Enough of that kind of effort though. Getting up to Flagstaff, cooler air, and the Lowell Observatory, now that was amazing. Lowell — built in 1894 by millionaire Percival Lowell of the Lowell, Massachusetts mill owner Lowells. You know. Those fucking Lowells. Which makes this a place that combines a quixotic history with quite a lot of space-exploration awesomeness.

So…I was excited to come here because Lowell believed — and tried desperately hard to prove — that Mars was covered by immense canals being built by martians in an immense hurry to channel water from the poles to held save their dying civilization. That is my all-time favourite Mars theory, and yes, yes it was inspired by reading a lot of science fiction (it also inspired a lot of science fiction, as you can guess). But also because a famous Italian astronomer by the name of Schiaparelli wrote a book about the canali of Mars, which should simply have been translated as channels (natural), but were instead translated as canals. And Percival Lowell being one of those fucking Lowells and the guy who funded and ran the observatory, there was no one who could really budge him from that hobby horse. So he spent a lot of years working on these maps, drawing canals that no one else could see because they just weren’t there given the low resolution of the telescope.

lowell mars map2bI still love them. Especially as there are apparently three theories about where these lines actually came from. The first is — his own eyelashes. The second — shit, I have forgotten the second. The third — that he spent a lot of time staring into bright skies and he was actually seeing the patterns of his own retina reflected back the way you sometimes do when getting your eyes checked. That was my favourite.

But back then he had some credibility — this from the New York Times on August 27, 1911 (105 years ago yesterday! That’s a bit of a coincidence).


The Clark observatory today:

Lowell Observatory

Inside it’s even better:

Lowell Observatory

Lowell Observatory

Lowell hired two guys to build this dome who had never built a dome before — and you can pretty much tell. But it works. It needs to move of course, so originally that dome sat on great castors and two men with ropes had to move it according to Lowell’s instructions. The next attempt was my favourite — to set it floating on a course of salt water (to prevent it from freezing). Our tour guide (who was awesome) noted that it worked great. For all of two hours. All kinds of things went wrong, some of the stains are still visible on the wood. So they went back to castors and two guys pulling it with ropes, but then the next director came along and had the bright idea of using tires. So it is now cushioned on original Ford 1957? steel rims and hubcaps — the tires themselves have to be replaced frequently given the weight of the dome.

Lowell Observatory

I haven’t even gotten to the more exciting parts, like the way Vesto Slipher (!) actually discovered from his observations here that the universe was expanding, though his measurements of the various spectrums of stars and the realisation that most of them were moving away from us. Spectrum analysis also proved that those spiral things people were seeing were actually entirely separate galaxies. This meant that universe was actually much bigger than just our galaxy. Imagine that jump when the two had always been conflated. Imagine how the universe expanded then (not literally you understand, but our understandings of it).

Vesto presented his findings and had astronomy’s first ever standing ovation in 1912 — in the audience sat the not-yet-Doctor Hubble, who would first try to put a number to the expanding universe.

Then in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

That turned out trickier than expected of course, given it was not a planet at all, but still.

I loved the Rotunda too, though we didn’t get enough time here as we still had far to go.

Lowell Observatory

Inside we had a little fun with spectrum analysis ourselves. We got to wear glasses.

Lowell Observatory

And these simple and flimsy things revealed wonders when staring at tubes of neon or mercury. Not quite this good, but close enough. This is neon:


We got a quick look at everything else…I wanted more time but we couldn’t wait until evening when they were opening it up fully.

Lowell Observatory

Lowell Observatory

From there we drove up to Tuba City…and a sign on the side of the road said dinosaur footprints and mom said ‘hell yes, let’s do it’ (or something to that effect). We had seen a dinosaur earlier of course:

Tucson to Phoenix Dinosaur

But look at these things, they are amazing…

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

I’m not sure I can say the same about this toenail polish which I bought on a crazed whim — I am never colour coordinated like this.

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

This place is one of my favourite in the world. Mum says it took her forever coming from England to get used to the space, it made her feel so small, so insignificant. Me, I feel like this space makes you humble and at the same time opens you up, gives you a spirit big enough to fill it. It makes me so happy to be back here again in the red rocks. Especially staring across an ancient seabed at dinosaur tracks.

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

We gave our guide and her partner a ride into Tuba City, it being the end of the day, and then found a hotel. An expensive hotel. Damn. But the Hogan Restaurant next door? The best waitress ever and they had mutton stew with frybread on the menu which probably gave mum more joy than anything else through the day — she grew up on that in postwar England don’t you know.

Hogan Cafe, Tuba City

Me, I had a cheese burger — on fry bread. Which was delicious but oh. my. god. Filling. I can’t tell you how filling. I could eat almost no fries, but that was probably a good thing. As it is, I feel I should run the first ten miles tomorrow alongside the car…

Tomorrow, Anasazi ruins! Chama! So exciting.


Dreams of Copernicus: Collegium Maius

Today started with Copernicus (1473-1543) — a visit to Collegium Maius where he was a student. Though never a professor. We had a splendid, if quick, tour with decidedly witty commentary. Copernicus kept his head down in a deeply Catholic atmosphere, kept quiet, and published nothing until the year leading up to his death at age 70. Not Galileo, and look what happened to him…

I am not sure of the moral of this.

Collegium Maius is an amazing place, gothic brick construction along with limestone exuding knots of flint and two most beautiful ammonites. It has vaulted ceilings, incredible carved wood, has been a place of learning and study since the 14th century, and in this form since the 15th. Professors lived upstairs and taught downstairs, and it is most splendid.

I was most excited about the instruments Copernicus used — early ways people were trying to understand our universe before lenses or proper telescopes. They are amazing, these three.

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

The Jagiellonian Globe:

Collegium Maius

Made in 1510 in France and most likely the first globe to show the Americas. In completely the wrong place.

A copy of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, the famous text by Copernicus positing our own revolution around the sun:

Collegium Maius

Many more most wonderful instruments of astronomy, like these from Moorish Toledo:

Collegium Maius

And more:

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

The college itself is more stunning than I can say, with wonderful carved wood and painted ceilings, carvings, instruments, books, windows, furniture, murals, beaten metal shaped to reflect candle-light to illuminate a room, the most wonderful wooden spiral staircase I have ever seen, the Nobel prize medal won by Wisława Szymborska who was a student here, the Oscar and other awards won by Andrzej Wajda, an intricate inlaid door commemorating Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of American and showing the maiden Europe distributing justice to the New World and Africa. We did not, however, manage to catch the clock figures striking the odd hour…

[FAG id=6271]

300_424.8_2016. was only the beginning of a day in Krakow, which also included an exhibition of Max Ernst: An Ornithologist’s Dream (most wonderful) a trip to the Pharmacy Museum (again wonderful), lunch at Noworolski’s, where Lenin once took his mistress (and sometimes his wife), drinks in Kazimierz at Propaganda… but I have no more energy, and all of these things demand more thought.

More posts on Poland:


The Astronomer Caroline Herschel

indexWe have a couple of times wandered down through the countryside from Bristol to Bath, and so we found the Herschel Museum, tucked down a little street. I had heard of Sir William Herschel vaguely, but was happier to find out about the life of his sister, Caroline. And I bought this book.

Put together by her niece Mary Herschel in 1878, it is lovely but I definitely feel it is time for a new appraisal. Caroline’s own memoirs which she wrote are here cut up, put into context, probably somewhat expunged — though it is had to tell through the veil of both women’s intense sense of propriety. The letters are brilliant though, and give a wonderful sense of Caroline as well as how much she was loved and admired by others, particularly her nephew Sir John Herschel, who followed in the footsteps of her brother William.

Caroline lived for an extraordinarily long time, 1750-1848. She was in a position to do astronomical observations for only a portion of this time, but she found seven comets, did loads of work, was first woman to receive a medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828, and actually made an honorary member of the Society with Mary Somerville in 1835.

Along with her own accomplishments, the book offers a fascinating window on the lives and limitations placed upon women in this period. She had typhus at a young age, so only grew to 4’3″. This explains the assumption that she would never marry, and that her role would be to always and forever take care of other people’s families. She was deeply imprinted by her mothers’ ideas of what would best fit her for this life fated for her:

My father wished to give me something like a polished education, but my mother was particularly determined that it should be a rough, but at the same time a useful one… I could not help thinking but that she had cause of wishing me not to know more than was necessary for being useful in the family; for it was her certain belief that my brother William would have returned to his country, and my eldest brother not have looked so high, if they had had a little less learning. (20)

This was not in fact her fate, but always there is the sense that she is still, to some extent, living within its boundaries. She left Hanover in 1772, William persuading her mother to let her go and become his assistant in Bath. In 1782 he was appointed the King’s Astronomer (for a large cut in pay, and a lot of showing royals the stars), moved to Slough. She went with him.

While she rarely complains or talks about herself at all, she does at one point write

In short, I have been throughout annoyed and hindered in my endeavours at perfecting myself in any branch of knowledge by which I could hope to gain a creditable livelihood. (31)

She tried to educate herself. But is always forced to remain conscious of her own lack of education, and her complete dependence upon others. It is a terrible thing, like a straightjacket which she must live within. This despite her wonderful singing voice and musical abilities, as well as her intelligence and determination.

Alexander was obliged to return to Bath…till now I had not had time to consider the consequence of giving up the prospect of making myself independent by becoming (with a little more uninterrupted application) a useful member of the musical profession. But besides that my brother William would have been very much at a loss for my assistance, I had not spirit enough to throw myself on the public after losing his protection. (51)

Still, she throws herself into the business of astronomy to help her brother — an uncomfortable business with long cold nights and a house more like a workshop and a lot of accidents. It is unclear from her memoirs whether this is indeed the intellectual endeavor she would have chosen to dedicate her life to if she were free to make her own choice, but once embarked upon it, she did not look back. A life of some adventure, really, though much tedium and hard work:

As soon as the season for the concerts was over, and the mould &c., in readiness, a day was set apart for casting, and the metal was in the furnace, but unfortunately it began to leak at the moment when ready for pouring, and both my brothers and the caster with his men were obliged to run out at opposite doors, for the stone flooring (which out to have been taken up) flew about in all directions, as high as the ceiling. (44)

I seem to have lost my photos from the museum, all but one. It is quite wonderful though consisting of only a handful of rooms. You can still see these cracked floor stones:

IMG_2869One thing that struck me from her words was the demanding nature, and lack of generosity of the King. I read the memoirs of Fanny Burney long ago, and remember similar surprise at the monotony, and often the level of penury, suffered by many at court who existed to wait upon royalty’s pleasure. Caroline describes in at least one letter an enjoyable evening spent in by then Madame d’Arbley’s company, and that made me happy. However, after numerous people put pressure on him, King I-forgot-which-one-it-was slowly increased the money allowed to William for building telescopes (marvelous, enormous telescopes) and in 1787, finally recognised the work of Caroline:

A salary of fifty pounds a year was also settled on me as an assistant to my brother, and in October I received twelve pounds ten, being the first quarterly payment of my salary, and the first money I ever in all my lifetime thought myself to be at liberty to spend to my own liking. A great uneasiness was by this means removed from my mind…Nothing but bankruptcy had ll the while been running through my silly head (75-76)

She is a funny mix of devotion to her brother, deprecation of her own abilities, and acknowledgement of women’s uncertain position in the world. She writes many years later on receiving the medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, in a letter to her nephew dated August 21, 1828:

What you tell me in the short note dated May 24th…has completely put me out of humour with the same; for to say the truth, I felt from the first more shocked than gratified by that singular distinction, for I know well how dangerous it is for women to draw to much notice on themselves. (231)

I think that last sentence explained an immense amount of her letters and the choices made in her memoir to me.

That last sentence embodies everything that women have been fighting for centuries. When her brother marries and promptly turfs her out of their home, it only highlights the injustice of a society unable to value women except as mothers or wives…she overcomes it all.

She is both observant and intelligent and wise, however much some of her deprecation grates from time to time on my modern ears. Understandings like this shine clear, in her response to the publishing of her index to Flamsteed’s Observations (written from Slough, Sept 1798):

But your having thought it worthy of the press has flattered my vanity not a little. You see, sir, I do own myself to be vain, because I would not wish to be singular; and was there ever a woman without vanity? Or a man either? Only with this difference, that among gentlemen the commodity is generally styled ambition. (96)

There are glints of humour, like this one, in the form of advice to her Nephew John, 25 October 1831:

But do not observe too much in cold weather. Write rather books to make folks stare at your profound knowledge…. (249)

So much of her memories and her letters has to do with being ill, long bouts of sickness, I am sure exacerbated by working through the nights in cold and damp. She moved back to Hanover after her brother’s death, only to be deeply disillusioned by the lack of intellectual society and the terrible mistreatment by her own family. She was no longer able to search for stars, only work on her indexes. Yet she was stuck, and forced to make the best of it.

I loved that this included some of the letters written to her, for they show most beautifully the esteem in which she is held, and her intelligence and humour and the expectation she will share in scientific excitement and seeking of knowledge. There are passages like this one:

I found my aunt wonderfully well and very nicely and comfortably lodged, and we have since been on the full trot. She runs about the town with me and skips up her two flights of stairs as light and fresh at least as some folks I could name who are not a fourth part of her age …. In the morning till eleven or twelve she is dull and weary, but as the day advances she gains life, and is quite “fresh and funny” at ten or eleven, p.m., and sings old rhymes, nay, even dances! To the great delight of all who see her ….

There are a few other interesting passages, like this one from Dr Maskelyne writing to Miss Caroline Herschel , verifying her discovery of a comet, 27 December 1788:

Let us hope the best, and that it is approaching the earth to please and instruct us, and not to destroy us, for true astronomers have no fears of that kind. (81)

This from Caroline writing to her nephew John, 1822

I wish you would let me know if any of the works of Schelling are known in England? Of him it is said that his philosophy is entirely new, and beyond all what goes before, and so profound, that nobody here can understand him, &c.

Philosophy hasn’t much changed I don’t think.

On April 23, 1835 alluding to some misdeeds of Newtons…what news emerged then, I wonder to cast him into disrepute? News we have since forgotten? After relating her happiness at becoming a member of the Royal Astronomical Society ‘our Society, of which I am now a fellow!’, she goes on to write:

I lament very much, in common with every friend of science, that Newton’s name is mixed up with transactions that show him in a diffeent light from that in which we have generally received his character. (277)

All in all this is a fascinating little book, but I would love to see Caroline Herschel become better known and better studied.