Wallpaper Wednesday

26 10 2011

IceCube Neutrino Collector at the Admundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Image credit: National Science Foundation/Keith Vanderlinde

Are you wondering what the astronomers at University of Wisconsin are up to these days? Long gone are the days of optical astronomy with a refracting telescope. Today’s research problem is the search for the neutrino and University of Wisconsin is right on it. The above image is a silhouette of the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Collector, a neutrino telescope managed by a collaboration of 36 institutions, including the University of Wisconsin and the National Science Foundation.

Click on the image to see more South Pole and IceCube images, or look here for “IceCube Explained.”

Washburn Observatory

26 10 2011
West Facade, Washburn Observatory

West Facade, Washburn Observatory

I was in Madison, Wisconsin, for a conference last week. I took advantage of the beautiful autumn weather to pay a quick afternoon visit to the Washburn Observatory on the University of Wisconsin campus. The observatory stands on top of Observatory Hill, at a point from which visitors have a fantastic view of Lake Mendota. Unfortunately, I only had my iPhone camera with me, so I couldn’t do the building justice in terms architectural documentation (and didn’t even try to make an appointment to view the instruments inside, where I was sure my camera would disappoint me), but did manage to capture a few interesting exterior details.

The observatory exists because of the generosity of former Wisconsin governor Cadwallader C. Washburn, who donated the money and selected the site for the building. Washburn was apparently motivated by a desire to show up those hotshots at Harvard College Observatory—he agreed to fund the project, but required that the instrument to be acquired for the observatory be larger than the 15″ refractor then in use at Harvard. Work on the observatory began in May 1878 under the supervision of architect David R. Jones (also selected by Washburn), and Alvan Clark and Sons built a 15.6″ refractor for the new observatory, temporarily putting Harvard in its place.[1]

What stands now on Observatory Hill bears a close resemblance to the original observatory. Even before the formal dedication in 1882, the building had been expanded beyond the original program, which had called only for a domed space for the telescope, with two flanking wings to house a meridian circle and other equipment.

Shutter Doors

Shutter Doors for Meridian Circle Telescope, North Facade, Washburn Observatory

The first director of the observatory, James Craig Watson, requested that calculating rooms and living quarters be added; the addition, built to the east and connected to the first building by a short passageway, was completed in 1881. Watson also provided funds for a second observatory, intending to train students with the telescope in that space rather than with the refractor under the main dome.

In one of those tragic twists of fate, both Washburn and Watson died before the observatory’s dedication (Washburn in 1882 , Watson in 1880). Edward S. Holden (b. 1846-d. 1914) transferred from the U.S. Naval Observatory to Wisconsin, where he served as director of the observatory from 1881-1885.[2] By the end of Holden’s tenure, the observatory’s architecture was largely set in place; only a few small changes took place over the next 50 years or so. For instance, the porch on the east wing was enclosed in the 1920s.

Porch, northwest corner of east wing

Porch, Northwest Corner of East Wing, Washburn Observatory

A wrought-iron balcony was added to the main dome (only accessible from the telescope room) at some later date, and the interior of the building was reconfigured at various times to accommodate changing needs for office and classroom space.

”]TransitionLike most observatories of its age, its instrumentation is useful for lessons in the history of astronomy and public outreach. The real astronomical research at University of Wisconsin has moved on to other spaces and other pursuits. The building was completely renovated in 2008-09 so that it could be given over to the UW College of Letters and Sciences Honors Program. Public viewing sessions with the 15.6″ refractor are still held every other Wednesday (or so); otherwise, anyone is free to walk around and enjoy the observatory’s exterior at any time of the day.


South Facade

South Facade, showing tooled edges of quoin at corner transition to entrance


[1] This post relies upon information included in the the Feasibility Study for Washburn Observatory conducted by Isthmus Architecture, Inc. in April 2004.

[2] Holden left Wisconsin in 1885 to become the president of the University of California. In 1888, he became the first director of Lick Observatory.

Wallpaper Wednesday

19 10 2011

First Canaveral Rocket Launch, July 1950. Photo courtesy NASA

I selected today’s wallpaper in anticipation of my November trip to Kennedy Space Center. The photo shows a groups of journalists watching the first rocket launch at Cape Canaveral 0n July 24, 1950 at 9:28 a.m. EDT. Although the National Geographic site identifies this as the Bumper 2 rocket, it’s actually the Bumper 8, launched as part of a project to design the United States’ long-range missile capabilities.

A. I. Eremeeva (А. И. Еремеева)

18 10 2011

So, yes, I’m in the process of slowly acquiring the remainder of Frank K. Edmondson’s library, or at least the parts of that library that are relevant to my work in the history of astronomy and instruments. Many of the books are dated, of course, but still serve as good reminders of the extensive intellectual network required to support a global discipline like astronomy. Really, all you need is the name of a single individual working as an institutional astronomer or academic—an observatory, a university—and you have an entry point into the entire history of astronomy, not just in the United States, but in the world.

The most recent bit of proof of this assertion is Prof. Edmondson’s copy of A. I. Eremeeva’s Herschel’s Universe: Cosmological and Cosmogonic Ideas and Discoveries [Вселенная Гершеля: космологические и космогонические идеи и открытия] (Moscow: Science [Наук] Press, 1966). Inside the front cover of the book is a short, handwritten note from the author:



Reading between the (few) lines, it would appear that Drs. Eremeeva and Edmondson met in Washington, D.C., sometime after the breakup of the Soviet Union. As a token of collegiality and possibly friendship, Dr. Eremeeva offered a copy of what must have been her first book, probably based on her doctoral work.[1]

Title Page

Title page from A. I. Eremeeva, Herschel's Universe: Cosmological and Cosmogonic Ideas and Discoveries, 1966

It took a little more work than this kind of thing usually does, but I finally tracked down a few other examples of Dr. Eremeeva’s historical research. Most of it seems akin to what I’m doing here, although much more professional and thoroughly researched: writing the history of astronomy through a series of biographical essays. Her publications cover a long list of astronomers and their discoveries, many not well known to the average American (thanks, Cold War). It seems that many of her subjects had ties to Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory outside Saint Petersburg.[2] I’ve appended to the end of this post a few examples of her essays. One of them is English, so there’s something for everyone, particularly if everyone is in the mood to read about political purges of scientific communities. I should stress, this is only a partial list. If you run “Eremeeva, A. I.” or “Eremeeva, Alina Iosifovna” through the search query at the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Database, you’ll get at least 61 hits related to her work.

I haven’t been able to figure out Dr. Eremeeva’s precise connection to Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory. It’s her research interest, certainly, but her institutional affiliations all seem to be associated with Moscow, so I’m not sure how she connects up with the history of the St. Petersburg institution. I mention this because tucked inside the book she gave Prof. Edmondson was a souvenir card from Pulkovo.

Pulkovo Card

Cover: "150 Years of the Main Astronomical Observatory of the Soviet Academy of Science in Pulkovo"

Pulkovo Observatory

Inside: Image of Pulkovo Observatory, St. Petersburg, Russia

Clearly, I have more research to do. Look for another post on the topic one day soon.


Works by A. I. Eremeeva, Ph.D. in Physics and Mathematics, Shternberg State Astronomical Institute, Moscow (А. И. Еремеева, кандидат физико-математических наук, Государственный астрономический институт им. П.К. Штернберга, Москва), listed in chronological order:

[Russian] “The Life and Work of Boris Petrovich Gerasimovich, on his 100th Birthday.” In Historical and Astronomical Research (Историко-астрономические исследования), Vol. 21 (1989): 253-301.

[English] “Political Repression and Personality: The History of Political Repression Against Soviet Astronomers.” Journal for the History of Astronomy. Vol. 26 (1995): 297-324.

[Russian] Astronomy at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Pulkovo-Dubna: Phoenix Publishing Center, 1997.

[Russian] “Meteors, ‘Thunder Stones’ and the Paris Academy of Sciences before ‘The Court of History.’Nature, No. 8 (2000).

[Russian] “Pioneer of National Physics, on the 150th birthday of academician A. A. Belopol’sky.” Bulletin of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Vol. 74, No. 6 (2004): 534-543.

[Russian] “175 years of the State Astronomical Institute of P. K. Shternberg, Moscow.” Nature, N0. 10 (2006).

[Russian] “The Troubled Genius of Ernst Chladni.” Nature, N0. 12 (2006).

[Russian] Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910), On the his 175th Birthday and 100th Anniversary of his Death. Astronet (online) (2010).


[1] This assumption might not be true, since she published a second book that same year, Outstanding Astronomers of the World [Выдающиеся астрономы мира], also with Science Press. These are the earliest volumes I could find, so possibly both grew from her doctoral work.

[2] Did you know that at one time, Pulkovo had the largest refracting telescope (30″) in the world? It was built by Alvan Clark & Sons, who also built the telescope at Lick Observatory that displaced Pulkovo as “world’s largest” in the 1880s.

NASA Tweetup

12 10 2011

Those of you who are sitting in my kitchen with me already know this, because I’ve been bouncing off the walls for the past two hours. Those of you who are fortunate to be at some distance from me, well, let me tell you about my Thanksgiving plans. I am one of the lucky 150 people chosen to attend the NASA Tweetup for the Mars Science Laboratory Mars Curiosity rover launch. And here I was feeling excited about the fact that I was going to be able to visit a new observatory during a conference trip next week. THAT IS NOTHING compared to getting to go to Kennedy Space Center to see the launch. NOTHING.

I’ll still let you know how the observatory visit goes next week, though.

Wallpaper Wednesday

12 10 2011
Henry Draper's Astronomical Observatory

Henry Draper's Astronomical Observatory, c. 1880. Photo courtesy of the Hastings Historical Society.

This week’s wallpaper offers you a glimpse at the site of some significant astronomical accomplishments, Henry Draper’s observatory in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Henry Draper was an astronomer, but more importantly, he was an astrophotographer. He is credited with taking the first photograph of a star’s spectrum in 1872 (Vega, in the constellation Lyra). He took the first known photo of the Orion Nebula  in 1880, and the first wide-angle photo of a comet’s tail in 1881 (Tebbutt’s Comet).

Draper’s observatory was built on his family’s property in the spring of 1860.[1] Before building the observatory, he had spent a number of years trying, and failing, to grind a series of 15-1/2″ mirrors. In 1860, his father, the Doctor John Draper, traveled to Europe, where he consulted with John Herschel on the best process for mirror-silvering. Dr. Draper sent Herschel’s advice back to his son, who apparently put it to good use in finishing his reflecting telescope, which he then set up in his new observatory. The observatory was 17-1/2 feet square, two stories tall, and excavated out of solid granite on four sides (the side facing east was open). In 1862, he added a 9’x12′ photo lab to the south side of the building.

In the winter of 1862, Draper took a series of solar images on daguerrotypes and tannin plates. In April of the same year, he recorded multiple images of the moon on dry plates, varying the lengths of the exposure time. He repeated this activity in August 1863, producing perhaps the most significant set of lunar images in the history of astrophotography (1500 exposures in all).

The Moon

The Moon, photographed by Henry Draper, 1863. Photo courtesy of Hastings History Society.

In 1867, Draper began polishing a mirror for an even larger telescope, and in 1869, built a new, larger dome on the observatory to accommodate it. The telescope took multiple forms over the course of its life: sometimes with a front-view (Herschelian) and sometimes a Newtonian mount; by 1874, it had been changed over to a Cassegrain. Draper used this larger instrument to capture the first spectrum of a star (May 1872). He took a break from stellar spectrum photography in 1874 to participate in the expedition to view the transit of Venus (for which he earned a Congressional medal), but autumn of that year found him focused on Vega again with an experimental instrument he called a “spectrograph.” He continued to push against the limits of technology, producing not just photographs of the Orion nebula (a fifty-minute exposure!) and the tail of Tebbutt’s Comet, but the spectrum of Jupiter as well.

Unfortunately, Draper died relatively young, at the age of forty-five. There’s no telling what else he could have accomplished as an astrophotographer had he lived a decade or two longer. After his death, his widow decided to fund Edward Pickering’s photographic spectrography at the Harvard College Observatory. The end result of this money-research collaboration was the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra (1890). Over the next two decades, Annie Jump Cannon expanded the catalogue with her own research, turning it into a rather large treatise that was published across nine volumes of the Annals of the Harvard College Observatory. Cannon’s work eventually led to the development of the Harvard spectral classification scheme  (O, B, A, F, G, K, M) that is still in use today.

[1] George F. Barker, Memoir of Henry Draper, 1832-1882. Read before the Academy, April 18, 1888 (yes, really).

McDonald Observatory

5 10 2011
Cover, Big and Bright

Cover, Big and Bright

So, to pick up from where I left off in the story of Frank K. Edmondson’s career, I’d like to share a few thoughts on McDonald Observatory.

My last post reported the intellectual and labor connections between Lowell Observatory and the Department of Astronomy at Indiana University (established via W. A. Cogshall). Edmondson did the work for his Master’s thesis on the motions of the globular clusters and galactic rotation at Lowell. After finishing his thesis, he stayed on for another year at the observatory, taking plates for Clyde Tombaugh, before matriculating at Harvard University. He went to Harvard with the understanding that if he finished his Ph.D., there would be a place waiting for him at Indiana University, and that’s just how it worked out. He apparently had to choose between the new  position at Indiana and a more established position at UVa. Howard Shapley counseled him to take the place that had been created for him at IU, because he felt it was more important to expand the number of astronomy posts across the academy than to settle into an established spot at UVa.

At the time, it must have seemed like a strange decision. Edmondson had been working on stellar kinematics (study of the movement of stars), so it would’ve made more sense for him to go work with Alexander Vyssotksy, who was focusing on galactic kinematics and proper motion, at Virginia. But, as we know, Edmondson had many successes at Indiana, including his role in founding a cooperative project between IU, Texas (McDonald Observatory) and Chicago. Actually, Edmondson credited Otto Struve for the start of the project, noting that Struve had published a paper calling for more cooperation in the profession.

From Edmondson’s oral history:

[Edmondson]: “If my memory’s right, Struve’s paper is to be found in the SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY. In the neighborhood of somewhere around 1938, ’39, somewhere along in there. Struve had an article called “Cooperation in Astronomy.” And his basic thesis was — “Look,” he said, “we’re training young astronomers, and then they’re going to schools where they have no telescopes at all, and something has to be done to provide them with the means to continue their scientific careers.”

“So his proposal at that time was to get some university interested in this sort of thing, and go to a foundation to get money for a second telescope at the McDonald Observatory.

“So I wrote to Struve, and asked him for two or three reprints of his article. I said, “I would like to have our President and some of the deans here read what you have written.

“So Struve sent me the reprints, and he said, “I’m also interested in getting going as fast as we can, so here’s my proposal.”

“He said that Vyssotsky had been in communication with him about doing this K star work at McDonald, and Virginia had not been able to raise the funds to pay for the telescope time that would be used for this.”

[Interviewer]: “Is this how you got into the K star work?”

[Edmondson]: “And so he said he was sure Vyssotsky would be willing to cooperate with me. So I got in touch with Vyssotsky. He said, “Oh, yes.” He said, “If you can get the telescope time, I’ll send you charts and everything.”

“So I got back to Struve. Then I got busy here — and the money was provided from here.”

[Interviewer]: “Did you start on the 82-inch at McDonald?”

[Edmondson]: “So we started paying, what was it, $600 a year for 15 nights — it’s a lot more expensive than that now!”

As the interviewer points out, this collaborative effort was “the kernel of what we may now call the National Observatory.”

At the time of the interview (1977), Indiana University was still purchasing time at McDonald. These days, IU works jointly with Wisconsin and Yale at the WIYN 3.5m Observatory on Kitt Peak, but I notice that an astronomer from Texas Christian University is using the 2.1m Otto Struve Telescope at McDonald to study open clusters from the WIYN Open Cluster Study. Astronomy—still a team sport.

So, this is a very long introduction to the book I’ve been reading this week, Big and Bright: A History of the McDonald Observatory by David S. Evans and J. Derral Mulholland (1986). It’s interesting enough on its own, as a history book, but this copy is made even more so by the inscription inside the front cover and a letter that was left tucked inside:

Signature, David S. Evans

Author's signature, David S. Evans

The inscription reads: “For Frank Edmondson with many thanks for your help and hoping we got it right—David S. Evans—8th September 1987”

Letter to Frank Edmondson

Letter to Frank Edmondson from Harlan J. Smith

You can click on the image to see a full-size image of the letter. It reads as follows: “Dear Frank:  As you’ve probably heard by now, the long job of researching, writing, editing, rewriting—even a bit of dissention [sic] now and then—finally came to an end with the UT Press publication of the history of McDonald by David Evans and Derral Mulholland. Your long association with the Observatory more than warrants your receiving a copy of this fine book, and you’ll find many friends and memories in it. David has agreed to inscribe a few copies, including yours, making it a bit of collector’s item as well as plain good fun to read. I think you’ll enjoy it. Sincerely, Harlan J. Smith.”

I hope Prof. Edmondson enjoyed the read. I know I will.

Wallpaper Wednesday

5 10 2011
Asymmetric Ashes

Asymmetric Ashes. Image courtesy: ESO

Today’s wallpaper shows an artist’s depiction of what the early stages of a Type Ia supernova might look like.  The image of the “exploding” star shows at its edges the asymmetrical shape of the resultant blast cloud. Using data gathered while making spectro-polarimetry observations with ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the McDonald Observatory’s Otto Struve Telescope, astronomers have concluded that the varied composition of a white dwarf star would lead to an unevenly-shaped debris cloud, rather than a perfect blast sphere, during the supernova event.

Observatories and Instruments