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A better sky  @psychohistorian.org

A better sky

posted: 3540 days ago, on Monday, 2009 Mar 09 at 11:35
tags: astronomy.

One early morning long ago, as I was packing up my telescope in the fast-approaching dawn light, I glanced up at the handful of brighter stars that were still prominent in the ashen sky.

I had just been observing in Capricorn, and Deneb Algiedi (delta Capricorni) was still visible. Just to the east were Sadalsud and Sadalmelik (beta and alpha Aquarii), and to the south was the brilliant Fomalhaut, which made me think of Marconi.

The alpha-star of Piscis Austrinus brought to mind Guglielmo Marconi, the chap who made it possible in 1896 for Queen Victoria to check up on her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, who was miles away, lolling aboard the royal yacht. She could do this because Marconi had cottoned on to the idea of the antenna: by attaching a long wire to the receiver he could pick up radio signals over greater distances.

By Christmas Eve, 1906, music and speech was being transmitted, but fans of this new medium had to listen to their sets wearing earphones as no-one had figured out yet how to amplify the signal and disturb their neighbour's peace.

Fortunately, Thomas Alva Edison had invented the light bulb in 1879. Trying to improve on his design, Edison sealed a metal wire into a light bulb near the hot filament. To his surprise, electricity flowed from the hot filament to the metal wire across the air gap between them. Unfortunately, it didn't improve the effectiveness of his bulb, and, Edison being a practical man, made a note in his journal and then forgot about it. It was this Edison effect that eventually led to the discovery of the triode, which provided the necessary amplification of radio signals.

The Edison effect also provided a Nobel Prize for physics in 1928 to the British physicist Owen Richardson. Another Owen that caused a major stir in scientific circles was Richard Owen, the English zoologist and fossil expert, who stooped to rather ungentlemanly depths in his fight against Charles Darwin and his new theory of natural selection, explained in Origin of Species.

Had Darwin not had the staunch support of a few close friends, he may never have published his famous book. Similarly, had Isaac Newton (the chap who once built a model of a mill and had it powered by a mouse) not had Edmund Halley as good buddy, Principia may never have seen the light of day.

And it was about light that Newton got it all wrong, when he believed that the optical dispersion of light was independent of the medium through which it was refracted. This meant – he said – that nothing could be done to correct the chromatic aberration (colour distortion) caused by telescope lenses, so instead he designed and built the first reflecting telescope, which replaced the lens with a curved mirror, in which aberration could not occur.

So, because of Newton's mistake, I found myself that early morning putting the dust cover on the mirror of my Newtonian, glancing up at Fomalhaut, Deneb Algiedi, Sadalsud and Sadalmelik.

What, you may ask, do Marconi, Edison, Darwin and Newton have to do with all of this?

Well, it so happens that these are the names assigned to alpha Piscis Austrini, delta Capricorni, beta Aquarii and alpha Aquarii (now of the constellation "Science") in the 1944 atlas A Better Sky, produced by one A. P. Herbert. He started from the premise that we know or care little for astronomy and the stars because their mythology and their names are alien to us. He proposed a reformed, rational sky rooted in modern experience. (His is perhaps the kind of scheme which the revolutionary government of France might have promoted in the 1790s following its rational calendar reform, if it had not been too busy executing its scientists). Sadly for Herbert, his reformed astronomy shared the fate of all other similar projects.


  1. 1944 book review of A Better Sky
  2. A low-res scan of Herbert's delightful map

nothing more to see. please move along.

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