The image above is a color composite I created combining 6 hand drawn black and white images, each by a different astronomer, of a total solar eclipse which occurred on July 18th 1860. Although photography already existed at the time of this eclipse it was nowhere near precise enough to make truly useful astronomical observations. The astronomers who recorded it continued on with the method of hand drawing observations, which they’d employed long before the invention of the telescope, let alone the upstart photography. This particular eclipse was special in that the drawings are now thought to be the first known representations of a coronal mass ejection. See below for the original images, which are beautiful in their own right, and a bit more info.
Quote: “The total solar eclipse of 18 July 1860 was probably the most thoroughly observed eclipse up to that time. The drawings are a sample of those produced at the time which include depictions of a peculiar feature in the SW (lower right) portion of the corona. Based on comparison with modern coronal observations, it is quite likely that these represent the first record of a Coronal Mass Ejection in progress. Today coronal mass ejections are known to represent one of the more energetic -and geoeffective- manifestation of solar activity, with up to 10 billion tons of material being ejected into interplanetary space at speeds reaching up to 1000 kilometer per second.”
(All from the page Great Moments in Solar Physics.)
I’m fascinated by the prevalence of “interpretation” in scientific observation prior to the 20th century. Today we are very comfortable with the exactitude of our images, be they from massive telescopes, electron microscopes, or super high speed / high resolution cameras, but for much of the history of science we depended on what amounts in no small degree to the artistic abilities (and fancies) of our scientists.
A great example of this is offered by Dr. David Malin, photographic scientist-astronomer and Adjunct Professor of Scientific Photography at RMIT University in Melbourne, in his introductory essay for RIT’s Images from Science exhibition of 2002-
Image at left: John Herschel’s drawing of the Orion nebula, made with an 18-inch telescope during his period in Cape Town, South Africa, in the 1830s.
Image at right: In Ireland in the 1840s, William Parsons (Lord Rosse) constructed the world’s largest telescope, which he used in making this drawing of the Orion nebula.
Quote: “I reproduce Herschel’s and Parsons’s drawings… and the differences between them are obvious. They result not from changes in the nebula or in telescopic power, but from subjective differences in the way their creators saw, remembered, and sketched what was essentially the same subject.”
I think that my composite image of the 1860 eclipse illustrates the point in a different way. Separately each man captured an aspect of the reality. When you combine their observations the result is unmistakable and seems to capture something more… elemental.
It fascinates me that for so very long our picture of the universe was, as Dr. Malin points out, so very subjective. From a visual standpoint, the idea of subjectivity in astronomy seems pretty foreign to us today. We know, without any doubt, just what the surface of mars looks like, what the horsehead nebula looks like, what the sun, churning in its insane power looks like. The room for artistic interpretation in representation of the universe has narrowed considerably. The truth is that photography and science are utterly perfect bedfellows; meant for each other really. There are without question massive amounts of subjective “interpretation” happening in science still, but the interpretation involved is in the data.
I mentioned earlier that when these drawings of the eclipse of 1860 were made photography was already in swing. It so happens that 6 years earlier photographs of an eclipse were in fact taken-
The daguerreotypes above are in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have this to say about them-
Quote: “In 1841–42, William and Frederick Langenheim opened a daguerreotype studio in Philadelphia. Known for their technical innovations, the former journalists were not the city’s first but were certainly its most celebrated photographers. On May 26, 1854, the Langenheim brothers made eight sequential photographs of the first total eclipse of the sun visible in North America since the invention of photography. Although six other daguerreotypists and one calotypist are known to have documented the event, only these seven daguerreotypes survive.”
Good thing astronomers were still handy with pencils huh?
Anyhow, expect more on this subject as examples come to me.
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