The Spring Conference: Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge Sat 22 April 2017

A warm spring day greeted the attendees of the Society for the History of Astronomy annual spring conference at The Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge on the 22nd April 2017. Attendees were given a warm greeting by the SHA meetings organiser Dennis Osborne and members were presented with their new SHA lapel badge.

After a brief welcoming talk by Bob Bower the societies Chairperson, the first talk of the day was given by Howard Carlton. Titled John Pringle Nichol, the Nebula Hypotheses, and Nineteenth Century Cosmogony. Howard explained how Nichol a Scottish professor of astronomy at Glasgow university was one of the first people to support the nebula hypothesis. He was an accomplished speaker and his enthusiasm for the theory was evident in the lectures he held as well as the books he wrote on the subject. This was a theory that was in its development and objections and alternate ideas were being fronted by people such as theologian Thomas Chalmers. Chalmers had argued that the universe was born fully formed. Critics also came in the form of observational evidence. This was particularly evident by the observations made from the Leviathan telescope at Birr castle in Ireland. This was the largest scope and it was hoped that observations here would give a definitive answer on the theories involved. Observations were and made and it was concluded that nebula could be resolved into individual stars. Robinson working with Lord Rosse declared that M1 could be resolved and that M42 was also resolvable. They invited Nichol to see the evidence for himself, which he did in 1845. The resolvability of the Orion nebula was a problem for the hypothesis, but Nichol refused to give up the nebula hypothesis and he gradually challenged the observations made. We thank Howard Carlton for a fascinating talk.

The second talk was given by Dr James Hannam titled “Dancing to the Music of the Spheres: Medieval Visions of the Heavens. Hannam’s enthusiasm for this period was evident. He announced that he was to put right to rest the misconceptions that no astronomical advances were made during the medieval period in western Europe. The ideas being formed in that period were not just a rehashing of ideas from the ancient Greeks. Important advances included the design and manufacture of the Astrolabes, although these are difficult to date a number of these were made and the design perfected in this period. The escapement and mechanical clock were also invented in the thirteen century. Astronomical tables were calculated, these were used not only for the determination of the calendar, but also for use in astrology and medical fields. Hannam went on to discuss the position of astronomy within the curriculum at universities, the earliest examples being from Oxford, Bologna and Paris. This was a wonderful introductory look at the role astronomy played in the medieval period. If interested more information can be found within his book God’s Philosophers.

During the break for lunch, we were lucky enough to be given a guided tour by Mark Hurn the Institutes librarian of the grounds and the historic Northumberland and Thorrowgood telescopes. Mark took the time to regale us with stories from the history of the scopes including the infamous search for the planet Neptune through the Northumberland scope conducted by Challis in 1846. The lunch break held a well received raffle in which a number of books and prizes were on offer.

The afternoon talks started with Dr Simon Mitton who spoke about the “History of Planetary Science – Discovering the Dynamic Planet Beneath our Feet”. This story was focused on the Earth, with many of the discoveries in this field made by geologists and Earth scientists. Simon’s fascinating talk took us on a journey of discovery with the important historic characters of this field. He spoke about the accomplishments of William Gilbert, Robert Hooke and Adam Sedgwick to name a few. It only being the latter of the 20th century that planetary science has seen significant developments. Many of the processed found on the earth are starting to be seen replicated throughout the solar system. Simon’s current research is within this field.

Following this was Dr Stewart Moore well researched and highly topical look at the life and achievements of Charles Messier. Messier was never considered an academic astronomer, which makes his achievements all the more impressive. Born in Batonvillier on the 26th June 1730, his move to Paris came with the need to search for work. He originally worked as a clerk, but had been inspired at a young age by the impressive Comet de Chéseaux in 1744. He became an astronomer working at the Paris observatory of Joseph Nicolas Delisle. He discovered 43 of the items from the Messier catalogue, along with a number of comets during his lifetime. Particularly enjoyable were all the photographs that Stewart had taken in France showing us where Messier had been born and had lived during his working life.

The afternoon break gave the attendees their final opportunity to look around the book sale that James Dawson the librarian had organised. There were a large number of books for sale, all from the field of astronomy, with many of them about the history of astronomy. This was a well received and great addition to the spring conference.

The final talk of the day was by Mark Robinson, this was a talk which looked at the life of George Henry With, mirror maker. Marks depth of knowledge in the topic shone through, with the discussion of With’s life, his mirror making abilities and friendships made within the astronomical community all discussed. We were also fortunate that Mark brought along with him many diagrams of the processes involved and an example of a George Henry With mirror. The SHA would like to thank all the speakers for their informative and extremely enjoyable talks.

It was lovely to catch up with lots of familiar faces and also to welcome 4 new members who signed up on the day. We look forward to seeing you all again at the summer picnic on the 1st July in Liverpool.



Text Courtesy: Carolyn Kennett

Pictures Courtesy: Carolyn Kennett, Mark Hurn and Len Adam.