Sunday, February 15, 2009

February 15: William Henry Pickering

William Henry Pickering
February 15, 1858 – January 17, 1938

William Pickering was an American astronomer, brother of Edward Charles Pickering.

He discovered Saturn's ninth moon Phoebe in 1899 from plates taken in 1898. He also believed he had discovered a tenth moon in 1905 from plates taken in 1904, which he called "Themis". Unfortunately "Themis" does not exist.

Following George Darwin, he speculated in 1907 that the moon was once a part of the earth and that it broke away where now the Pacific Ocean lies. He also proposed some sort of continental drift (even before Alfred Wegener) and speculated that America, Asia, Africa, and Europe once formed a single continent, which broke up because of the separation of the moon.

He led solar eclipse expeditions and studied craters on the Moon, and hypothesized that changes in the appearance of the crater Eratosthenes were due to "lunar insects". He claimed to have found vegetation on the moon.

In 1919, he predicted the existence and position of a Planet X based on anomalies in the positions of Uranus and Neptune but a search of Mount Wilson Observatory photographs failed to find the predicted planet. Pluto was later discovered at Flagstaff by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, but in any case it is now known that Pluto's mass is far too small to have appreciable gravitational effects on Uranus or Neptune, and the anomalies are accounted for when today's much more accurate values of planetary masses are used in calculating orbits. When the planet was named, he interpreted its symbol as a monogram referring to himself and Lowell by the phrase "Pickering-Lowell". 

Pickering constructed and established several observatories or astronomical observation stations, notably including Percival Lowell's Flagstaff Observatory. He spent much of the later part of his life at his private observatory in Jamaica. He produced a photographic atlas of the Moon: The Moon: A Summary of the Existing Knowledge of our Satellite in 1903.

The craters Pickering on the Moon and Pickering on Mars are jointly named after him and his brother Edward Charles Pickering.

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