Popular Fallacies about Observatories by Mary E Byrd

The following article, Popular Fallacies about Observatories, by Mary Emma Byrd was published in December 1886 in The Observatory 9 (1886), 389-392. We give a version below.

Popular Fallacies about Observatories by Mary E Byrd

During the years that my life has been well nigh lived in an observatory, I have felt that some things are viewed differently by those without and those within the walls. One does not willingly try to dispel pleasant illusions, and yet, since an observatory with all its domes and piers, appliances and instruments, is designed for the search of truth, standing so near its cornerstone, I ask your leave to speak the truth frankly for a few minutes.

It has seemed to me that, in the popular imagination, an observatory exists for the purpose of being visited - like a parsonage; or that it is held to be some grand celestial amphitheatre where there are nightly shows of moon and stars and planets, with the astronomer for chief showman; that he delights to exhibit in the fields of his telescope comets' tails, Jupiter's satellites, Saturn's rings and pretty things, much as Barnum likes to show trained elephants and dancing ponies. Now, as a matter of fact, astronomical benevolence does not usually lie along these lines. The observer places a high value on his time, especially the time of clear evenings. Indeed, I fear he is sometimes tempted to say with the poet:- "Who steals my purse, steals trash; but he that filches from me my clear nights, robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed." He feels as the Englishman does about his home; his observatory is his castle, and when some clear night he is fairly at work with transit instrument, meridian circle, equatorial or photometer, the casual, unannounced visitor is just about as welcome to him as brigands to the traveller in Spain, or Irish Moonlighters to the English landlord, just about as welcome; and if the plain truth were known, not much more so.

Now when I build my observatory - it is to be in California - I invite you all to the laying of the corner-stone in 19-, I have fully decided that I shall have a moat and a drawbridge; about armed sentinels I have not quite made up my mind. On that point I am still willing to be laboured with by my more generous-hearted friends. But then if any of you should come (a friend from Northfield would be so welcome) I don't doubt you could look through my telescope all night in spite of moat, drawbridge, and sentinels.

Almost everyone else has some power in arranging and controlling the time for his work, but the astronomical observer has absolutely no control over the conditions that make his work possible. He cannot make the sky clear, the air steady, or star-disks sharp cut. As a noted astronomer has said:- "The work he fails to do to-night, he may wait weeks, months, possibly years, for another opportunity to do;" so perhaps he is not very unreasonable when he asks only for a chance to do his work.

That word, work, hardly corresponds with popular ideas. It is commonly fancied that there is a great deal of poetry and romance within the walls of an observatory. All have read the ancient legend of Tycho Brahe, how he went to the observatory in velvet robes of state as if the presence of the stars was the presence of princes. And people fancy that here at midnight, in star-lit domes, you almost hear the music of the spheres. They picture to themselves the observer seated at his telescope, hour after hour, looking down, down into deep lunar craters, feasting on delicate nebulae and swift-flying comets, or revelling in gorgeous star-clusters. Here, they think, night after night before his rapt vision, there passes all the panorama of the heavens, multiplied and glorified a thousand fold by his powerful lenses. I have sometimes wished that it were so; but it is work that goes on in an observatory, work as stern and exciting as that of the factory.

I raise no objection to poetry or velvet gowns, but until some one invents a way of lighting telescopic fields so that the observer is not obliged constantly to handle greasy lamps, the question is not open for discussion; the banns between poetry and practical astronomy are positively forbidden. Why, I do not believe even Tycho Brahe himself could have kept grand and stately with grease trickling down his hand! No, the modern observer is mindful of sulphuric acid and sperm oil, and dons an old coat or a shabby dress, as the case may be, and could you look within the walls of the observatory you could not find him idling or dreaming.

He moves with a quick brisk step, castes hasty glance at the sidereal clock, notes that the batteries are in working order, the electric circuits without breaks, proper connections made, winds the chronograph, puts on the sheet, sets it in motion, and a little later perhaps you see him ready for work with the meridian circle; but it is hardly likely that he is seated in one of those easy observing carriages that you have seen pictured in some advertising page, and set down in your mind as one of the manifold luxuries of an observatory; it is more probable that some home-made contrivance or a mere dry-goods box answers his purpose. His hand is on the key, his eye is at the tube, he turns and looks up, but it is with no ecstatic gaze, he is noting the clearness of the sky and the danger from some fleecy clouds near the zenith; again he looks through the glass; there is a succession of short sharp taps, that means the star is in the field of view; another tap, the star has crossed the first wire of the meridian-circle. Then there is a series of taps, microscopes are read and recorded; another setting is made, and then operations may go on for several hours varied by tying a knot in the chronograph cord, shaking up the stylographic pen, and doctoring the greasy lamp.

"And is this all? " you say. "He just puts his finger down there when a star crosses a wire, why a child could do that!" Yes, a child might do it after a fashion, and yet one of our excellent American astronomers, especially skilled in work with the meridian-circle, has said it takes years to become proficient in that simple thing. He was too modest to add how much skill and talent were required, and it were better that I left to some one far wiser than I to tell how much of the eternal truth of the stars has been deciphered and brought within the grasp of the human mind mainly by the exact bisection of a star as it crosses the wires of the meridian-circle. And so you might follow the observer from room to room in his work with different instruments and you would find his duties made up of a large number of petty details, no one of which shows the skill required or the results involved.

Indeed, I think the observer himself is a different sort of personage from that he is commonly imagined to be. He does not dwell constantly in a state of ecstasy or enthusiasm; he does not require a dictionary of superlatives to express his feelings about the stars; he does not stay up late nights to look at pretty things through his telescopes. He is, perhaps, rather indifferent to merely pretty things, and may shock some entranced visitor by his utter lack of proper emotion over some telescopic spectacle; but he will spend his nights for weeks and months in painstaking observations, making hundreds of measures of angle and position; he will give up his days to laborious computation, and all for what? Why just to find out that two insignificant stars in the heavens (one of which the unaided human eye will never see), to find out that they form a system, are bound together by the force of gravitation, the one moving in a path about the other in an orbit that he can map. It seems a prosaic result, and yet such truths as that are worth a world more to the earnest observer than years of pleasure hunting in fields sown thick with glittering stars. He is not looking for amusement or beauty, he is seeking the truth, if happily he may find it. He longs to find out, to understand, to know; behind form and motion and colour, he seeks the unchanging verities.

No, it is not to found a palace for dreams, a place where the fancy may feast on swift-changing star pictures, that the walls of an observatory go up. It is to establish a place where truth is sought. I know that there are those who think that an observatory is a monument to human pride and human intellect, and the truth found here appears cold and visionary, without power to warm the human heart or make the world better. To me it seems that God made human minds hungry for all truth and that he says to the observer here, as well as to the disciple of old - "Seek, and ye shall find."

Mary E Byrd

Last Updated June 2023