Paying respects

Last Saturday I visited the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many of the astronomers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory are buried there, and I wanted to pay my respects. It was a perfect spring day. Mount Auburn is as much an arboretum as a burial ground, and the flowering trees made light of the long, white winter suffered in these parts. Thanks to astronomer Owen Gingerich and astronomy librarian Maria McEachern, I had a map of the territory, with stars marking the sites of the relevant graves. I found almost the entire cast of characters of my current book project, from the observatory's founding director, William Cranch Bond, to the celebrated telescope makers of the Alvan Clark family, and Williamina Paton Fleming, the first lady among my several heroines.

I stopped a long time at the side-by-side tombstones of Edward Pickering and his wife, nee Lizzie Wadsworth Sparks. Pickering ran the observatory for more than forty years, from 1877 until his death in 1919. He gave employment with encouragement to a score of women who fulfilled careers as computers and astronomers. Aside from his name and the dates defining his life, Pickering's epitaph consisted of a single word, Thanatopsis. I recognized it as the title of William Cullen Bryant's poem about facing death -- the same poem my mother had asked me to read aloud at her funeral.

I placed a small stone on top of the marker, and moved on.

Victim of anniversaries

My friend and mentor Owen Gingerich of Harvard once described himself as a victim of anniversaries. The 400th of Kepler's birth was the first one to affect him, in 1971, followed soon by Copernicus's 500th, in 1973. These observances changed Gingerich from an astrophysicist computing model stellar atmospheres to a full-time historian of science. This year I find myself happily "victimized" by three big-round-number commemorations. The 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act has occasioned a new hardcover edition of Longitude in the UK, and will take me to Greenwich in July for the opening of the National Maritime Museum's exhibition called "Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude." Meanwhile the 450th birthdays of Galileo (February 15) and Shakespeare (April 23) provide good excuses for musing on the connections between the two. Not only did Galileo love poetry (reading it, critiquing it, committing most of Orlando Furioso to memory, composing his own terza rima), but Shakespeare included numerous references to actual astronomical events such as novas and eclipses in his plays.

Surely they never met, as neither man ever left his home country. Shakespeare, whose life journey took him only the hundred miles between Stratford and London, nevertheless set two plays in Verona, two in Venice, two in Ancient Rome, two in Sicily, one in Padua, and one on an island full of castaways from Naples and Milan. Galileo, born in Pisa, traveled to the Moon and stars via his telescope. Only hours after his book describing these discoveries came off the press in Venice in 1610, the English ambassador there dispatched a copy to the court of King James I.  

Both Shakespeare and Galileo addressed themselves to a wide public, because they shared a higher than average opinion of the average intellect. "Sure he that made us with such large discourse," cries Hamlet, "Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused."

Similarly, Galileo published most of his books in Italian instead of Latin, so as to inform compatriots who could not afford a university education: "Now I want them to see that just as Nature has given to them, as well as to philosophers, eyes with which to see her works, so she has also given them brains capable of penetrating and understanding them."

Let us celebrate those sentiments throughout 2014 and beyond.