Little Bits of History

Not So Special

Posted in History by patriciahysell on December 30, 2012
Edwin Hubble

Edwin Hubble

December 30, 1924: Edwin Hubble announces there are other galaxies in the universe. Copernicus stated the solar system was heliocentric, but not very loudly. Galileo backed him up with a louder voice and since that would dispute some Biblical scripture, he was forced to recant and punished for his heresy. Regardless of the Pope’s conviction, the solar system is heliocentric and the universe does not revolve around the Earth. Not only are we not the center of everything, we aren’t even a very important part of everything that is, except to ourselves, of course. Telescopes gave scientists better and better images of what was beyond naked eye vision out there in deep space.

Edwin Hubble was born in Missouri in 1889. The family moved to Chicago in 1898. Hubble was an athlete and while in high school, he broke the state record for the high jump. He went the University of Chicago and played basketball for them. He went on to win a Rhodes scholarship and at Oxford he studied law. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in astronomy, but he still practiced law in Kentucky for a time. He rose to rank of major while serving in the US Army during World War I. After the war, bored with law, he went back to astronomy and peering into the abyss of the night sky.

He worked with the new 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson in Southern California and studied spiral nebulae. It was thought, at the time, that these fuzzy patches in the sky were clouds of gas or dust within our galaxy. The Milky Way was thought to contain everything in the universe (still believing we were the central focus of the entire universe in some small way) except the Magellanic Clouds. However, as Hubble studied the nebula Andromeda, he found a number of stars. Some of these were Cepheid variable stars which vary in intensity from bright to dim. Back in 1912, Henrietta Leavitt of Harvard had shown that by using these Cepheid stars, one could calculate the distance between Earth and their position.

On this date, Hubble announced that we were not the only galaxy and in fact there were many different galaxies out there. He was able to compute the distance to Andromeda as approximately 860,000 light years. The farthest stars of our own galaxy are about one-eighth of that distance. Although this was indeed a cosmic discovery, it was not front page news. Hubble went on to discover about 25 more galaxies during his life. He also employed the Doppler effect and during the 1920s was able to prove that stars were moving away from us. He also proved their red shift was proportional to the distance. Hubble died in 1953. NASA honored him by naming their space telescope after him.

The great spirals… apparently lie outside our stellar system.

The history of astronomy is a history of receding horizons.

Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.

Past time is finite, future time is infinite. – all from Edwin Hubble

Also on this day:

Once in a Blue Moon – In 1982, the only total eclipse of a blue moon in the entire century took place.
Countess Bathory – In 1610, the Blood Countess was stopped.
Ted on the Loose – In 1977, Ted Bundy once again escaped from prison.


Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 13, 2012

Charles Messier

October 13, 1773: Charles Messier looks into the night sky. The French astronomer was born in 1730, the tenth of twelve children. Six of the children died while young and when Charles was 11, his father died. The child’s interest in astronomy was piqued by a great six-tailed comet (C/1743 X1, Comet de Chéseaus, or the Great Comet of 1744) and a solar eclipse as seen from his hometown on July 25, 1748. In 1751 he was employed by Joseph Nicolas Delistle, an astronomer with the French Navy. It was there he learned to make careful observations and keep detailed records. Charles’s first documented observation was the transit of Mercury on May 6, 1753.

Messier was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1764 and five years later was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1779 he was elected to the French Academy of Sciences. He discovered 13 comets between the years 1760 and 1785. His first catalog, published in 1774 contained 45 objects but since then the list of discoveries has grown to 103. However, at least 20 of the objects listed were, in fact, discovered by his assistant, Pierre Méchain. There is a crater on the moon called Messier and an asteroid called 7359 Messier – both named in his honor.

On this day, while looking at the night sky, Messier found something a bit larger than a comet. Designated as M51, the object is what is today sometimes called the Whirlpool galaxy. In 1781, Méchain discovered its companion galaxy NGC5195. Although the mass was seen in the sky, it wasn’t until 1845 that it was discovered the galaxy was spiral in nature. It took Lord Rosse using a 72-inch telescope to discover the shape. In 2005, a supernova was observed in the Whirlpool Galaxy which had an apparent magnitude of 14. And in 2011 a type II supernova with a magnitude of 13.5 was seen there.

The galaxy is located in the constellation Canes Venatici and is found following the easternmost star of the Big Dipper. The galaxy is visible with binoculars under dark sky conditions and can, obviously, be seen with amateur telescopes. However, it takes a larger telescope to be able to see the spiral arms. Stars are usually formed in the center of a galaxy and M51 seems to be undergoing a period of star formation, but this is a relatively short lived period and shouldn’t last more and another 100 million years. This could be the reason for the spiral shape of the galaxy, but not the only one. There is also hydrogen compression in other areas leading to starbirth regions and these show up as bright blue dots in the spiral arms.

Is it not careless to become too local when there are four hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone. – A. R. Ammons

Keep up the good work, if only for a while, if only for the twinkling of a tiny galaxy. – Wislawa Szymborska

When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system. – Kalpana Chawla

Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another. – Plato

Also on this day:

Service – In 1843, B’nai B’rith was founded.
Miracle of the Sun – In 1917, Our Lady of Fatima appeared to thousands.
Yellow Jackets – In 1885, Georgia Tech was founded.