This Essay Is About The Celestial Spectroscopy: Making Reality Fit The Myth

2143 words - 9 pages

In October 1859, German physicist Gustav Kirchhoff announced the results of his investigations with chemist Robert Bunsen on the dark lines that interrupt the otherwise continuous solar spectrum (1). These lines had puzzled practitioners and theorists alike since they were first observed in 1814 by German optician Josef von Fraunhofer (2).Now it seemed that Bunsen and Kirchhoff had finally confirmed what others had long suspected, namely, that an individual metal produces its own characteristic pattern of bright spectral lines when it is burned. Furthermore, Kirchhoff asserted that Fraunhofer's lines "exist in consequence of the presence, in the incandescent atmosphere of the sun, of those ...view middle of the document...

Despite this obvious hindrance, professional astronomers worked productively and creatively throughout the 19th century to make many important discoveries: the successful determinations of solar and stellar parallax, the discovery of Neptune, and confirmation of the existence of an unseen companion to the star Sirius--to name a few. Meanwhile, their amateur colleagues, many of whom were no less serious about, or adept at, studying the sky, sifted patiently and tirelessly through the heavenly haystack hoping to be the first to find one of the proverbial needles that lay hidden there.But De La Rue was right. Coupling the spectroscope to the astronomical telescope did revolutionize the way astronomy was performed, realigning the very boundaries of what astronomers considered to be acceptable research.A quarter of a century after Kirchhoff's announcement, historian of astronomy Agnes Clerke marveled at the youthful audacity of a new science she called "astronomical or cosmical physics" (6). "It promises everything," she wrote, "it has already performed much; it will doubtless perform much more." And, she identified the enterprising English amateur astronomer William Huggins (1824-1910)--not Kirchhoff, Roscoe, or De La Rue--as one of stellar spectroscopy's principal founders.A London silk merchant and self-taught amateur astronomer, Huggins joined the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in 1854. Soon after, he retired from commercial life and moved to the suburb of Tulse Hill, where he had a substantial observatory built to house his instruments. In 1856, as he recorded his first observations in a bound notebook, Huggins began his metamorphosis from curious dilettante to confident, self-directed observer. Along with his personal correspondence and publications, these notebooks help us trace the incremental career choices by which he, a recognized novice, shaped the inner dynamics of a new research agenda in a tradition-bound exact science.Toward the end of his long career, Huggins waxed nostalgic as he witnessed his efforts being eclipsed by those of individuals like Hermann Carl Vogel (1841-1907), Edward Charles Pickering (1846-1919), and George Ellery Hale (1868-1938). With editorial assistance from his wife and collaborator, Margaret Lindsay Murray, he set to work putting his many achievements before the public, beginning in 1897 by publishing a personal retrospective entitled "The New Astronomy" in Nineteenth Century, a popular magazine of the day (7). In this stirring narrative--long a favorite source for Huggins's biographers--he recalls that soon after establishing his Tulse Hill observatory he became "a little dissatisfied with the routine character of ordinary astronomical work, and in a vague way sought about in my mind for the possibility of research upon the heavens in a new direction or by new methods." Luckily, he tells us, he had attended a lecture in 1862 given by his "friend and neighbour, Dr. W[illiam] Allen Miller."Miller, a professor...

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