Sometimes I’m a lazy stargazer. The first lunar eclipse of the year was April 15th. I wrote a post about it on the Adler Planetarium blog. But when it came to setting the alarm to get up in the middle of the night to view it, I was secretly relieved to go to bed to an overcast sky. William Herschel used to fall asleep reading astronomy books in bed. He, of course, eventually got out under the night sky. I often don’t get beyond the books in bed.
Which is perhaps one reason why the history of astronomy appeals to me. I admit it: sometimes I like reading about the discoveries made by observers throughout history more than I like sitting under a cold observatory dome alone at night. Books don’t cloud over. Manuscript collections usually can only be visited by day. If I fall asleep over my work, there’s no real fear– as there was for the Herschels– of falling off a telescope platform.
I do wish though I had caught the most recent lunar eclipse. They’re slow events, more sublime than spectacular. Not like a solar eclipse (which I have never witnessed, though 2017 is fast approaching).
The most recent display I curated at the Adler was of eclipse depictions throughout history. These are all from the works on paper collection at the Adler (maps, diagrams, pictures, things that can be hung on a wall). The images really are quite nice, though the pictures I took don’t do them justice. (The gallery has subdued lighting, and a camera flash would have only created glare.) My favorite is of a broadside poster printed in the 1760s in England providing information on an upcoming solar eclipse. This would have been hung in a public place and is an early form of public science education, explaining what causes the eclipse and what the public could expect to see.
There’s a diagram from a medieval textbook as well, illustrating how the shape of the Earth can be deduced from the shape of the shadow during a lunar eclipse, and a few other images.
If you’re in Chicago, stop by the planetarium and take a look.
And this is me with my best (and unfortunately completely unintentional) mad scientist face. I presented a poster on the Dioptrice project, a database of pre-1775 refracting telescopes that I’ve been working on as a research assistant for the past few years at the Adler Planetarium as part of my graduate program in the history and philosophy of science at Notre Dame. I didn’t win the student poster presentation, but I did garner some good publicity.
A writer for ScienceNOW, the online publication of the AAAS, picked up the story and wrote up a summary of the Dioptrice project you can view here.
I got a call a few days later from another writer, this time for the science news site motherboard.tv, who wanted to do a piece on the project. His story is here.
One of the largest and longest-running projects I’ve been working on as part of my research fellowship at Notre Dame and the Adler Planetarium has been Dioptrice, a database of surviving pre-1775 refracting telescopes. The brainchild of the former chief curator at the Adler, Dioptrice is the first step toward a richer history of the telescope: its origins, evolution, and diffusion as well as popular perceptions of the instrument in works of art and early books and manuscripts. The principle investigators of the project, which is funded by NSF and NEH grants, travel the world looking for early telescopes in museums and private collections. They analyze and photograph them and then send the data to me, where I add it to the database. I also scour catalogues and websites, initiate contact with additional collections, and search the rare book collection at the Adler for early telescope images. All of this goes into the database, which has been slowly building for the past few years.
Now it’s ready to go public. Information on hundreds of telescopes, fully searchable by year, type, maker, country of origin, and just about every other category you can think of. All hosted online in a sleek website designed by Parallactic Consulting but curated by yours truly. If you’re interested in the history of the telescope as art, artifact, or instrument, feel free to look around. If you know of telescopes that should be hosted here, let me know.
Have fun: www.dioptrice.com.
Update: I presented a poster on Dioptrice at the AAAS meeting in Chicago yesterday. ScienceNOW, the online AAAS science magazine, just published an article on the database, and I was featured as part of the #scienceWOW video series talking about William Herschel. (You can see all the videos, including one by Alan Alda, here.)
For the past two-and-a-half years I have served as a research and curatorial intern at the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum as part of my fellowship at the University of Notre Dame. Much of my work there has involved creating and curating a database of surviving pre-1775 refracting telescopes from around the world. Lately I have had the opportunity to help select artifacts and write up descriptions for some temporary exhibits. This was my first, part of a display on lunar maps and globes.
I was surprised how challenging it was to present the information on these objects via concise captions that were accessible yet accurate and retained the details that made them such interesting pieces. This particular display contained three lunar globes from the Adler’s collection as well as a lunar atlas and telescope. I’ve included captions and images of my favorite objects below.
This last globe offered a mystery, as a previous owner had affixed unlabeled colored markers at various locations. A bit of homework indicated they corresponded with various lunar landings and helped estimate the globe’s date. If you’re in Chicago, head to the Adler and check them out!