Harvard College Observatory

Situated in cluster of red brick buildings to the east of Harvard, Harvard College Observatory (HCO) is an astrophysical institution managed by the Harvard University Department of Astronomy. Founded in 1839 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, HCO’s mission is to advance the knowledge of the universe through astronomical research and education. Harvard College Observatory contributed to astronomical research and both its research and premises are an example of the 19th and 2oth century achievements in the fields of science and architecture. HCO is a place of interest regarding the history of science, reflecting not only the history of astronomy and astrophotography but also the role of women in science.

Exterior of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The building houses the Plate Stacks (©Copyright Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Exterior of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The building houses the Plate Stacks (©Copyright Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The establishment of HCO is interwoven with the development of astronomy within higher education institutions in North America. There were two main reasons behind HCO’s foundation. The first reason was that in the late 19th century astronomy was beginning to be taught as a science subject and not as an extension of philosophy. The second motivation was that universities were starting to receive funds for astronomical research. Astronomy is a science based on observations and exact calculations, so there was a need for a place where researchers would have the means to conduct their research.

In 1973, HCO and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory formed the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). The entrance is at the west of CfA’s premises, near Madison Street, in 60 Garden Street. The first building of today’s CfA complex is the mansion of the HCO. It is a building made of bricks that it was built to safeguard astronomical data. The establishment of this building as well as the arrival of Harvard’s first ‘Astronomical Observer’ in 1839, William Cranch Bond (a well-known Boston clockmaker), marked the foundation of HCO.  The first astronomical instruments were installed during the fall of the same year.

The mansion served as an office, when astronomer Edward Charles Pickering became director of HCO, in 1877. Pickering advanced HCO, by establishing a photographic program that covered both the northern and southern hemisphere, as well as opening the doors of astronomy to women. The new director recognised that the new technologies, such as telescopes and astrophotography, facilitated data collection and made possible to photograph light patterns around stars. Moreover, he acknowledged the women’s suffrage movement and the abilities of educated women. Pickering convinced the Harvard Corporation to hire women to work as ‘computers’, to catalogue and identify stars, a meticulous work originally performed by young men.

 Photograph of the Harvard Computers, a group of women who worked under Edward Charles Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory. The photograph was taken on 13 May 1913 in front of Building C, which was then the newest building at the Observatory. The image was discovered in an album which had once belonged to Annie Jump Cannon. Image courtesy of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Back row (L to R): Margaret Harwood (far left), Mollie O'Reilly, Edward C. Pickering, Edith Gill, Annie Jump Cannon, Evelyn Leland (behind Cannon), Florence Cushman, Marion Whyte (behind Cushman), Grace Brooks. Front row: Arville Walker, unknown (possibly Johanna Mackie), Alta Carpenter, Mabel Gill, Ida Woods (Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. This media file is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Photograph of the Harvard Computers, a group of women who worked under Edward Charles Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory. The photograph was taken on 13 May 1913 in front of Building C, which was then the newest building at the Observatory. The image was discovered in an album which had once belonged to Annie Jump Cannon. Image courtesy of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Back row (L to R): Margaret Harwood (far left), Mollie O’Reilly, Edward C. Pickering, Edith Gill, Annie Jump Cannon, Evelyn Leland (behind Cannon), Florence Cushman, Marion Whyte (behind Cushman), Grace Brooks. Front row: Arville Walker, unknown (possibly Johanna Mackie), Alta Carpenter, Mabel Gill, Ida Woods (Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. This media file is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Moving towards the top of the Observatory Hill there are a number of domes.

Grounds of Harvard College Observatory, circa 1899. (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This media file is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Grounds of Harvard College Observatory, circa 1899. (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This media file is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Since the late 19th century, the grounds of HCO have consisted of numerous domes surrounding the mansion, as well as laboratories, dormitories and a dance hall- today converted to laboratories, offices and meeting halls. Within these premises the women ‘computers’, who were college graduates, teachers and single mothers, known as ‘Pickering’s Women’ or ‘Pickering’s Harem’, implemented essential classification research on photographic images and identified around 400,000 stars. Their work allowed the determination of the composition and position of these stars. Pickering employed more than 80 women to photograph and catalogue the stars, effectively mapping the night sky. The work of many of those women at HCO advanced astronomical research: Annie Jump Cannon, for instance, catalogued over 350,000 stars and developed a classification system that it is still used today; Williamina Fleming worked on the first system to classify stars by spectrum; Henrietta Swan Leavitt generated a law to calculate stellar distances and Antonia Maury assisted in spotting for the first time a double star and formed her own classification system.

Women ‘computers’ at the Harvard College Observatory, circa 1890. The group included Harvard computer and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941), Williamina Fleming (1857– 1911), and Antonia Maury (1866–1952). Seated, third from left, with magnifying glass: Antonia Maury; standing, at center: Williamina Fleming. (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This work is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Women ‘computers’ at the Harvard College Observatory, circa 1890. The group included Harvard computer and
astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941), Williamina Fleming (1857–
1911), and Antonia Maury (1866–1952). Seated, third from left, with magnifying glass: Antonia Maury;
standing, at center: Williamina Fleming. (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This work is in the public
domain because its copyright has expired).

The Sears Tower on Observatory Hill is part of the observatory’s Building A and is now considered a historic astronomical observatory, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sears Tower-Harvard Observatory (Source: Daderot. The copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain).

Sears Tower-Harvard Observatory (Source: Daderot. The
copyright holder of this work, release this work into
the public domain).

This square brick building with a Greek Revival entrance is the oldest part of the complex and was built in 1843. In 1847, a visit from a comet became the stimulus to purchase the 15-inch Great Refractor from Munich. This, HCO’s first telescope, was placed in the Sears Tower and was active for nearly 75 years. It was the most important device for astronomical research in the United States for 20 years.  This telescope contributed to important achievements in astronomy: the discovery of the eighth satellite of Saturn in 1848; the first observation of Saturn’s inner ring in 1850; the first daguerreotype of the bright Vega, in 1850, as well as to take detailed images of the moon (1847 – 1852). In 1851, these first clear photographs of the moon were honoured with an award at the Great Exhibition in London. During the past 50 years, the Great Refractor has been used for public ‘Observatory Nights’ and special research projects. It is now being restored. The Sears Tower is now used as a laboratory, library and observatory.

 

Sketch of the 15-inch Great Refractor telescope at Harvard College Observatory (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Sketch of the 15-inch Great Refractor
telescope at Harvard College Observatory
(Source: Harvard College Observatory. This
is a faithful photographic reproduction of a
two-dimensional, public domain work of
art. The work of art itself is in the public
domain because its copyright has expired).

In 1955, Donald Menzel, chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University and Director of the HCO, supported the relocation of the the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) to Cambridge. George Field facilitated the interactions between HCO and SAO by creating the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in 1973.  HCO is now part of the CfA that supports research in astronomy and astrophysics as well as sponsoring a variety of workshops, conferences and seminars. Additionally, CfA is a venue aimed at engaging the public with science by organising ‘Observatory Nights’- free of charge for the public- at the premises of the HCO, as well as by hosting lectures and events on astronomy throughout the year.

Harvard Observatory Photographic Plate, 1897. This telescopic image of the Large Magellanic Cloud was produced on a photographic plate by Harvard Observatory. Each individual notation made on the plate denotes a star, astronomical object or area of interest designated for possible further investigation (Source: Harvard College Observatory. This work is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Harvard Observatory Photographic Plate,
1897. This telescopic image of the Large
Magellanic Cloud was produced on a
photographic plate by Harvard Observatory.
Each individual notation made on the plate
denotes a star, astronomical object or area of
interest designated for possible further
investigation (Source: Harvard College
Observatory. This work is in the public
domain because its copyright has expired).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alison Doane, curator of a glass database, highlighted the contribution of HCO in astronomical research stressing that: ‘Besides being 25 percent of the world’s total of astronomical photographic plates, this is the only collection that covers both hemispheres,’ (The New York Times, July 10, 2007). HCO houses now a collection of historic significance which includes around 500,000 glass astronomical plates (mid 1880s – 1989) as well as Daguerreotypes and collodion plates of the planets, the moon, the sun and solar eclipses (1849 – 1885). Digital Access to a Sky Century @Harvard (DASCH) is a project in progress which aims at digitalising and archiving these glass plates that cover 100 years of temporal variations in the universe.

Plate Stacks at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (©Copyright Ashley P, 1 June, 2008, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Plate Stacks at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (©Copyright Ashley P, 1 June, 2008, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Address:

Further information

Books & Articles

Bailey, S. I., The History and work of Harvard Observatory, 1839 to 1927: an outline of the origin, development, and researches of the astronomical observatory of Harvard college together with a brief biographies of its leading members’ Published for the Observatory, (McGraw-Hill Book Company, INC: New York and London, 1931)

Bunch, B.H., & Hellemans, A., The History of Science and Technology: A browser’s guide to the great discoveries, inventions, and the people who made them, from the dawn of time to today, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Hoffleit, D., Women in the History of Variable Star Astronomy, (The American Association of Variable Star Observers: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993)

Jones, B.Z., The Harvard College Observatory: The First Four Directorships, 1839-1919, (Harvard University Press:  Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971)

Mack, P. E., ‘Strategies and Compromises – Women in Astronomy at Harvard College Observatory 1870-1920’, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 21:1, (1990): 65- 76

Websites

Harvard College Observatory, http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/hco/

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/

Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College, volume III http://ads.harvard.edu/books/hcoann/toc.html

Johnson G., ‘A Trip Back in Time and Space’, The New York Times, 10 July, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/10/science/10astro.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard (DASCH),  http://dasch.rc.fas.harvard.edu/status.php

The ‘Harvard Computers’, http://www.womeninscience.org/story.php?storyID=108

The women who mapped the universe and still couldn’t get any respect, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-women-who-mapped-the-universe-and-still-couldnt-get-any-respect-9287444/?no-ist

Albert Einstein Memorial, Washington D.C.

Einstein statue, Washington DC

Einstein statue, Washington DC

The Albert Einstein Memorial, located just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C. near the corner of 21st Street northwest and Constitution Avenue, is the official monument to Einstein in the United States. Free to the public, it is situated in a shady grove of trees in front of the headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) . Einstein was elected a foreign associate of the NAS in 1922 and a full member in 1942.

The Einstein Memorial features a 12 foot bronze statue of Einstein that weighs about 4 tonnes. The sculptor, Robert Berks (1922- ), modeled it after a bust he had made from a portrait sitting with Einstein in 1953. Consequently, it portrays the founder of relativity in his final years.

Einstein is depicted sitting on a three-step granite bench reading a paper with a set of equations. These equations summarize the results of three of Einstein’s most important contributions to physics: the photoelectric effect, the general theory of relativity and the famous relationship between energy and mass.

Einstein statue detail

Einstein statue detail showing a set of Einstein's most famous equations

Engraved in the bench are three different quotations attributed to Einstein:

As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.

Joy and amazement of the beauty and grandeur of this world of which man can just form a faint notion …

The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.

At the base of the statue is a granite field speckled with over 2700 metal studs. These represent the position of the celestial objects in the sky at the time the memorial was dedicated, as ascertained by astronomers at the US Naval Observatory. The unveiling took place on April 22, 1979, during a meeting of the NAS that honoured Einstein’s centennial year.

The stately NAS building, just a few steps from the Memorial, stands as an emblem of the dedication of astrophysicist George Ellery Hale (1868-1938) to construct suitably elegant quarters for the esteemed organisation. A pioneer in the field of solar spectroscopy, inventor of the spectrohelioscope and founder of Mt. Wilson Observatory, Hale was elected to the NAS in 1902. Almost immediately, he set out to reform the organisation and transform it into an active force for the promotion of science. An 1863 act of the U.S. Congress had established the NAS as an honorific society but didn’t provide it with dedicated quarters. Hale pushed for the founding of an arm of the NAS, called the National Research Council (NRC), to enable scientists to help guide government policy. With the establishment of the NRC in 1916, Hale argued that the NAS required a proper headquarters. He personally sought out noted architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, led a fundraising campaign for the building, oversaw its design and even contributed the motto inscribed in the dome of its Great Hall. Hale wrote:

To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature’s laws, eternal guide to truth.

National Academy of Sciences (NAS) headquarters

National Academy of Sciences (NAS) headquarters

Location: 2101 Constitution avenue northwest, Washington, DC

Parts of this description are excerpted from my article “Washington: A DC Circuit Tour.”

References:

  1. Paul Halpern, “Washington: A DC Circuit Tour,” Physics in Perspective 12, No. 4, (2010), pp. 443-466
  2. “The Einstein Memorial,” National Academy of Sciences, http://www.nasonline.org

Norman Lockyer Observatory, Devon, England

Introduction

Norman Lockyer Observatory and James Lockyer Planetarium

Norman Lockyer Observatory and James Lockyer Planetarium, by Paul Lang. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales license.

The Norman Lockyer Observatory is situated on Salcombe Hill to the east of Sidmouth off the road from Sidmouth to Salcombe Regis. It is owned by the East Devon District Council but is operated on a voluntary basis by and for the members of the Norman Lockyer Observatory Society. Its principal facilities include three Victorian refracting telescopes and two modern reflectors, a planetarium, equipment for amateur radio reception and transmission, a meteorological station, an exhibition area, a library and a lecture theatre.

The Observatory is not constantly manned but is open to the public at listed times (mainly on Saturday evenings and Wednesday afternoons) and for prearranged visits by schools and other groups. There are guided tours of the telescopes, with observing when the conditions are suitable, and presentations of the planetarium. There are occasional special events and an annual Astronomy Fair, with trade stands and lectures by eminent astronomers as well as tours and planetarium presentations, in early August. There are charges for these visits and events.

A brief history of the period 1912 to 1989

Norman Lockyer was a Victorian amateur astronomer who became the director of the Solar Physics Observatory at South Kensington and the first professor of astronomical physics in the Normal School of Science (now the Royal College of Science) in 1887. He was knighted in 1897. His second marriage in 1903 was to a widow who had inherited land in Sidmouth where they built a retirement home in 1910. On the suggestion of Francis McClean, the son of the wealthy amateur astronomer Frank McClean, Lockyer obtained support in 1912 for the building of the Hill Observatory on the hill above the Lockyer house. McClean donated a telescope from his father’s observatory at Tunbridge Wells and Lockyer obtained a telescope that was no longer required by the Solar Physics Observatory, which was to be moved to Cambridge. They and others also donated money and other equipment. The Hill Observatory Corporation was established in 1916.

The activities largely ceased during the 1914-1918 war, but were resumed in 1919 when Lockyer’s son James was released from his duties in the Royal Air Force and Donald Edwards was appointed as an assistant. Sir Norman Lockyer died in 1920, the Observatory was renamed in his honour and James became the Director. The McClean Telescope has 10-inch visual and 12-inch photographic refractors and while the Kensington Telescope has 10-inch and 9-inch refractors; both were used largely for stellar spectroscopic observations. The Mond Dome and Telescope were funded by Sir Robert Mond, who was then the chairman of the Corporation, and were inaugurated in 1932. The telescope actually consisted of four separate cameras of different focal lengths that were used mainly for survey purposes.

James Lockyer died suddenly in 1936 and was succeeded by Edwards, who was then assisted by Donald Barber. Observations were interrupted by the 1939-1945 war. Lady Lockyer died in 1943 and bequeathed her house and land to the Corporation. Nevertheless the funds of the Corporation were very low, but the University College of the South West of England (now the University of Exeter) agreed to support the astronomical activities. Edwards died in 1956 and was succeeded by Barber who retired in 1961. Astronomical observations then ceased and the site was used by the Department of Physics at the University for geophysical observations until about 1980. The University, which controlled but did not own the Corporation, wished to sell the site for development, but this was thwarted when the domes were listed as of historic interest. The site was eventually bought by the East Devon District Council in 1986. It was able to sell the outbuildings for private use and some land was sold to the National Trust following a local Landscape Appeal. The Council was then able to refurbish the site and to extend the Mond Dome to provide facilities for use by the Sidmouth and District Astronomical Society and the Sidmouth Amateur Radio Society under the terms of a Trust Fund.

Developments after 1989

Norman Lockyer Observatory, Sidmouth

Norman Lockyer Observatory, Sidmouth, by David Stowell. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The Observatory was formally reopened by Patrick Moore on 28 October 1989. Unfortunately the Mond Telescope had been vandalised, but the Dome was used for public presentations by a GoTo planetarium that had been obtained from St Luke’s College in Exeter. Both societies flourished and the Astronomical Society had to hold its main monthly meeting at the Arts Centre in Sidmouth as the meeting room at the Observatory became too small. A grant was obtained for the purchase of a CCD-camera and computer system so that the McClean Telescope could be used show live images on a TV screen to visitors. Moreover the number of open periods for visits by the public and schools exceeded the expectations of the Council. It agreed to provide a large extension to the Mond building to include an entrance and exhibition area, a large dome for the James Lockyer Planetarium, an extra room for the Radio Society, as well as toilet facilities and a kitchen. This new facility was opened by Patrick Moore on 29 September 1995.

At this time the two societies merged to form the Norman Lockyer Observatory Society as a company limited by guarantee and with the status of an educational charity. The activities expanded to include meteorology and an observing station; local statistics and images from satellites are shown during open periods. The Mond Dome was used for the telescope that Lockyer had used as an amateur; it was re-inaugurated by Heather Couper, a national TV personality, in 1996. A 12-inch computer-controlled reflector was installed in the new Victoria Dome, which was opened by Craig Rich, a local TV meteorologist, in 1999. The Donald Barber lecture theatre was added to the main building and was formally opened in 2006. It is used for Society meetings, introductory talks to visitors and occasionally by other organisations. The GoTo planetarium projector was replaced by a Spitz projector from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. A new dome is under construction for a 20-inch reflector that was given to the Observatory a few years ago.

Further information

Address: Norman Lockyer Observatory, Salcombe Hill Road, Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 0NY, England
Website: http://projects.exeter.ac.uk/nlo/

Sweden Solar System

Stockholm Globe Arena from northeast

Stockholm Globe Arena from northeast by Tage Olsin. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Ericsson Globe represents the sun. The rest of the solar system is scattered in, and north of, Stockholm.

Sweden: land of high taxes, origin of Volvo and the epicentre from whence Abba spread. Also, the home of the Solar System.

It is actually the World’s largest, permanently exhibited, scale model of the Solar System, and growing. Perhaps due to its more trivial standpoint in terms of science engagement, and not to mentioned geographical locations, it is little known outside Sweden.

Plasma physicist Nils Brenning and astronomer Gösta Gahm are the founders and co-ordinator of the Sweden Solar System (SSS) project, with the aim of linking the project to each of the local “stations” that feature a planet, satellite or other celestial body. At a scale of 1:20 million, the model may sound small, but the distances between each “station” further emphasises the vastness of the real thing. The Sun is represented by the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, a well known sports arena and concert venue, famous for its likeness to a golfball; including the “corona”, it measures 110 metres in diameter. The Earth (65 cm in diameter), complete with Moon (18 cm in diameter) but no other satellites, sit in Stockholm’s Natural History museum, 7.6 km North-North-West of the Globe. True to life, the two objects are kept in different permanent exhibitions to maintain the correct scale. The museum also houses Stockholm’s other hemi-spherical roof (the first one being the Globe), or rather ceiling: that of Cosmonova, a near-360 degree-vision IMAX planetarium.

Sweden Solar System: Venus

Sweden Solar System: Venus, by Joongi Kim. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

So far, all eight official planets and dwarf-planet Pluto are in place, at distances from 2.9 km (Mercury) to 300 km (Pluto) from the Globe Northwards. Not limiting themselves to metallic spheres, Jupiter is presently a flower arrangement on a roundabout island outside Arlanda airport; Neptune is an acrylic sphere that shines with the planet’s iconic blue light at night. Comets like Halley and Swift-Tuttle have also been introduced to the system, though South-West of the Globe; foundations have been built for a representation of Termination Shock, the edge of the heliosphere, at the Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna, some 950 km North of the Globe, above the Arctic Circle.

Of course, most tourists do not have the time to fling up and down the coast of the Baltic Sea looking for a lot of small, round things, so it is fortunate that most of this Solar System can be found close to Stockholm.

Website: Sweden Solar System: English summary

Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge

Early Astronomy in Cambridge

A 19th century view of the Cambridge Observatory

A 19th century view of the Cambridge Observatory

Astronomers have made their home in Cambridge since medieval times. John Holbrook, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge (1418-36) compiled the ‘Tabulae Cantabrigienses’ for 1430 and C. Kyngeston a Fellow of Peterhouse made observations on the eclipse of the sun in Cambridge on 24 May 1517.  Still perhaps the most famous scientist to study in Cambridge was Sir Isaac Newton, who as a Fellow of Trinity College compiled his famous work the ‘Principia Mathematica’ published in 1687.

In 1704 the Rev. Thomas Plume left money in his will for a chair of astronomy, which became known as the Plumian Professorship.  The Plumian professor had access to an observatory built on to the Gate House of Trinity College from 1739 to 1797, and another observatory existed from 1765 to 1859 at St. Johns College [1].  However, there was a need for a modern observatory on a good site away from the smoke of the town.

The Cambridge Observatory

The Cambridge Observatory was established on the western outskirts of Cambridge in 1823.  It was funded half by the University of Cambridge and half by public subscription.  Of the money raised, the largest sum was spent on the impressive neo-classical observatory building.  Money was then needed for instruments and for staff.

The Observatory was supervised by the Plumian Professor of Astronomy, who in turn reported to a University committee known as the Observatory Syndicate.  The Professor was provided with a house forming the east wing of the building.  The first Plumian Professor to take residence was Robert Woodhouse (1773-1827).  Woodhouse had published ‘An elementary treatise on astronomy’ in 1812, but by the time the Observatory had opened, he was already ill and died in December 1827.  The first effective Director of the Observatory was therefore G. B. Airy (1801-1892), who succeeded to the Plumian Chair.  Airy played a significant role in obtaining the Northumberland Telescope in 1838, a 12-inch refractor still present in a dome in the grounds [2].

The Neptune Affair

When Airy left Cambridge to take up his post as Astronomer Royal in 1835, his successor as Plumian Professor and Director of the Cambridge Observatory was James Challis (1803-1882).  Challis lived at the Observatory until 1861.  In 1846 Challis carried out with the Northumberland Telescope a systematic search for a new planet, on the basis of calculations provided by John Couch Adams.  On the continent, the planet later to be called Neptune, was predicted by Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier (1811-1877) and discovered by J. G. Galle (1812-1910) and Heinrich Louis d’Arrest (1822-1875) on the night of 23 September 1846 at the Berlin Observatory.  Key to the success of Galle and d’Arrest was the possession of the star chart (Hora XXI Aquarius) of the Berlin Academy Star Atlas of Carl Bremiker.  This chart of the atlas had been printed in 1845 but had not yet been distributed.  It allowed Galle and d’Arrest to find the planet rapidly, whilst Challis had to map every star in the area [3].

John Couch Adams (1819-1892)

The Northumberland Telescope dome when new

The Northumberland Telescope dome when new.

Adams, is of course best known for having predicted the position of the planet later called Neptune independently of Urbain Le Verrier in 1846.  In 1861 as Lowndean Professor, he also became Director of the Cambridge Observatory and took up residence in the East wing [4].  In 1884 he represented Britain at the international conference that decided on Greenwich as the Prime Meridian of the world.

Sir Robert Ball (1840-1913)

On the death of John Couch Adams in 1892, Robert Ball, famous as an author and popular speaker in astronomy, took over as Director of the Observatory with the position of Lowndean Professor.  Ball also moved into the house on the East wing of the Observatory which he extended.

Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)

Eddington was Plumian Professor from 1913 to 1944 and lived in the Observatory until his death in 1944.  He is famous for having promoted relativity theory in the English-speaking world and proving it right with his 1919 eclipse expedition [5].  Indeed Einstein came to stay at the Observatory with Eddington in 1930.

The Solar Physics Observatory

The Solar Physics Observatory (SPO) was established in South Kensington in the 1870’s.  It had been shaped by Sir Norman Lockyer, who was very closely involved with it until 1913.  In 1913 the Solar Physics Observatory moved to Cambridge to a site adjacent to the Cambridge Observatory and in 1946 it was combined with the University Observatory to become the ‘University Observatories’.

The Institute of Theoretical Astronomy (IOTA)

The Institute of Theoretical Astronomy was the brainchild of Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001).  Fred Hoyle coined the term ‘Big Bang’ despite bitterly opposing the theory.  He pioneered the theory of the nucleosynthesis of elements in stars.  Hoyle was a controversial figure, with his theory of life in the universe and his science-fiction books.  The Institute was established in 1967 with a small group of Hoyle’s associates.  An article by John Walsh describes the political background to the founding of the Institute.  It was to concentrate on theory, with no teaching responsibilities and with access to a computer.  It had its own building with library set in the Cambridge Observatory grounds [6].

The Institute of Astronomy (IoA)

Statue of Fred Hoyle in IoA grounds

Statue of Fred Hoyle in IoA grounds

The Institute of Astronomy was created on 1st August 1972 by the amalgamation of the Cambridge Observatories and the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy. The IoA is one of the largest centres for astronomical research in the UK, with about 140 astronomers.  Active areas of research are cosmology, gravitational lensing, X-ray astronomy, galactic astronomy, clusters, stellar physics and instrumentation.  Most observations are made with mountain-top or space telescopes, but some observations are still made on-site.

Over the years, many famous astronomers, including Stephen Hawking, have worked at the Institute. The current Plumian Professor and Director of the IoA is Robert C. Kennicutt from Arizona whose interest is in extragalactic observational astronomy.  Lord Rees, the current President of the Royal Society also has an office at the Institute.

In November 2009 the Kavli Institute for Cosmology Cambridge opened on our site as a joint centre with other Cambridge departments with an interest in observational cosmology.

The RGO

In 1990 the Royal Greenwich Observatory was moved from Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex to a new building directly behind the Cambridge Observatory.  A glass-walled corridor room provided a link between the two buildings.  The government closed the Royal Greenwich Observatory in 1998.

The Library

The library has existed as part of the Observatory since 1823, although it contains many books which are far older.  A separate history of the Cambridge Observatory Library containing much history of the Observatory has been published by the author [7].

Thorrowgood Telescope

This 8-inch refracting telescope made by Cooke & sons in 1864 went through a series of wealthy amateur owners before arriving in Cambridge in 1929.  It belongs to the Royal Astronomical Society, from whom it is nominally on loan to the University.

Visiting

To arrange a group or individual visit please contact Mark Hurn, Departmental Librarian, Institute of Astronomy, Madingley Road, Cambridge, CB3 0HA tel. 01223 337537 or email hurnm AT ast.cam.ac.uk

References

  1. F. J. M. Stratton, The History of the Cambridge Observatories, Annals of the Solar Physics Observatory, Cambridge, 1, 1949.
  2. W. Airy (editor) Autobiography of Sir George Biddell Airy,  (Cambridge University Press), 1896.
  3. D. Jones, Highlights of Astronomy, 12, 367-370, 2002.
  4. H. M. Harrison, Voyager in space and time, (Book Guild, Sussex), 1994.
  5. D. S. Evans, The Eddington Enigma, (Princeton), 1998.
  6. J. Walsh, Science, 157, 1286-1288, 1967.
  7. M.D. Hurn, The Observatory, 124, 37-46, 2004. Issue 6(04/2010)

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