Monday, August 31, 2009

August 31: George Sarton

George Alfred Leon Sarton
August 31, 1884 - March 22, 1956

George Sarton is considered by some to be the "father" of the history of science, having established the history of science as a discipline in its own right. His Introduction to the History of Science is a mammoth three-volume, 4,236-page work which reviews and catalogs the scientific and cultural contributions of every civilization from antiquity through the fourteenth century. He was the author of 15 other books and over 300 articles on this subject.

Sarton was born in Ghent on August 31, 1884: he graduated from the university in 1906 and two years later won a gold medal for one of his papers on chemistry. He received his PhD in mathematics at the University of Ghent in 1911. He married Mabel Eleanor Elwes, an English artist, in 1911 and their daughter Eleanore Marie (usually: May) was born the following year. Though he emigrated to England after World War I broke out, he came to the United States in 1915, where he would live for the rest of his life. He worked for the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace and lectured at Harvard, 1916-18. He became a lecturer at Harvard University in 1920 and a professor of the history of science from 1940-1951. He was also a research associate of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1919-1948.

Sarton intended to complete an exhaustive nine volume history of science — which, during the preparation of the second volume, induced him to learn Arabic and travel around the Middle East inspecting original manuscripts of Islamic scientists — but at the time of his death only the first three volumes had been completed. (I. From Homer to Omar Khayyam. — II. From Rabbi Ben Ezra to Roger Bacon, pt. 1-2. — III. Science and learning in the fourteenth -century, pt. 1-2. 1927-48.) The project was inspired by his study of Leonardo da Vinci but the period of Leonardo's life was not reached before the death of Sarton.

After his death a representative selection of his papers was edited by Dorothy Stimson and published by Harvard University Press in 1962.

In honor of Sarton's achievements, the History of Science Society created the award known as the George Sarton Medal. It is the most prestigious award of the History of Science Society. It has been awarded annually since 1955 to an outstanding historian of science selected from the international scholarly community. The medal honors a scholar for lifetime scholarly achievement. Sarton was the founder of this society and of the serial publications Isis and Osiris which it publishes.

The Lunar crater Sarton is named in his honor.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

August 30: Johann Hieronymus Schröter

Johann Hieronymus Schröter
August 30, 1745 – August 29, 1816

Johann Hieronymus Schröter was a German astronomer. Schröter was born in Erfurt, and studied law at Göttingen University from 1762 until 1767, after which he started a ten-year-long legal practice.

In 1777 he was appointed Secretary of the Royal Chamber of George III in Hanover, where he made the acquaintance of two of William Herschel's brothers. In 1779 he acquired a three-foot-long (91 cm, almost one metre) achromatic refractor with 2.25-inch (57 mm) lens (50 mm) to observe the Sun, Moon and Venus. Herschel's discovery of Uranus in 1781 inspired Schröter to pursue astronomy more seriously, and he resigned his post and became chief magistrate and district governor of Lilienthal.

He made extensive drawings of the features of Mars, yet curiously he was always erroneously convinced that what he was seeing was mere cloud formations rather than geographical features. In 1791 he published an important early study on the topography of the Moon entitled Selenotopographische Fragmente zur genauern Kenntniss der Mondfläche. In 1793 he was the first to notice the phase anomaly of Venus, now known as the Schröter effect, where the phase appears more concave than geometry predicts.

In 1813, he suffered the disruptions of the Napoleonic Wars: his work was ruined by the French under Vandamme, who destroyed his books, writings and observatory. He never recovered from the catastrophe.

His drawings of Mars were not rediscovered until 1873 (by François J. Terby) and were not published until 1881 (by H. G. van de Sande Bakhuyzen), well after his death.

He was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1794.

The lunar crater Schröter, Vallis Schröteri (Schröter's Valley) and the Martian crater Schroeter are named in his honor.

Friday, August 28, 2009

August 28: George Alcock

George Eric Deacon Alcock
August 28, 1912 – December 15, 2000

George Alcock was an English astronomer. He was one of the most successful visual discoverers of novae and comets.

Initially, his interest in astronomy involved observation of meteors and meteor showers, but in 1953 he decided to start searching for comets and in 1955 began searching for novae. His technique was to memorize the patterns of thousands of stars, so that he would visually recognize any intruder.

In 1959 he discovered comet C/1959 Q1 (Alcock), the first comet discovered in Britain since 1894, and only five days later discovered another, C/1959 Q2 (Alcock). He discovered two more comets in 1963 and 1965. He later discovered his first nova, Nova Delphini 1967 (HR Delphini), which turned out to have an unusual light curve. He discovered two more novas, LV Vul (in 1968) and V368 Sct (in 1970). He found his fifth and final comet in 1983: C/1983 H1 (IRAS-Araki-Alcock). In 1991 he found the nova V838 Her.

He was awarded an MBE, and the asteroid 3174 Alcock is named after him. He also maintained an active interest in meteorology (the study of weather, unrelated to his interest in meteors).

His achievements were fairly remarkable, and with the modern invention of CCDs and photometry and automated and computerized search programs that make his visual discovery techniques seem entirely quaint and obsolete, it is unlikely that such achievements will ever be repeated.

George Alcock was also a very good (probably under-respected) teacher of the 4th year at Southfields Junior School in Stanground, Peterborough.
We never really knew how well known or respected he was in astronomical circles. He sparked my interest in astronomy, showed us how to view sunspots on a wall or sheet of paper using binoculars, he also used to take small groups of us birdwatching in the fens in his own time. He called me "Spider Young" - said my handwriting looked as though a spider had fallen in a pot of ink and crawled over the page. - Philip Young (Southfields 1972)
Alcock won the Jackson-Gwilt Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1963 and Amateur Achievement Award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1981. After his death, a plaque was placed in Peterborough Cathedral in his memory.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

August 27: Edmund Neison (Nevill)

Edmund Neison (Nevill)
August 27, 1849 - 1940

Edmund Neison FRS, whose real name was Edmund Neville Nevill, wrote a key text in selenography called The Moon and the condition and configuration of its surface and later set up an observatory in Durban, Natal Province. He also wrote a popular book on astronomy some years after immigrating to Durban.

In 1871 Neison worked in London as parliamentary reporter to The Standard and also as theatre critic, but his interests included astronomy and chemistry. Nevill has the means to set up a private observatory in Hampstead and became known as an amateur with a special interest in the Moon. Nevill was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) under the name Edmund Neison, 'having the curious idea that it was derogatory to the holder of an ancient name to make a career in science'. He reverted to Nevill in 1888 'in accordance with the conditions of a will'. In an RAS paper in June 1873 he argued for the existence of a lunar atmosphere and a later paper defined (low) limits for the density of such an atmosphere.

In 1876 he produced The Moon, described as a translation, extension and updating of Madler. Used many observations and sketches by Webb and other amateurs. The volume 'served its purpose of stimulating interest in selenography'. Nevill was a founder of the Selenographical Society with William Radcliffe Birt, and from 1878 published in Selenographical Journal. This book is still prized by amateur selenographers and is quoted extensively by Wilkins and Moore.

Nevill also became a Member of the Chemical Society, having agitated in early '70s for a Chemical Institute. At meeting of Chemical Society on 26 April 1876 a committee formed and Neison was one of the Fellows of the Institute of Chemistry, serving on the Council from 1877 to 1900. Later he acted as a Government Chemist in Natal.

He was a keen lawn tennis player and much interested in Babylonian history 'which occupied him after his retirement'. Nevill never attended meetings of the Royal Society, to which he had been admitted in 1908, and was known personally to very few of the Fellows. Nevill was averse to photography - no known photograph exists.

The lunar crater Neison is named in his honor.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

August 26: Johann Lambert

Johann Heinrich Lambert
August 26, 1728 – September 25, 1777

Johann Heinrich Lambert was a Swiss mathematician, physicist and astronomer.

He was born in Mülhausen (now Mulhouse, Alsace, France; then an exclave of Switzerland). His father was a poor tailor, so Johann had to struggle to gain an education. He first worked as a clerk in an ironworks, then gained a position in a newspaper office. The editor recommended him as a private tutor to a family, which gave him access to a good library and provided enough leisure time in which to explore it. In 1759 he moved to Augsburg, then in 1763 he dwelt in Berlin. In the final decade of his life he gained the sponsorship of Frederick II of Prussia, and passed the rest of his life in reasonable comfort. He died in Berlin, Prussia (today Germany).

Lambert studied light intensity and was the first to introduce hyperbolic functions into trigonometry. Also, he made conjectures regarding non-Euclidean space. Lambert is credited with the first proof that π is irrational in 1768 and of several map projections in 1772, such as the Lambert cylindrical equal-area projection. Lambert also devised theorems regarding conic sections that made the calculation of the orbits of comets simpler. The first practical hygrometer and photometer were invented by Lambert.

Lambert devised a formula for the relationship between the angles and the area of hyperbolic triangles. These are triangles drawn on a concave surface, as on a saddle, instead of the usual flat Euclidean surface. Instead of expressing the area of the triangle in terms of the lengths of its sides, as in Euclid's geometry, the area of Lambert's hyperbolic triangle can be expressed in terms of its angles.

In his main philosophical work, "New Organon" (1764), Lambert studied the rules for distinguishing subjective from objective appearances. This connects with his work in the science of optics. In 1760, he published a book on light reflection in Latin, the Photometria, in which the word albedo was introduced and the Lambert-Beer law was formulated that describes the way in which light is absorbed. Lambert also wrote a classic work on perspective and also contributed to geometrical optics.

Lambert also developed a theory of the generation of the universe that was similar to the nebular hypothesis that Thomas Wright and Immanuel Kant had (independently) developed. Wright published his account in "An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe" (1750), Kant in "Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels", published anonymously in 1755. Shortly afterward, Lambert published his own version of the nebular hypothesis of the origin of the solar system in "Cosmologische Briefe über die Einrichtung des Weltbaues" (1761). Lambert hypothesized that the stars near the sun were part of a group which travelled together through the Milky Way, and that there were many such groupings (star systems) throughout the galaxy. The former was later confirmed by Sir William Herschel.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

August 25: Harlan James Smith

Harlan James Smith
August 25, 1924 – October 17, 1991

Harlan J. Smith was an American astronomer. He was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, the son of Paul and Anna McGregor Smith. While attending Wheeling High School he was named first runner up in the "Westinghouse National Science Talent Search". From 1943 until the end of World War II he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, performing weather observation.

Following the war he attended Harvard University, earning a B.A. in 1949. In 1950 he married Joan Greene, and by 1951 had earned his M.S. degree from Harvard. He began teaching at the astronomy department at Yale University in 1953, but still completed his Ph.D. from Harvard by 1955.

In 1963 he was named chair of the University of Texas astronomy department where he also became the director of the McDonald Observatory. At the observatory he oversaw the construction of the 2.7m telescope he had persuaded NASA to build in support of planetary missions. From 1966 until 1970 he was a member of the Committee on the Large Space Telescope, an ad hoc group formed by the National Academy of Sciences, the work of which resulted in the Hubble Space Telescope. He also was the chairperson of the NASA Space Science Board from 1977 until 1980, and there helped propose NASA's Great Observatories program. He retired in 1989.

During his career he studied variable stars, the radio emission from planets, as well as photometry and astronomical instruments. With Dorrit Hoffleit, he was the first to observe the optical variability of quasars, and discovered a class of variable stars known as Delta Scuti variables.

He was an enthusiastic proponent of educating the public on astronomy, and developed the radio program "Star Date". He also developed "The Story of the Universe", a series of educational films. He was also a proponent of international cooperation, particularly with China which he visited several times. He served as co-editor of the Astronomical Journal as well as acting secretary for the American Astronomical Society.

Smith received the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1991. A professorship in astronomy at the University of Texas, the asteroid 3842 Harlansmith and the crater Harlan on the Moon are named in his honor.

Monday, August 24, 2009

August 24: Amédée Mouchez

Amédée Ernest Barthélemy Mouchez
August 24, 1821 – June 29, 1892

Amédée Mouchez was a French naval officer who became director of the Paris Observatory and launched the ill-fated Carte du Ciel project in 1887.

Born in Madrid, Spain, Mouchez embarked on a career in the French Navy as an ensign in 1843. This was a period of relative international maritime peace and much of the navy's activities were dedicated to exploration and discovery. Mouchez was initially occupied on hydrographic studies along the coasts of Korea, China and South America, penetrating 320 km up the Paraguay River and exploring the Abrolhos Islands. He improved the practice of surveying at sea, adapting terrestrial instruments for naval use, and was especially concerned with the problems of determining longitude. He developed the use of the theodolite and meridian telescope to improve the error in establishing longitude from around 30″ to 3-4″.

Attaining the rank of post captain in 1868, he embarked on a series of expeditions to chart the coast of Algeria. However, in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, he was called upon to make an heroic defence of the port of Le Havre.

Returning to his Algerian survey, he brought it to a conclusion in 1873, when he was elected to the Bureau des Longitudes and, in the following year, was sponsored by the Académie des sciences to observe the transit of Venus from St. Paul Island in the Indian Ocean. On 9 December he made a sequence of superb photographic plates of the event.

In 1875, the Académie elected him a member of the astronomy section and in 1878 he was promoted to rear admiral and awarded the role of director of the Paris Observatory. The observatory had fallen into disrepair and disrepute since the chaos of the 1870 war and the Paris Commune of 1871. Mouchez set about a programme of reconstruction but failed to persuade the government to fund a new observatory outside the centre of Paris.

In 1887, he collaborated with Sir David Gill to host an international astronomical conference in Paris. The principal outcome of the conference was a multi-national project to compile and index a photographic atlas of the heavens, the Carte du Ciel. The project consumed massive effort over several decades before it was rendered obsolete by modern astronomical methods.

The Lunar crater Mouchez is named in his honor.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

August 12: Otto Struve

Otto Struve
August 12, 1897 – April 6, 1963

Otto Struve was a Ukrainian-Russian-American astronomer who spent most of his life and his entire scientific career in the United States.

Otto Struve was one of the few eminent astronomers in the pre-Space Age era to publicly express a belief that extraterrestrial intelligence was abundant, and so was an early advocate of the search for extraterrestrial life.

He was a member of the Struve family, the son of Gustav Wilhelm Ludwig Struve, grandson of Otto Wilhelm von Struve and great-grandson of Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve, who were Russian astronomers of ethnic German origin. He was also the nephew of Karl Hermann Struve.

He wrote to his uncle Hermann Struve in Germany for assistance, but the latter had died a few months earlier. However, his widow asked her late husband's successor at the Berlin-Babelsberg Observatory to write to the director of Yerkes Observatory in Chicago, Edwin B. Frost, and a job offer soon resulted.

Otto Struve then moved to the United States and began a prominent career in astronomy. He did his Ph.D. dissertation in 1923 and his mother Elizaveta joined him that same year in the US. He became a citizen in 1927 and eventually succeeded Frost as director of Yerkes Observatory. Eventually, he served as director of four different observatories in all, in addition to serving as editor of the Astrophysical Journal and writing numerous books, in addition to his astronomical research. He also served as president of the International Astronomical Union.

Struve's belief in the widespread existence of life and intelligence in the Universe stemmed from his studies of slow-rotating stars. Many stars, including the Sun, spin at a much lower rate than was predicted by contemporary theories of early stellar evolution. The reason for this, claimed Struve, was that they were surrounded by planetary systems which had carried away much of the stars' original angular momentum. So numerous were the slow-spinning stars that Struve estimated, in 1960, there might be as many as 50 billion planets in our Galaxy alone. As to how many might harbor intelligent life, he wrote:
"An intrinsically improbable event may become highly probable if the number of events is very great. ... [I]t is probable that a good many of the billions of planets in the Milky Way support intelligent forms of life. To me this conclusion is of great philosophical interest. I believe that science has reached the point where it is necessary to take into account the action of intelligent beings, in addition to the classical laws of physics."

Otto Struve received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1944), the Bruce Medal (1948), the Henry Draper Medal (1949), and the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship of the American Astronomical Society (1957)

The crater Struve on the Moon (commemorating three of the Struve astronomers), Asteroid 2227 Otto Struve and the Otto Struve Telescope of McDonald Observatory are named in his honor.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

August 9: William Alfred Fowler

William Alfred "Willie" Fowler
August 9, 1911 – March 14, 1995

William Alfred "Willie" Fowler was an American astrophysicist. He should not be confused with the British astronomer Alfred Fowler.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Fowler moved with his family to Lima, Ohio at the age of two. He graduated from the Ohio State University, where he was a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and went on to receive a Ph.D. in nuclear physics at the California Institute of Technology.

His seminal paper Synthesis of the Elements in Stars (Reviews of Modern Physics, vol. 29, Issue 4, pp. 547–650), coauthored with E. Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, and Fred Hoyle, was published in 1957. The paper explained how the abundances of essentially all but the lightest chemical elements could be explained by the process of nucleosynthesis in stars.

Fowler won the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship of the American Astronomical Society in 1963, the Eddington Medal in 1978, the Bruce Medal in 1979, and the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983 for his theoretical and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe (shared with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar).

Saturday, August 1, 2009

August 1: Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell
August 1, 1818 – June 28, 1889

Maria Mitchell was an American astronomer, born on Nantucket island, off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her father, William Mitchell, taught both his sons and daughters astronomy and celestial navigation and her mother, Lydia Coleman, encouraged her daughters to learn occupations and seek independence.

Maria Mitchell, the first woman astronomer in the United States, discovered a comet which was referred to as "Miss Mitchell's Comet".

October 1, 1847, was a clear night. Maria Mitchell was at her telescope on the roof of her parent’s house observing a star. She had slipped away from the party going on downstairs to sweep the heavens. As she focused on one particular star it occurred to her that this fuzzy star was actually a comet. She returned to the parlor to tell her father what she had found. Mr. Mitchell ran upstairs to the telescope and located the fuzzy object. He immediately declared it to be a comet. The next day Mr. Mitchell wrote to Professor Bond, at Cambridge, announcing the discovery. Discovering comets wasn’t unusual during this time but the only other woman to have discovered one was Caroline Herschel. The comet was named 1847 VI (modern designation is C/1847 T1) but it became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”

In 1832 King Frederick VI of Denmark offered a gold medal prize to each person who “first” discovered a comet using a telescope. There was some initial confusion as Francesco de Vico also discovered this comet two days after Miss Mitchell but had reported it first. The confusion was resolved and Miss Mitchell was awarded the prize and the worldwide fame that came along with it.

She also studied sunspots, planets and nebulae.

Mitchell was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the first woman Professor of Astronomy in the United States (at Vassar College). In 1875 Mitchell was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women where she promoted higher education and suffrage for women. After her death, the Maria Mitchell Astronomical Society was created in her honor.

In 1902, the Maria Mitchell Association (MMA) was founded. It brings the legacy of the Nantucket astronomer to new generations. In 1905 Mitchell was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. The house on Nantucket where Maria was born is open to the public during the summer.

The Lunar crater Mitchell is named in her honor.