Little Bits of History

July 11

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 11, 2017

1801: Jean-Louis Pons discovered his first comet. Pons was born in 1761 to a poor family and they were able to provide little in the way of formal education. In 1789 he got a job working as a caretaker at a Marseille observatory. He was able to gain some insights as he helped the astronomers with their observations. Eventually, he learned to use the equipment himself and had an ability to recall star fields and note changes in them. The more experienced astronomers sometimes poked fun at the young man’s naïveté and one of them, Franz Xaver von Zach, even told the student to look for comets when sunspots were visible. Although meant as cruel joke, it make have actually been very good advice.

On this day, Pons made his first comet discovery. Charles Messier is given joint credit for the comet’s discovery. Pons seemed to have used a telescope of his own design, one with a large aperture and short focal length. He called it “Grand Chercheur” or “Great Seeker”. While Pons was able to clearly remember star fields without as many notes, making him remarkably adept at finding changes in the skies, it meant his notes were not of the best quality and his observations are tantalizingly vague.

Telescopes are helpful for looking into the night sky. There are many different types of them, with the comet seeker one of those classified by the type of task they perform. Optical telescopes are refracting, reflecting, or catodioptric and each type has many specific subcategories. The task performing telescopes are also optical in nature. There are also telescopes working outside the optical spectrum such as infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and broad spectrum. Telescopes can also be classified by the type of mounting upon which they sit. First developed in the 1600s, they have been refined and helped to broaden the scope of astronomy, our understanding of the way the universe works, and the complexity and the vastness of space.

Pons became a noted astronomer and director at observatories. He was invited to teach astronomy at La Specola in Florence. He discovered five periodic comets, three of which still retain his name. One comet he found in 1818 was named by him as Comet Encke after the man who was able to calculate the comet’s orbit. Encke however, always called the comet Pons’s Comet. Pons received the French Academy of Science’s Lalande Prize in 1818 for discovering three comets in one year. He won it again in 1820 and again in 1827 after discovering many more comets. In total, he found 37 comets between 1801 and 1827, making him the greatest visual comet discoverer of all time. His eyesight failed him and he was forced to retire. The astronomers of the world honored him by naming a crater on the Moon after him.

For my confirmation, I didn’t get a watch and my first pair of long pants, like most Lutheran boys. I got a telescope. My mother thought it would make the best gift. – Wernher von Braun

We see past time in a telescope and present time in a microscope. Hence the apparent enormities of the present. – Victor Hugo

What you do is, you have your drawing board and a pencil in hand at the telescope. You look in and you make some markings on the paper and you look in again. – Clyde Tombaugh

The development of the telescope, together with increased knowledge of things, brought men to see that the earth is not what man had once thought it to be. – Joseph Franklin Rutherford


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