Friday, February 21, 2020

Accompanied by ghost

‘[. . .] We enter the Reflector Dome in garden. They begin showing Venus, though it was low; no clamping; no clockwork; with powder of 170. Very brilliant, very white and well defined but accompanied by ghost . . .’ This is from the diaries of Charles Piazzi Smyth, a 19th century Astronomer Royal for Scotland, who died 110 years ago today. His diaries, which contain informal jottings of scientific and personal experiences, have not been published, but in 2003 one of his biographers, the Irish astronomer Mary T Brück put together a few extracts for publication in an astronomy journal.

Smyth was born in 1819 in Naples to a captain (later an admiral) of the Royal Navy. He was named Piazzi after his godfather, the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, whom his father had met at Palermo. The family subsequently settled in Bedford, England, where his father built an observatory. Charles was educated at Bedford School until the age of 16 when he was appointed assistant astronomer (to Sir Thomas Maclear) at the Cape Observatory, South Africa. By 1845, aged just 26, he had been appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland at the Calton Hill Observatory in Edinburgh (though it remained chronically underfunded for years), and also Professor of Astronomy in the University of Edinburgh. In 1853, he was responsible for installing the time ball on top of Nelson’s Monument in Edinburgh to give a time signal to the ships at Leith.

In 1856, Smyth married Jessie Duncan who became his devoted assistant in many scientific endeavours, though they had no children. He spent their honeymoon making astronomical observations from the peaks of Tenerife in the Canary Islands to test the benefits of a mountain observatory (indeed, he is credited with pioneering the practice of positioning telescopes on mountain tops to obtain better observations). In 1857, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. A visit to Russia - visiting observatories - followed in 1859, and in the 1860s he visited Egypt and surveyed the Pyramids. This latter project resulted in a popular book, Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid (1864), which drew him a large cult following.

Smyth’s other activities included: work in spectroscopy (for which he equipped his new house on Royal Terrace, Edinburgh, in 1871); the study of telluric absorption; the construction of a map of the solar spectrum; work with Professor Alexander Herschel on the harmonic character of the carbonic-oxide spectrum; the measuring of the ‘citron-ray’ of the aurora; gathering meteorological data; the construction of a large solar chart; and, the study of cloud forms using photography. He died on 21 February 1900. He bequeathed a large collection of photographs, watercolours, and his scientific records to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Wikipedia, Charles Piazzi Smyth website, The Royal Society, Undiscovered Scotland or Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required)

According to Smyth’s biographer, the Irish astronomer Mary T Brück, Smyth kept ‘informal diaries in which he recorded his day to day experiences and impressions, personal as well as scientific’. In 2003, she assembled and edited a few extracts from the diaries for publication in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, under the title: An astronomer calls: extracts from the diaries of Charles Piazzi Smyth. This can be freely read online at the website of ADS operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory under NASA. Here are several of those extracts.

2 December 1864
‘[Lassell’s Observatory, Valetta] Pass through Palau Gardens. Trees growing well in courts, Norfolk Island pine, oleander, pomegranate, oranges and a plant with its branches tipped with red leaves looking like bright red flowers. Down again on opposite side of ridge through streets where two modern English ladies can hardly pass with their hoops. Note the Maltese lace with the Maltese crosses worked therein; at last reach quarantine harbour, looks blue, bright but very lovely compared with the other. On opposite shore, see Mr Lassell’s telescope, white and twin tower like. Take a boat and on landing find it on top of a bare ridge within a walled enclosure, a few houses and a few small streets in the way, all blazing yellow. Walled enclosure looks expensive and solid. Knock at small private-looking door, where is only a small keyhole, clearly an astronomer’s night latch key. Man appears, half English, half Maltese; admits party and goes off with letters and cards to Mrs Lassell at the house, some half a mile off. We are then seated in the workshop which runs all along one side of the enclosure, guess length of room 70 feet, part being given to a steam-engine room; the engine shaft entering the other bigger room and capable of being connected with the polishing machinery which appears made in excellent engineering style; but cumbersome of course for mirrors 4 feet in diameter. Lathes, benches, work tables and side shelves with tools innumerable and rafter space stored away with all sorts of bar-iron and wooden planking.

Mr Lassell presently comes in from Valetta; recognises and begins explaining. Mrs Lassell and daughters from the house, who carry off Jessie and Miss Stanley [their travelling companion] there, and Mr Lassell again explains that everything there within, including that enclosure, was put by himself. Steam engine and workshop, of course, for he cannot polish the speculum without steam engine. (At this point, amongst the bundles of iron bars, ask him for a piece of one, 1 foot long, for material for making a standard rule for the Pyramid. He did not seem at first well inclined to part with anything but a scrap upon the floor straight on one side and cut into an arc on the other; but finally directed his man to file off a foot from a large double bar of this iron, about 20 foot long, which I thanked him for).

Then to telescope again; 4 foot mirror, 40 feet long, his old Liverpool construction of Polar axis. Motion in AR given by a man turning an endless screw 1 inch in a second agreeably with motion of pendulum which he sees just before him. This rather wet; and this first screw and its handle have a large flywheel to equalise the man’s efforts. The first second’s worm acts on the endless screw of AR circle only through train of wheels and pinions. Tube of telescope novel in being open, formed of longitudinal laths of iron bar traced with rings; Mr L. says it decidedly performs better than the solid tube and eliminates most of the twirling and twitching of stars’ images. Observer brought to end of telescope by a tower which has 3 separate observing stories one above the other and can be advanced to and from centre and all round centre on a great circular stage and railway.

At this point came up his assistant Mr Marth, the German, with a paper of places for the next few nights of the 4 modem satellites of Uranus, for without the plans compiled beforehand it is very difficult to say which are satellites and which are small stars in certain parts of the sky. Consider Mr L. has settled the non-existence of 4 out of Sir W. Herschel’s 6 satellites of Uranus, for 2 of the modem 4 will not answer to any of the old 6. Negative discovery seems all that has crowned Mr L.’s vast labour. He has found no new satellite of Neptune or Uranus and no rings; apparently nothing planetary. Obs[ervations] of nebulae going on also.

This result apparently unsatisfactory in face of such appalling works, engineering and architectural i.e. appalling to anyone who has not the means (money) and whose hobby it is not. Seems to have had a depressing and rigidifying effect on Mr L. Wonder, with all his old deference to Mr Airy that he takes for an assistant Mr Marth, the German whose only great work hitherto has been his reputedly evil attack on Mr Airy and the Greenwich observations. . . But with all this assistance, no discovery yet.

Went down to the house with Mr Lassell; really a splendid house, for size of halls, rooms and staircases, paved with stone and 20 feet high (the rooms). All had a very good luncheon or early dinner and family were very kind. Took notes of precession in RA and NPD for α Draconis and ε Tauri [significant stars to be observed in Egypt]. Mr Lassell only stiller and stiffer and when at last Pyd [pyramid] and standard measures were introduced by Jessie he declared that he could not see any possible method by which the proportion of the Earth’s diameter on any scale could be ascertained! And that was given out in a manner implying that it would be a waste of time for anyone to be occupying himself with any questions thereanent.

So left them at 2.15 p.m., glad to have seen them and obliged to them, but with a something, somewhere, wanting in mental satisfaction.’

12 March 1872
‘[Palermo] At 9 p.m. with Miss Yule to the observatory to sec M. Cacciatore. Ascend to top of Palace by broad flight of low stairs generally constructed in marble; pass under a long verandah with glass ornaments and groves of shrubs to M. Cacciatore, finding him with a brother and brother-in-law, the former bearing the name of Piazzi and the latter holding a foundation situation called after Piazzi. He speaks French, the others not. Room abundantly decorated but with paintings mostly very bad. He then takes us upstairs and along gallery after gallery floored and lined with marble all along. Shows two paintings and one bust of Piazzi. then shows the Ramsden alt-azimuth under a dome with white marble pillars beneath, and then to the new meridian circle room (Piston and Martin’s), Equatorial by Merz (9.5 inch object glass), chronograph room, Secchi’s grand meteorograph etc etc. - each room with the name in golden letters outside. Instruments in good state of preservation and cleanliness, and are generally kept under linen covers. Spectroscope is direct vision from Leipsic: no makers in Palermo.

Return to Hotel at 11 p.m.; many shops still

20 March 1872
‘By cab to the Observatory. Saw S[ignor] Cacciatore and S. Tacchini. Spoke to former chiefly on meteorology, and to the latter on spectroscopy. Former to copy out for me the Met[eorological] journal for the first two weeks of March as descriptive of storm on SS Kedar [experienced on the voyage]. Touching the blue sun, he says that that came from dust in the atmosphere, for dust fell that day on the roof of the Observatory and was gathered up: he gave us a specimen. S. Tacchini similarly gave me a specimen from Genoa, collected similarly in 1870.

On speaking of spectrum of zodiacal light. Signor T. has not observed it himself but speaks as though all Italian astronomers were sure the aurora, zodiacal light and solar corona gave one and the same spectrum line, and he gave me two papers and a mss page to prove the same [by Secchi and other Italian astronomers].’

22 March 1872
‘At the Observatory 9.30. Sig. Cacciatoro [sic] receives us urbanely. The dust on the roof of the observatory was caught on the morning of the 10th but might have fallen the previous night or day, but not the previous 3 days because the wind was so strong . . . he supposes the dust came from Africa.

To observatory to see Signor Tacchini. Spectroscope attached to the end of 9 inch equatorial. Two black curtains fitted up temporarily for eye end to move between and also [to shield] from sun. No clock work; used RA and dec[lination] handles combined with Sp[ectroscope’s] own circle of position. Slit is used very narrow - solar prominence seen thus, in narrowest sections as it passes slit. . . . Sp[ectroscope] only for mapping shapes and sizes or red prominences. Tacchini observes sunspots by projection on screen and fixes angles and draws circle on a board with circles of position and radii. Has observed Saturn |in the same way] and drawn it accurately . . . 

At 9 p.m. return by invitation to observatory to look through equatorial. Tacchini works; Cacciatore looks on. Moon three quarters full . . . Jupiter not very well defined, and from power 150 and its small disk Tacchini with a short sharp pencil puts in details on a circle drawn on paper 6 inches in diameter. The central zone is certainly rosy. I could not pretend to see all that he put down. . . . He showed the Linnhe crater as a nebulous white spot on Mare Serenitatis.

Jessie complains of the cold at the observatory, overwalks herself for warmth in returning and falls ill again.’

21 May 1876
‘[Toulouse] Sunday. List of 15 questions [regarding observatory and university duties] in readiness for M. Tisserand on visit to Observatory; answered that night. 8 - 8.30 p.m. walk to observatory. Steep hill. M. Tisserand obliging and merry as ever. He got 2 observations of Jupiter’s satellites in the early hours of this morning. Had been spending his Sunday in preparing a mathematical-astronomical lecture to be given tomorrow at 8 a.m. in the university and was ready for a night’s work now. He answered my questions; then with addition of M. Perrotin we enter the Reflector Dome in garden. They begin showing Venus, though it was low; no clamping; no clockwork; with powder of 170. Very brilliant, very white and well defined but accompanied by ghost . . . Next looked at Vega. No finding by setting of circles but only by pointing along tube (needs 2 men to turn dome). Companion to Vega surprisingly distinct. Nebula (annular) in Lyra a great triumph, so brilliant in so dark a field yet nebular in texture. [Observed] Jupiter [and] Polaris.

What birds are these whose songs come in at the open shutter from the garden? asks Jessie. Nightingales, responds M. Tisserand; and so it is, they abound in this obs[ervatory] of dead men’s bones. Most complaisant doorkeeper shows us halfway down the hill and we proceed, the fair and the shows and the cafes are still at 11 p.m. in full swing; a rotating system of wooden horses and carriage is in great request among men and women and children of all degrees. They revolve most quickly and most smoothly: an example to the dome revolvings of an observatory. A horse turning in a small circle inside seems to do it all.’

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