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September 29, 2008

How Astronomers Die

[Written for the 211th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, January, 2008. - TH]


How do astronomers (and cosmologists) die?

I deal in death. Most of the entries in the Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, which I edited, fit the definition. Moreover, as vice-chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Historical Astronomy Division, I edit all the obituaries that appear in the B. A. A. S.

I have learned, not unexpectedly, that most astronomers die of natural causes--like everyone else. But this is unfortunate for the history of astronomy, because an unexpected death leaves behind a documentary snapshot of the deceased’s undertakings in life at the time of mortality.

The classic case is Giordano Bruno, who was famously burnt at the stake. Yet Bruno is a bad example of martyrdom to science: His crime was heresy, not astronomy, and he almost invited execution by returning from Protestant Europe to Rome. While it may be true that “nobody expects the Spanish inquisition,” any sane person must surely expect the Italian inquisition!

For me, a more poignant example is Boris Vasilevich Numerov, one of the principal organizers of Soviet astronomy after the Bolshevik revolution. He was “rewarded” by a firing squad during a Stalin purge, sadly, not before implicating (implausibly) nearly the entire staff of the Pulkovo Observatory as fascist spies. This led to their arrests and Pulkovo’s demise as one of the world’s great observatories. It is an episode further reminding us that torture is an unreliable source of truth.

Less well known is the fact that asteroid-hunter Auguste Charlois was murdered in cold blood--as he stood poised to discover his one-hundredth minor planet. Was it the work of a jealous competitor? Did Charlois play Mozart to another astronomer’s Salieri? It might be the makings of a profitable screen play were that the case. However, the reality of the matter is that Charlois’s killer was his own sister’s husband, during an argument over a matter unrelated to astronomy. (And you and I thought that our brothers-in-law were a little “off”!)

The French Revolution was hard on astronomers: Celestial mechanists Jean-Sylvain Bailly and Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Bochart de Saron were guillotined. Moreover, there were several near misses. (By “near miss” I mean other French astronomers who narrowly avoided the death penalty; As far as I know, the guillotine itself did not miss.)

The list of astronomers killed in battle begins with Archimedes’s fall to a roman sword. (Archimedes deserves to be called an astronomer, I think, because the “sand reckoner” was one of the first to attempt calculation of the distance to the Sun.) The man who first accessorized his telescope for astrometry, William Gascoigne, was lost fighting on the Royalist side during the Battle of Marston Moor. Peter Ramus rejected Scholasticism, and embraced Protestantism--bad timing: He died in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

Sultan Ulugh Beg founded the Samarqand Observatory. He was assassinated during a palace insurrection--by his own son. This is the only instance of astronomical patricide that I have discovered. Still, if you know others, be sure to let me know.)

Travel is a grim reaper of astronomers: Margaritta Palmer, Howard Percy Robertson, Carl Keenan Seyfert, and Andrew David Thackeray all died in automobile accidents,the latter on his way back from an observing “run.”

In the nineteenth century, it was the train that wrecked and killed sunspot-modeler Balfour Stewart. Several astronomers have expired at sea. However, Charles-Eugene Delaunay, one-time director of the Paris Observatory, actually passed away in the line of duty, when his ship wrecked. Ironically, it was a surveying expedition . . . My favorite astronomical transportation disaster--if “favorite” is the right word for it--is the end of Arthur Bambridge Wyse, who perished in a freak blimp accident.

Here is my top-three list of truly horrible astronomical demises:

#3. Qattan al-Mazari, who wrote an influential astronomical treatise in Persian, was tortured to death by filling his mouth with soil. I intend to consult an Islamicist about whether an astronomer being choked by earth was considered to be symbolic, or whether that was just how people did business back then.

#2. The leader of the Alexandrine Neo-platonic school was Hypatia. She was pulled from her chariot, stripped, and skinned alive using sharp oyster shells. The murderous mob was made up of my fellow Christians: Thank goodness; “otherwise” the event might have been quite nasty! Did I mention that Hypatia was the last leader of the pagan Alexandrine Neo-platonic school?

And #1. After the west lost touch with Byzantium, one of our few links to the Hellenistic past was Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Böthius. Böthius’s written work bridged the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Regrettably, his execution was more on the medieval side: A cord was tied around Böthius’s forehead and: (I now quote.) “So tightly that his eyes cracked in their sockets, and finally, while under torture, he was beaten to death with a cudgel.” I appreciate the paper sorters not positioning me immediately before lunch . . .

I began today with skepticism over Bruno’s status as a martyr to astronomy. I close with a man i consider to be a much better example: John James Waterston was one of the many fine British scientists who tried to solve the solar energy problem. While attempting to measure the solar radiant energy, Waterston suffered heat stroke. Thereafter he was subject to unpredictable fits of dizziness. The story is sketchy, but apparently such a spell hit him while strolling along the bank of the Edinburgh River. Waterston is supposed to have fallen in and drowned. Oddly, his body was never found.

I believe that how astronomers died is an important part of astronomical biography. It is second only to how they lived. I move on now to my latest task, as managing editor of the journal Archaeoastronomy, where the subjects are even “deader.”

Thank you.

Posted by hockey at September 29, 2008 11:01 AM

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