Science’s First Rough Draft

It has often been said that newspapers are “history’s first rough draft.”  The same is true of science.  One could argue that journals fill the role, but historically, the vast majority of the public reads of scientific discoveries and/or events in the newspaper.  It is quite interesting to see how these events were interpreted at the time without the benefit of hindsight.  The New York Times online archive dates back to the paper’s origins in the 1850’s and represent a rich source of historical material that can be used in the class or for personal research.  Here are some historical articles pertaining to astronomy and physics.

Auroral Phenomena – September 5, 1851.  This article describes the aftermath of the Carrington Event, the most powerful magnetic storm in recorded history.  The aurora was seen across America and telegraph operators could still send messages even after disconnecting the batteries.  Below, NASA presents a computer model of the 1859 magnetic storm.

Glowing After – Sunset SkiesDecember 1, 1883.  Three months after the Krakatoa eruption, the skies around the world appeared deep red after sunset as a result of aerosols ejected into the atmosphere.  The cause of these sunsets were not known at the time – the article never refers to the Krakatoa eruption.

A Comet Visible by DaylightSeptember 20, 1882.  The Great Comet of 1882, considered the brightest comet of the past 1,000 years, is visible during the day.  The image atop this post is this comet.  In 2015, the Rosetta mission became the first to attempt a landing on a comet.

The Roentgen DiscoveryFebruary 7, 1896.  The discovery of x-rays and possible applications in the medical field.  A century later, astronomers would use the orbiting Chandra X-Ray Observatory to discover the universe to be a violent place.

Wireless Signals Across the OceanDecember 15, 1901Guglielmo Marconi receives radio signals in Newfoundland from London to open the era of mass communication.  Decades later, astronomers use radio telescopes to discover pulsars and peer into the center of the galaxy.

The Greatest Telescope in the WorldJanuary 27, 1907.  Plans to build a 100-inch telescope on the summit of Mt. Wilson in California.  Opened in 1917, this telescope is where Edwin Hubble discovered the universe was expanding.

Mt. Wilson 100-inch telescope. Credit: Gregory Pijanowski
Mt. Wilson 100-inch telescope. Credit: Gregory Pijanowski

Comet Gazers See Flashes –  May 19, 1910.  Report on Earth passing through tail of Halley’s Comet.  The comet tail was 100 degrees long and 10 degrees wide in the sky.  Whatever was seen that night, comet tails are much too tenuous to cause flashes in the atmosphere.

Lights All Askew in the Heavens – November 10, 1919.  Eddington Expedition proves Einstein’s General Relativity theory correct by measuring the bending of starlight during a total solar eclipse.  Relativity has passed every test since, including the recent observation of gravity waves.

Ninth Planet Discovered on Edge of Solar System – March 14, 1930.  Pluto is discovered.  Since reclassified as a dwarf planet, the New Horizons mission gave us the first close up images of Pluto in 2015.

Nebula Velocities Support EinsteinJune 12, 1931.  Edwin Hubble discovers the expansion of the universe as predicted by Einstein’s relativity theory.  Actually, Einstein was originally skeptical the universe could expand.  It was Fr. Georges Lemaitre, Catholic priest and physicist, who proposed what was later called the Big Bang theory.  The word nebula in the title refers to what we now call galaxies.

Lemaitre Follows Two Paths to TruthFebruary 19, 1933Fr. Georges Lemaitre does not find a conflict between science and religion.  Einstein and Lemaitre, “Have a profound respect and admiration for each other”.  Article quotes Einstein as stating, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened” regarding Lemaitre’s Big Bang theory.

Fr. Georges Lemaitre (center) and Albert Einstein, January 10, 1933. To the left is Robert Millikan who was the first to measure the charge of an electron. Credit: California Institute of Technology.

Bohr and Einstein at OddsJuly 28, 1935.  The conflict between relativity and quantum mechanics.  The quest to unify the theory of relativity, which governs large objects, and quantum mechanics, which explains physics on an atomic scale, continues to this day.

Science and the BombAugust 7, 1945.  One day after Hiroshima, nuclear fission as a weapon and the implications for humanity are explained.

Palomar Observers Dazzled in First Use of 200-inch LensJune 5, 1948.  Delayed by World War II for five years, Mt. Palomar Observatory finally opens for business.

Mt. Palomar 200-inch telescope. Largest in the world from 1948-97. Credit: Gregory Pijanowski

Radio Telescope to Expose SpaceJune 19, 1959.  Navy to build largest radio telescope in West Virginia.  The current radio observatory in Green Bank, WV is surrounded by a 13,000 square mile (slightly larger than the state of Maryland) radio quiet zone, meaning no cell phones, radio, or microwave ovens.

New Clues to the Size of the UniverseMarch 26, 1963.  The brightest objects in the universe, dubbed quasars, are discovered.  Located over 10 billion light years away, these objects are so bright some astronomers thought they must reside within the Milky Way.  However, further research would prove quasars to be the most distant objects observed by humans.

Signals Imply a Big Bang UniverseMay 21, 1965.  The discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) proves the universe was born in a hot, dense state aka the Big Bang.  The CMB was most recently mapped by the ESA Planck mission.  The map shows the state of the universe when it was 380,000 years old.

*Image on top of post is the Great Comet of 1882 from the Cape of Good Hope.  Credit:  David Gill.

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