Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Some sine qua nons of astronomy

The She's an Astronomer forum is a bit quiet at the moment, so I thought I'd share a little research with you that I wrote up this morning here as well.

Tuesday 12th January 2010: It couldn't have happened without them

It often seems to me that scientists are portrayed as loners, making their discoveries in the solitude of the ivory tower. I expect this is the case for some; but there are others who worked very closely with other people, or were able to do their work because of loving and dedicated support from someone else. It's been in my mind for a while to write a little about a few of these someone elses, because it seems to me that they shouldn't be forgotten. And some of us are just not cut out to be loners - and that is no failing.

Margrethe Bohr (1890-1984)

Niels Bohr was one of the greatest physicists of all time. He wasn't an astronomer, but the story of atoms and stars is closely interwoven, so astronomy would never have been the same without his work - for example, Eddington's studies of red giants and, in the end, all stars, needed to include Bohr's representations of atoms and electrons.

Bohr originally hired Margrethe Norlund to type up his numerous letters and papers, but they married in 1912 and had six sons. (Tragically, the eldest, Christian, died in a sailing accident and the youngest, Harald, spent many years in a mental hospital as a result of a childhood illness, and died aged about 10. But the others did well, and one of them, Aage, also became a Nobel winning physicist.) Margrethe continued to do Niels's reams of typing, which must have been no mean task: letters and papers flew around Europe as many scientists became involved in the the development of quantum mechanics and new understanding about atoms. But she was far more involved than that: she wasn't a scientist, but Niels discussed his work in great depth with her and used her as a soundboard for his ideas. The Danish government honoured the Bohrs by moving them into a grand residence, which other scientists visited regularly, and Margrethe was known as "the Queen" and "the perfect hostess".

There is a hilarious anecdote from the mid-1920's, in which Heisenberg and Schrödinger's theories of the atom were not yet reconciled and clashing badly. Schrödinger had developed his famous equation which cast electrons as waves, with no need for Heisenberg's matrix mechanics and the quantum jumping on which he and Bohr had been working. Bohr invited Schrödinger to Copenhagen, and argued with him so politely yet so insistently that Schrödinger took to his bed with a fever, during which Bohr continued to argue relentlessly and Margrethe had to nurse him back to health!

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

It is always William Herschel who is remembered for the discovery of Uranus - but his sister Caroline was no slight astronomer herself. She discovered at least five comets, including Herschel-Rigollet which is partly named in her honour, and rediscovered and confirmed several others. She also confirmed the existence of M110, which had been depicted in a drawing but not named by Charles Messier. She and Mary Somerville were the first female honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and she was the first female (and last until Vera Rubin) to be awarded their Gold Medal.

Caroline's elder brother had come to England to acquire a position in music, and he invited Caroline to join him and gave her several singing lessons (she was such a good singer that she was asked to perform at the Birmingham festival, but declined). She became fascinated with astronomy when William took it up, and for sixteen years they worked as a partnership. She was, she said, "much hindered in my practice by my help being continually wanted in the execution of the various astronomical contrivances" - but she must have been very devoted all the same. She kept his house, fed him sandwiches at the telescope, performed long calculations relating to their observations, and was once seriously injured by getting caught on a telescope hook. In 1795, William built her a telescope of her own. Later in life she wrote the Catalogue of Stars to update John Flamsteed's work and help William, who needed an up-to-date star index but didn't want to write one; and after William's death Caroline wrote a catalogue of nebulae to assist her nephew John Herschel.

Margaret Huggins (1848-1915)

William and Margaret Huggins were wealthy, capable amateur astronomers. They sold off the family business and built a telescope outside a house in Tulse Hill, just outside London, away from the smog. Their great contribution was stellar spectroscopy. Fraunhofer had catalogued over 500 dark absorption lines in the solar spectrum, and Kirchhoff had finally found out what they were by comparing them to bright emission lines from burning substances: bright and dark lines were particular wavelengths of light being emitted or absorbed by gases. It was therefore possible to tell what types of material were present in a substance if you burnt it - or in stars.

William and Margaret pioneered this new science, recording the spectra of hundreds of stars and jointly publishing papers and the Atlas of Representative Stelar Spectra. William analysed various "nebulae" - many of which were not nebulae at all, but galaxies outside our own (but that's another story) - and discovered that they differed in chemical composition: for example, real nebulae from galaxies made of stars. Margaret, much younger than William, found superheated oxygen in the Orion Nebula (see the tour of Orion!), which was previously thought to be a solid. She once left a note for him: "Dear William: the spectrum you took last night was a bit awful - please try harder tonight"!

They were also helped with the analysis by their neighbour, William Allen Miller, a chemist. They went on studying until they were no longer able. Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest quote John Meadows as telling them: "There's a nice story - or, perhaps, a semi-tragic story - of them sitting in their old age, hand in hand, watching their precious telescope being dismantled because they had become too old to use it."

Charlene and Charon

In 1978, an American astronomer named James Christy was observing Pluto nearly 50 years after its discovery, and was surprised to find that it seemed to be pear-shaped. Others thought it was simply a poor recording because the plate must have been moved - but the stars showed no such elongation. Christy realised he was seeing two objects, and that in fact this planet (as it was known then, though even its discoverer, at the time, didn't really feel it should have been a planet!) had a moon. As its discoverer, Christy had the right to name it if someone else didn't come up with something first, and S/1978 P 1 really wasn't that catchy. Christy wanted to name the new moon after his wife, Charlene, known as "Char". But this did not accord with convention (Herschel had wanted to name Uranus "George" in honour of the King!) - so Christy looked up the traditional mythology and found the name Charon, who took dead souls across the river to Pluto's kingdom. It wasn't until 1986 that this name was accepted, and today it's still pronounced as an "sh" rather than "k" as is the normal, in Charlene's honour.

I couldn't find any information on Charlene herself, but she must have been a great inspiration to her husband! She told Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest: "Many husbands promise their wives the moon, but my husband got it for me".

Many thanks to various Internet sites, especially Wiki.

Inspirations: The History of Astronomy by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest; Physics and Beyond by Werner Heisenberg; and Copenhagen by Michael Frayn.


Anonymous said...

I love reading anecdotes and saying to myself " I didn't know that!"

Alice said...

Neither did I until over the last year or so! Good to see you here Napper! :D

Sakib said...

Caroline Herschel is one of my favourite astronomers of all time! She discovered a lot of star cluster and nebulae, she found the Sailboat Cluster, one of my all time favourite clusters. You can see a great picture of it here although its orientated sideways:
I remember reading the story behind the naming of Charon in an issue of Sky & Telescope once and I thought it such an admirable and loving gesture. It goes to show that many male astronomers were who they were because of the love and support of the women in their lives, another reason to praise female astronomers!