Sunspots, 1903

14 07 2014
paper disc with handwritten notations of sunspots

Sunspot observation record, April 30-May 1, 1903. Image courtesy of Indian Institute of Astrophysics/JR

I was fortunate enough to spend some time studying the historic instruments and library collection at Kodaikanal Observatory in Tamil Nadu this past week. Run by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, the observatory was founded in 1899 to facilitate solar observing. In 1907, John Evershed arrived on the scene to (quite famously) bring his “auto-collimating spectroheliograph” online. You can imagine my excitement when Mr. Selvendran, Senior In-Charge at KO, opened the door to the spectroheliograph room and slid open the shed roof to expose the instrument’s mirror. So cool.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I spent my first day poking around KO’s fascinating library. Journals, books, catalogues, and ephemera stacked literally from floor to ceiling. So much stuff that I scarcely knew where to begin. But when I saw a stack of paper circles tucked into a corner shelf, I knew how I would spend the afternoon. I had only just read about these circles in one of C. Michie Smith’s (KO’s first director) annual reports.

Excerpt from Kodaikanal and Madras Observatories report for the year 1904.

Excerpt from Kodaikanal and Madras Observatories report for the year 1904.

Each of these 8-inch paper discs contains a record of 3-7 days of sunspot observations. Each spot was marked in pencil and assigned a letter (A, B, etc.). Every day, the observer recorded the new position and appearance of the lettered spots as they traversed the solar “surface”, i.e., the photosphere. For instance, in the following plates, sunspots A and B are shown moving from NNE to W between March 18 and 29, 1903.

Sunspot Observations, March 18-29, 1903. Image courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics.

Sunspot Observations, March 18-29, 1903. Image courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics/JR.

Sunspot Observations, March 18-29, 1903, detail. Image courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics.

Sunspot Observations, March 18-29, 1903, detail. Image courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics/JR.

The next image shows that those same spots continued westward between March 30 and April 2, 1903, breaking up as they went. You can also see a second line of spots traveling roughly parallel to the solar equator. They started out as indistinct patches at the eastern edge of the disc on the March 27-28. The March 30-April 2 disc shows how long it took for them to move half way across the Sun.


Sunspot Observations, March 30-April 2, 1903. Image courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics/JR.

According to C. Michie Smith, observers hand-recorded sunspots on 343 out of 365 days in 1904. What dedication, and this at a time when they didn’t really know what sunspots were. Observers just put in the hours and trusted that their efforts would one day lead to enlightenment.

India Calling

30 05 2014
John Evershed and Assistant, Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. Image courtesy IIA Archives.

John Evershed and Assistant, Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. Image courtesy IIA Archives.

I took my first dose of live typhoid vaccine this morning, so I guess it’s official: I’m on my way back to India for the summer. One of the benefits of the ACLS NFF is the research budget—large enough to cover the cost of two conferences and a trip to India in the same academic year. So, in two weeks, I’ll be rolling into the library at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore to complete “step two” of a new research project. Last summer was “step one,” exploratory research in the Lick Observatory archives at UC-Santa Cruz. No idea what “step three” will look like!

This project is still in its infancy, but I’m looking at the ways in which “new astronomy” (i.e., spectroscopy) affected observatory design at the end of the nineteenth century. More specifically, I’m trying to track the intellectual shift of Indian astronomers away from the UK and toward the US in the era of solar astronomy. It seems that even though Kodaikanal Observatory was constructed in the (British) colonial era, the astronomers were working more closely with Mt Wilson and Lick Observatories than with their British counterparts. Maybe. Possibly. That’s the great thing about research questions: even if I come back with “wrong answer,” I’ll have learned something new.

Visiting Leander McCormick Observatory

27 02 2014
Leander McCormick Observatory, Mount Jefferson, University of Virginia, November 2013. Image credit: JR

Leander McCormick Observatory, Mount Jefferson, University of Virginia, November 2013. Image credit: JR

I took the students in my “Spaces of Science” seminar to the Leander McCormick Observatory at University of Virginia for a viewing session last night. Sometimes I forget how fun it is to watch students learn—it often happens outside class, when they’re reading and writing and making connections across courses. So, to be under the same dome with them during the process was really lovely experience.

Much of last night’s success was due to McCormick’s outreach program. I could have listened to Dr. Ed Murphy talk for another three hours. He imparted a lot of information, ranging from a discussion of the serrated blades of the McCormick reaper (really) to the reason Betelgeuse appears red to the naked eye, but managed to wrap it all into an entertaining narrative that held our attention. I swear, even I believed Orion could stand in the ocean before he took an arrow to the head.

I freely admit that some of the pleasure of last night came from the fact that I also got to look through the 26-inch telescope. That’s the largest refractor I’ve ever used, and I enjoyed it so much I almost asked if I could stay late to watch Ganymede emerge from Jupiter’s shadow. As it was, we had a great view of Jupiter and Io during the class session. Dr. Murphy also showed them the Trapezium Cluster in the Orion nebula and blew one of my student’s mind when he told her that “new born” means 3,000,000 years old when it comes to stars.

Approximately half my students under-dressed for the weather, which was bad in that the temperatures fell below freezing, but good in that the class experienced observational astronomy as it would have been in the nineteenth century. One of the things that students can’t learn about the (historical) practice of astronomy unless they visit a big instrument is how much observing depends on bodily motion. We’ve been reading about Lick Observatory, where the floor moved up and down on a system of hydraulics to help astronomers chase objects across the sky. At McCormick, the approach was more traditional—astronomers climbed up and down a laddered observer’s chair that moves around the observatory on wheels. Then there was the manual positioning of the telescope as well as dome rotation (dome rotation still done by hand at McCormick). And then there was observing in the freezing cold, because heating the dome would disturb the optics with warm air currents.

I hope my students had as much fun as I had. Check back in a couple months for an update—I’m applying for a ticket to visit University of Virginia’s Fan Mountain Observatory in April. I hope that my students caught the bug and will join me for the evening.

Observatory Cats

28 06 2013
Deimos, HiRISE ceiling cat.

Deimos, HiRISE ceiling cat.

Astronomy with cats:

Looks like a duck, sounds like a duck…

18 06 2013

I was adding records to my bibliographic database this afternoon when I stumbled across this interesting tidbit in the Proceedings of the Delhi Archaeological Society:

7th March, 1850

A letter from Captain Dewar, of 1st Cavalry, was read, reporting the discovery of a large stone in the Jhansi district, which, when struck, emitted a sound equal to that of the finest gong.

The Secretary was requested to write to Captain Dewar, to ascertain from that gentleman, what he thought the probable expense of the removal of this stone to Delhi might be.

The finest gong? Sounds like a meteorite to me, but which one?

As far as I can tell, there were only 7 meteorite falls (observed falls) on the South Asian subcontinent before 1850. Four of those were L chondrite, two were H type, one was a diogenite. Those two H types could have had enough iron mixed with stone to make a bell-like sound if struck, but the mass of those falls have been located and removed to London (Akbarpur, fall 18 April 1838, found in Uttar Pradesh; Charwallas, 12 June 1834, found in Haryana). So, if Dewar was hitting a meteorite with his hammer, it must have been from an unobserved (or at least unrecorded) fall.

In a list of 106 meteorites known to have fallen in India (both observed/unobserved falls) before 1926, only four of those were proper irons (GarhiYasin, Kodaikanal, Nedagolla, Samelia). Based on date of observed fall/discovery location, none of those could be the Jhansi meteorite. None of the remaining 102 meteorites on the list make good candidates, either.

Unfortunately, I could find no record of the stone being shipped to Delhi. The Proceedings seem to come to an end with the issue I have in my office (January 1953); I’ve lost the meteorite’s trail. It’s indeed a puzzle, the solution to which is probably buried deep in the Museum of Natural History with every other meteorite collected by the British during the colonial era.

The Success and/or Failure of Bob Cameron, Astronomer

25 05 2013
Taruntius Crater (with Cameron Crater). Courtesy LPOD.

Taruntius Crater (with Cameron Crater). Image courtesy LPOD, December 3, 2008.

I wish I knew if this was a cautionary tale or a story of triumph.

Robert Curry Cameron, known to his friends and professors as Bob, matriculated at Indiana University in 1947. Circumstantial evidence suggests that he came from Ohio. His formal name seems to tie him to the Curry family from Wayne County, Ohio (the lumber firm Curry, Cameron & Son, comprised of James Willard Curry and Robert Cameron, formed in 1877); when he left Indiana University, he found work in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The astronomy profession of the mid-twentieth-century had at least this in common with the profession of the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries:  success was partly about intelligence and dedication, and partly about who you knew. Letters of recommendation were more informal then than they are now, but a statement of support from a powerhouse astronomer could (can) do much to smooth over a bad patch in a student’s career. A less-than-enthusiastic letter could dog a graduate student for life, arriving in the hands of future employers before he (seldom, she) had a chance to speak for himself.

Astronomer Frank Edmondson depended heavily on the American academic network when filling positions in the Indiana University Astronomy Department and the associated Link Goethe Observatory in Brooklyn, Indiana. He took seriously the recommendations of his fellow astronomers. He consulted the various Directors off Lick Observatory whenever he had a vacancy to fill, whether it be for a postdoc, instructor, junior faculty, or full professor. He was also diligent in his recommendations to his colleagues, possibly to the detriment of poor Bob Cameron.

At the end of 1948, Cameron applied to study at Lick Observatory. Then director, C. Douglas Shane, asked Edmondson about Cameron’s work at IU. Edmondson replied as follows:

Robert C. Cameron was a beginning graduate student here during the academic year 1947-48. He did respectable work during the first semester. However, about the middle of the second semester something happened and he simply stopped working. As a result, he failed in some of his courses and made such low marks in the rest that it was equivalent to failure. He is an assistant at the Cincinnati Observatory this year, and Dr. Herget could tell you how he is getting along now.

Personality and character are OK, and I think you would find him an acceptable member of a small community such as you have on Mount Hamilton. As for his ability and promise as a student, I hesitate to make any predictions. If he has overcome whatever was troubling him last spring, and if a repetition is unlikely, I would rank him a bit above average in ability and promise as a student.[1]

Not surprisingly, Shane didn’t extend a student position to Cameron. Just in case his caution had gone astray in the winter storms, however, Edmondson sent a second letter of dissuasion, noting that

…for the sake of the record I should say that I have talked to Herget recently and there is no reason to believe that Cameron has overcome his personal troubles, whatever they were. Hence, I could not recommend him to you as a student or an assistant.[2]

Try as I might, I have not been able to uncover the nature of Cameron’s “personal troubles.” In February 1949, Cameron was listed as a Student Member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.[3] He also attended the Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Bloomington, Indiana in June 1950.[4] He is listed as first or second author on a series of papers related to minor planet observations made at Goethe Link Observatory in 1949 and 1950 and is credited with the discovery of  1575 Winifred (1950 HH), a Main Belt Asteroid, on April 20, 1950 at Brooklyn, Indiana. Did Edmondson let him come back to IU after he proved he was over his “personal troubles”?

I’ve failed to track Cameron through the 1950s, but in the 1960s, he reappears as an expert on magnetic fields and stars. He shows up as first author of a paper on Babcocks’ star (HD 215441). From there, he advanced to editorial work on books about stellar evolution and magnetic fields. His last publication seems to have been a 1967 edited volume The Magnetic and Related Stars (Proceedings of a symposium, Greenbelt, Md., Nov. 1965), which received several favorable reviews the next year. He died in 1972, a successful enough astronomer that the IAU eventually renamed a small lunar crater (Taruntius C) in his honor.

I’d like to know: was Cameron satisfied in his career? Did he resolve his “personal troubles” to his own satisfaction? Was the discovery of an asteroid enough to make up for being asked to leave Indiana University? Do students ever recover from bad times if those happen to coincide with their years in graduate school? I’m sure many Ph.D. candidates would like to know the answer to that one.


[1] Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California, Santa Cruz, UA 36 Lick Series 1, Box 83, Letter from Frank K. Edmondson to C. Douglas Shane, 29 January 1949.

[2] Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California, Santa Cruz, UA 36 Lick Series 1, Box 83, Letter from Frank K. Edmondson to C. Douglas Shane, 13 March 1949.

[3] “Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, February 2, 1949,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 61, No. 359, p.114.

[4] Huffer, C. M., “The eighty-third meeting of the American Astronomical Society,” Popular Astronomy, Vol. 58, p.314 (Cameron is #67 in the photo)

“…in scanning the wonders of the Sidereal Universe…”

18 05 2013
Lunar crater Piazzi Smyth

Lunar crater Piazzi Smyth

Charles Piazzi Smyth, Astronomer Royal for Scotland from 1846 to 1888, reminds us of the lost art (and drama) of correspondence in a letter penned to Edward S. Holden, then Director of Lick Observatory:

Clova, Ripon, England.

October 18 1888

My dear Mr. President-Astronomer, Edward S. Holden,

From your noble eagle’s perch and grand employ for intellectual man in scanning the wonders of the Sidereal Universe, how kind of you to make a little leisure wherein to recognise, that after my having, in utter despair, torn up all the stakes and ropes of a life-long employment, — I should highly appreciate a few friendly words from those who understand the subjects I have aimed at, oh! how earnestly, though nearly ineffectually, and partly from want of any sufficient apparatus or necessary means. While from the manner in which you are pleased to allude to my early experiment on the Peak of Teneriffe, — I am now quite ready to let that go by the board even in my own private thoughts, — for if it has had any share in directing a converging attention in America towards thinking and working out ultimately, & I might say inventing, so superb an Institution as the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, with the  friendly mists of the Pacific through the summer nights to cut off the radiations of the heated lower country; and with the grandest astronomical instruments yet constructed anywhere, but all of American manufacture—it has helped a little those who have carried out  an ideal for above anything I had ever contemplated even proposing.

Already too there is a stirring of the public journals in this country towards a new Astronomy emanating from your Lick Observatory, which is quite unmistakable. The rapidity with which, after you were once in working order, a new comet was picked up one night, and nebula & otherwise invisible stars noted on another, & reasoned on as well to the extent of the possibilities of the best modern physical, as well as astronomical theory, — is causing these to begin to express an interest in Astronomy, who never felt it before. Long may you and your well chosen band of friends keep it up, — while I remain in a lower wilderness,

Yours very truly, though lost,

C. Piazzi Smyth

Courtesy, Special Collections, University Library, University of California Santa Cruz. Lick Records, Mary Lea Shane Archives.

Lick Observatory (Wallpaper Wednesday)

15 05 2013
Lick Observatory. Image credit: Rick (瑞克)

Lick Observatory. Image credit: Rick (瑞克)

If all goes as scheduled, by the time this post reaches its intended audience, I will be in the air, flying toward the American west coast. I’ll be spending the balance of the month in central California, working in the Lick Observatory Archives at UC-Santa Cruz. This trip marks the beginning of an entirely new research project for me—new topic, new time period, new theoretical concerns. I’m more excited about this than I have been about anything I’ve worked on to date; I hope that means I’m headed in a good direction. Regardless, I get to spend some time reading original correspondence and papers related to the construction of the observatory in the 1880s. How cool is that?

The above panorama of the observatory building was produced by Rick (Ruei ke). Right click to save to your hard drive, or visit Rick’s flickr page to download other sizes and look at his other intriguing images.

Lick Observatory, stereographic projection. Image credit:

Lick Observatory, stereographic projection. Image credit: Rick (瑞克)

Wallpaper Wednesday: NRAO Green Bank

17 04 2013
Drive Wheels, Byrd Telescope (Pinhole Photograph), July 7, 2009. Photograph by Scott Speck

Drive Wheels, Byrd Telescope (Pinhole Photograph), July 7, 2009. Photograph by Scott Speck

Today’s selection features the pinhole photography of Scott Speck. In July 2009, Speck had the opportunity to photograph the NRAO’s Byrd Telescope. The results are beautiful, the type of photos that move architectural historians to tears.

Click on the image to see a larger version of “Drive Wheels,” or follow the link the in previous paragraph to see more of the NRAO on Speck’s flickr site. His work is available for purchase at imagekind.

S. A. Mitchell and the Leander McCormick Observatory

17 04 2013
S. A. Mitchell with 26-inch refractor. Image courtesy McCormick Museum, University of Virginia

S. A. Mitchell with 26-inch refractor. Image courtesy McCormick Museum, University of Virginia

I’ve written before about the dispersal of the book collection that once belonged to Frank K. Edmondson. My wife picked up a couple more of his books for me recently, one of which seems particularly appropriate to discuss at this point in my career.

Book cover, from the collection of Frank K. Edmondson.

Book cover, from the collection of Frank K. Edmondson.

This is a fascinating handbook written in 1947 by Samuel A. Mitchell, director emeritus of the McCormick Observatory at University of Virginia. It’s a modest little book but it makes clear the entangled nature of American astronomy at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Mitchell’s career as an astronomer opened at the Yerkes Observatory, where he “imbibed a small modicum of the research spirit that [he] found there…” [p. 8] He was inspired especially by E. E. Barnard, who had been on staff at Lick Observatory, and Frank Schleslinger, later of the Allegheny Observatory at Pittsburgh. He was impressed by Barnard’s dedication (“If  Barnard’s enthusiasm for research could keep him at the telescope with such bitter temperatures [-26 F], why should not I, at the age of 24, not take pattern from the older man?”), but his research trajectory followed that of Schlesinger. [p. 10] As he describes it:

The coming of the photographic plate to the aid of the astronomer and of the largest refractor in the world (dedicated in 1897) brought a great opportunity to ascertain what new information could be found regarding the difficult research of measuring stellar distances. The astronomical  world is under a great debt to Professor Frank Schlesinger when he demonstrated in masterful fashion that the parallaxes possibly by photography with the 40-inch Yerkes refractor gave stellar distances with a very great increase in accuracy over the earlier results from visual observations with much smaller telescopes.[p. 13]

Schlesinger’s departure for the Allegheny in 1905 left a gap in the Yerkes program. Mitchell took the opportunity to fill it, beginning his life’s pursuit of the measure of parallax through the use of photography.

The determination of stellar distances through observation and comparative photography formed the core of Mitchell’s research when he became the director of the McCormick Observatory in 1913. Similar efforts were underway at the Allegheny Observatory, where Schlesinger oversaw a 30-inch photographic refractor; at Mount Wilson, where Adriaan van Maanen worked with the 60-inch reflector; at Sproul Observatory (Swarthmore), under John A. Miller with a 24-inch visual refractor; and at Greenwich Royal Observatory with its 26-inch photographic refractor. Charles P. Olivier, native of Charlottesville and later founder of the American Meteor Society, and Harold Alden, arriving from the Yale Observatory in South Africa, joined Mitchell’s efforts at Virginia. [p. 15]

Mitchell arrived at McCormick while on soft money. That is, he “accepted the directorship with no promises from University of Virginia.” [p. 17] Luckily, he was the recipient of the Ernest Kempton Adams Research Fellowship from Columbia University. His fellowship period ended before Virginia decided to pony up some research money, but Edward Dean Adams (father of E. K. Adams, for whom the fellowship was named) decided—after consultation with George E. Hale, once of Yerkes, at the time of Mount Wilson—to give Mitchell a special financial award given the potential significance of his work.

I’m tempted here to start “following the money.” Edward Dean Adams was the president of the Cataract Construction Company, “a new organization of capitalists which ha[d] been formed to furnish electricity and electric power upon a scale of tremendous magnitude by employing the Falls of Niagara to generate the electric fluid.” [see original NYT article here, examine the Edward D. Adams Station Power plant here] Any of you who have driven an International Harvester have used a piece of the Leander McCormick legacy—IH came out of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, founded by Leander and his brother, William. McCormick’s planned donation was interrupted by a downturn in his finances after the Great Chicago Fire. So tempting, but I’ll leave the analysis of capital to another time.

For now, let me just jump forward in time to highlight a few more connections between American astronomers. Mitchell died on February 22, 1960, in Bloomington, Indiana. He was the father of Allan C. G. Mitchell, the chair of IU’s Physics Department, director of the university’s cyclotron program between 1942-44, and colleague of Frank Edmondson. Sadly, Allan Mitchell died young, outliving his father by fewer than the three years (read his obituary here). My question is: did Edmondson acquire this book directly from Samuel Mitchell, perhaps when he moved to Bloomington after his retirement? Or did Allan give it to him? Did he pick it up because he knew and worked with Allan? How did he end up with No. 114 out of a run of 200?

S. A. Mitchell's signature, back page of handbook.

S. A. Mitchell’s signature, back page of handbook

Oh, and why is this appropriate to discuss at this point in my career? I recently accepted a two-year appointment at University of Virginia, which means this little book is making the return trip from Bloomington to Charlottesville via Edison, NJ. I hope someone is keeping track of the movement.