JF Ptak Science Books Post 1107 (from 2010, Appended April 27, 2015)
[A continuation of our History of Dots series.]
The history of dots must have some fair share of its content filled with a very varied history of astronomy, which just goes to show that even within the seeming-sameness of microscopic investigations of dots that its subcategories could be so vast and differentiated. (The image above is a small detail from the following image, below.)
Dots aren’t necessarily just dots–even in representing the stars, dots have a rich history. The first star-dots published in the West appear in 1482, taken from the work of the first century astronomer and philosopher Hyginius1, and is a book that contains maps of the constellations composed of such beautiful light-encrusted bits. There wouldn’t be another work like this one, strangely, for another 75 years. Alessandro Piccolomini’s2 work of 1559 (which would be the first true star atlas), and again we see the familiar representation.
Galileo’s dots were very aggressive. By 1610 he had produced his fifth and most powerful telescope, allowing things to be seen one thousand times closer, using it to make enormous discoveries–discoveries so big in fact that their towering significance is a but hard to understand today in the context of early 17th century knowledge. It was all published in his fantastic Sidereus Nuncius on March 4, 1610—the extraordinary very title page3 of the book proclaiming some of the great discoveries of Galileo’s adventure.
One monumental outcome of Galileo’s work was expanding the number of stars in the sky, which was basically mucking around with the perfect plan of the creator–formerly a cornerstone for the existence of a divine being. With the exception of comets and eclipses the sky had remained immutable, a perfect score of the creator’s creation, until 1572, when Tycho Brahe noticed something new in Cassiopeia, something that was not a comet—a “something” that was a star. This was momentous because the night sky had been seen for centuries as being complete—a new star, the Nova of Brahe, contradicted this high belief, offering the possibilities of newness where there had not been one previously. And so too with Kepler’s new star of 1602.
One of the things that Galileo brought to the world was an entirely new sky, revealed to him through his telescope—so many stars that he could only guess (though he reckoned that there was an order of magnitude more stars than previously known “stars in myriads, which had never been seen before….and which surpasses the old, previously known, stars by ten times”).
Which brings me to the images that I stumbled on today from “Statement of Views respecting the Sidereal Universe”4which was the work of the astronomer and great popularizer, Richard A. Proctor (“B.A. (Cambridge), Honorary Fellow of King's College, London”).
Proctor’s dots challenge all dots that have come before so far as theorizing on the structure (and extent) of the Milky Way is concerned. Proctor refers to William Herschel’s5--the man who first gave the Milky Way its shape and who fixed our own sun in an inferior and not-particularly-special place inside that map--statement that the extent and constitution of the Milky Way is “unfathomable”.
Proctor gets there by presenting a map of the night sky with stars visible to the naked eye:
And then the double hemisphere map of the northern and southern skies “We have here the first step towards just views of the constitution of the Milky Way, or rather the next step beyond the great, but little noticed, discovery of Sir W. Herschel's, that the bright clouds of the Milky Way are for the most part spherical clusters of stars.”(Page 546.)
Finally is the crux of the matter: two sections of an fantastic map displaying 324,198 stars visible via a 2.5 inch aperture telescope.
He comments:“I assert, without the slightest fear of contradiction by any possessing such knowledge, that the broad teaching of the equal-surface chart. 0/3 24,000 stars disposes finally of all theories of the constitution of the sidereal universe which had previously been enunciated. The chart does not definitively indicate a new theory—rather it suggests the idea that the constitution of the sidereal universe is too complex to be at present ascertained. But it completely negatives (i), the stratum theory (even in the modified form apparently retained by Sir W. Herschel) ; (ii), the flat-ring theory of Sir John Herschel ; and (iii) the infinitely extended stratum theory, with condensation towards the mean plane, which Struve adopted.” (Page 547)
I think that for 1873 the verbose Mr. Proctor got his point across.
1. Hyginius Mythographus (fl. 1st century A.D.). Poeticon astronomicon. Edited by Jacobus Sentinus and Johannes Lucilius Santritter. Venice: Erhard Ratdolt, 14th October 1482. The first star atlas per se, standing alone in its field for a century.
2. Piccolomini, Alessandro. De la Sfera del Mondo. 1559
3. Galilei, Galilei Sidereus Nuncius (known in English as Starry Messenger), published 1610
The title page reads: Great and very wonderful spectacles, and offering them to the consideration of every one, but especially of philosophers and astronomers; which have been observed by Galileo Galilei … by the assistance of a perspective glass lately invented by him; namely, in the face of the moon, in innumerable fixed stars in the milky-way, in nebulous stars, but especially in four planets which revolve round Jupiter at different intervals and periods with a wonderful celerity.
4. Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Paper, Abstracts and Reports of the Proceedings of the Society from Niovember 1872 to June 1873, vol XXXIII, London, printed by John Strangeways, 1873.
5. It seems that few people now remember Frederick William Herschel as a great discoverer of alternative existences, but, well, that's pretty much what he did--and he did it during a time that must've made his astronomical discoveries seem like science fiction .For example, in 1785 Herschel published a revolutionary image of the “Stellar System” (the Milky Way), showing its irregular pattern and the off-center placement of our sun amidst a panoply of other stars.
(His image was remarkably and substantially correct, with the most grievous error being the placement of the sun too close to the center of the galaxy.) It was an image which bought the concept of a not so humano-centric idea into popular philosophy, and that our sun was a star among stars in a sea of stars.