A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The A-Team

A is for Astronomy

When TOF was just a whippersnapper, he had a telescope.  Didn't everyone?  It was, if memory serves, a 2" reflector and with it, TOF discovered the mountains and craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and one memorable night Uranus (still in those benighted times pronounced scatalogically).  Oh, and Mars was a distinct disc, though his moons were invisible.  Single stars were revealed as doubles; the Milky Way comprised uncounted individual stars.  The night sky was very dark, and hereabouts still largely is. 

Harriot, who could have been
Galileo if he had only
his freaking notebook!
We have to learn to see.  What the eye takes in is two-dimensional: the surface of the retina.  Depth is something we make up.  TOF, who had learned from his readings that there were indeed mountains on the Moon, saw them instantly and in stunning clarity; but Harriot -- who saw them before Galileo and sketched them in his notebook -- did not immediately recognize them as such.  Galileo, who had trained as an artist and was accustomed to see three dimensions in a two-dimensional field, did and got famous.  The telescopes used by Harriot and Galileo (and Scheiner and Grassi and Marius and the Fabricii and...) gave low resolution, a restricted field, and (due to impurities in 17th century glassmaking) a slightly greenish tinge.  (Hence, the old saw about the moon being made of green cheese.  That's how it looked.)  And they were refractor telescopes with images that were at first upside down.  (It was not mere bull-headedness that led many natural philosophers to wonder is telescopes gave true images of reality.)  Galileo could not even see the entire Moon at once, just slices of it, and he had to prove that the light and dark spots resolved as mountains (and craters).  So a tip of the hat to the Tuscan mathematicus

A while back, Br. Guy Consolmagno blogged a photograph of a 1957 astronomy conference at the Vatican observatory.  TOF thought his Faithful Reader would find the photo striking.
Here is the person-locator:
And Br. Guy researched the names:
a. Daniel O'Connell (1896 - 1982) director of the Vatican Observatory 1952 - 1970
b. Giuseppi Armellini (1887 - 1958) Studied planetary formation, head of Campidoglio/Monte Mario observatory
c. Walter Baade: (1893-1960) By observing stars in the Andromeda Galaxy he invented our present Population I and II system; his observations of Cepheid variables there recalibrated our understanding of the size of the universe
d. Adriaan Blaauw (1914 -2010) Founder and first director of European Southern Observatory; studied high velocity stars
e. Hermann Brück (1905 - 2000) Refounder of Dunksink Observatory, Ireland; Astronomer Royal for Scotland 1957 - 1975. (He fled Nazi Germany to work at the Vatican Observatory in 1936)
f. Daniel Chalonge (1895 - 1977) A founder of the Institut d'astrophysique de Paris, studied stellar photometry, inventor of the Chalonge microphotometer
g. William Fowler: (1911-1995) Won the Nobel prize in Physics in 1983 for his theories of how elements are made by nuclear reactions inside stars
h. Otto Heckmann (1901 - 1983) First director of the European Southern Observatory; expert in cosmology
i. George Herbig: (1920 -  ) Discoverer of "Herbig-Haro" objects, a particular type of young star
j. Fred Hoyle: (1915-2001) Worked with Fowler on theories of how elements are formed in stars; invented the term “Big Bang”
l. Georges Lemaître: (1894-1966) In 1928, Fr. Lemaître proposed the cosmological theory that has come to be known as the “Big Bang”
m. Bertil Lindblad: (1895-1965) Explained certain orbital resonances (“Lindblad resonances”) and details of the rotation of galaxies; such work has ultimately led to the detection of “dark matter”
n. William Morgan (1906-1994) Developed stellar classification system, proved the existence of spiral arms in the Milky Way
o. Jason Nassau (1893 - 1965) Expert in galactic structure.
p. Jan Oort (1900 - 1992) Determined the existence of a distant cloud of comets now called the Oort Cloud
q. Ed Salpeter: (1924-2008) Applied nuclear theory to the formation of elements in stars; described how black holes provide the energy of active galactic nuclei
r. Allan Sandage (1926 - 2010) First accurate measurement of Hubble Constant, discoverer of quasars
s. Martin Schwarzschild: (1912-1997) The Scharzschild radius derived by him indicates the “event horizon” of a Black Hole
t. Lyman Spitzer: (1914-1997) An expert on interstellar dust, he first proposed telescopes in space; the Spitzer Space Telescope is named for him
u. Bengt Strömgren: (1908-1987) Determined relative abundances of helium and other elements in stars; devised the Strömgren system of photometric filters
v. A. David Thackeray (1910 - 1978) Estimated size and age of universe via variables in Magellanic Clouds; discovered Thackeray's Globules (stellar formation region)
w. Patrick Treanor (1920 - 1978) Director of the Vatican Observatory, 1970-1978
x. Pietro Salviucci (1936 - 1973) Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
z. V. Préobrajenski, secretary of the Pontifical Adacemy
A fascinating number of these scientists are "names" -- e.g. Schwarzschild and his radius, Oort and his cloud, Lindblad and his resonances, Herbig and his -Haro objects, Chalonge and his microphotometer, Thackeray and his Globules, Strömgren and his photometric filters -- or the progenitor of an important feature of modern astronomy -- e.g., Lemaître and his Big Bang, Baade and Population I & II, Fowler and Hoyle and their stellar fusion producing the elements, Morgan and his stellar classification system (OBAFGKM) -- or have had things named for him -- e.g., Spitzer and his eponymous space telescope. 

This was indeed the A-Team of astronomy in their day. 


  1. On a tangent: On The Razor's Edge has been read and enjoyed and reviewed at my location

  2. It appears Martin Schwarzschild was the son of the Schwarzschild radius' actual namesake, Karl Schwarzschild. Still a very impressive list.