LtE in CMO #253

From William SHEEHAN

@. . . . . . . . . Dear Masatsugu, Apologies for being out or contact for awhile -- I was in Johannesburg, South Africa for seven weeks in September/October working on galaxy morphology at the University of the Witwatersrand (with Professor David Block in the Computational and Applied Maths Department). I did want to mention that Mars was at the zenith -- almost exactly -- so that if a Martian had dropped a plumbline it would have hit me in the eye, and understood why E. C. Slipher traveled to South Africa (Bloemfontein) to photograph Mars at the 1939, 1954, and 1956 oppositions (the 1954 opposition was very similar, in terms of the observing geometry, to this year's event).

On September 28 I had a chance to use the 26 1/2 inch Grubb refractor at the old Union Observatory for visual observations of Mars (and the Moon) -- they were about the only objects, apart from a few stars, that were visible in the light- polluted skies of the city. The telescope was used by W. S. Finsen for his (at the time) state-of-the- art color photography of Mars at the 1954 and 1956 oppositions. These were images I marveled at as a youngster. Mars with 400 was a beautiful small gibbous-moon, with some stars in the field (Mars was in the teapot of Sagittarius). The dust had cleared to the extent that a number of dark patches were easily visible; however, there was no trace of a polar cap.


I later looked at the Moon -- the rille running down Alpine Valley (discovered with the 13-inch Clark in 1892; it was then at Arequipa, now at Bloemfontein) was easily visible, and a smattering of five or six easily visible and a number of less defined patches and craterlets on the floor of Plato. The famous Dawes doublet was striking.

I gave a lecture on Mars again at the Union Observatory for the South African Astronomical Society a few weeks later.

I note that Percival Lowell's "Mars as the Abode of Life", first published in 1908, has been reissued in a paperback reprint.

I am hoping to organize an observing campaign for Mars to Australia or South Africa for the Grand Opposition of 2003. I am interested in hearing from observers with interest in the idea.

(15 November 2001 email)


@ . . . . . . . Dear Masatsugu, Very good to hear from you -- it was a nice stay in South Africa, a place I had longed to visit because of its associations with great Mars observers.

The Union Observatory was later called the Republic Observatory. It was the scene of great double-star observers beginning with Innes (who also discovered proxima Centauri) and continuing through Van den Bos and Finsen.


One of the devices that was used on the 26.5 inch refractor was a grating-- it looks like the familiar charcoal-grill used for barbecuing -- that helped observers measure the out-of-focus highly magnified images of double stars they observed, essentially little more than slightly odd-shaped diffraction patterns. It must have been rather grim work to do this sort of thing night after night. It is sad but even though many double stars merit continued study and careful remeasuring for their periods, this sort of routine is no longer fashionable -- no one seems interested in it. It smacks of bygone problems and Victorian-era civil-servant astronomers. The 26.5-inch refractor -- no longer in a very safe part of Jo'burg (but then there is very little of Jo'burg that is safe) -- is scarcely ever used; it is even my understanding that the South African Astronomical Society, an amateur group which has used the hill for fifty years, is losing its access to the site. Professional observations ended in the early 1970s -- you may remember, as I do, the photographs of the dust storm of 1973, obtained by Finsen and his colleague Roberts, which were among the last active contributions of the telescope in the research of Mars.

I agree with you that Finsen's best images were obtained in 1954 -- probably because the Martian atmosphere was quite clear and there was better contrast of the surface features. The remarkable development of the Nepenthes-Thoth was the most memorable feature of that opposition. The telescope was stopped down to half aperture -- 13 1/4 inches -- and because of the long focal length, I think the images were obtained without additional auxiliary magnification.

I regret that I didn't have more to say about Finsen in either The Planet Mars or Mars: the allure of the red planet. In a future edition of one or the other or both I hope to have something to say about him -- and also to devote a full chapter to the remarkable efforts of you and your Japanese colleagues. The lack of information about the latter is an even more serious oversight that must be rectified.


I was up early this morning for Leonids. It was a brisk shower -- not quite up to the standard of November 1966, which I observed as just a boy from Minneapolis and recorded a rate of several thousand an hour (from here, the Earth was just entering the thick part of the debris-tail that would give rise to the huge storm observed in the western part of the U.S.).

There were, however, a few hundred an hour, making it a delightful if not quite awe-inspiring event. I don't expect we'll see its like again in our lifetime since apparently the meteoriticists don't anticipate another comparable encounter with Leonid debris until 2098. Maybe the astro- dynamicists can figure out a way of perturbing the orbit by means of nuclear explosives or some other device for the sake of putting on another impressive display.

With kind regards,

(18 November 2001 email)


@ . . . . . . . Subject: Janssen at Nagasaki,

Dear Masatsugu, I almost forgot to respond to your query regarding Janssen -- he was indeed the famous French solar astronomer who flew, en ballon, out of Paris during the Siege by the Germans in 1870, in order to observe an eclipse from Algeria. In the end, he was clouded out. He also designed what he described as a "revolver camera" for photographing the contacts of Venus at the 1874 transit (from Nagasaki), which was as close as one could get to the idea of cinematography in the wet-plate era and is said to have influenced the Lumiere brothers.


I don't know if I've mentioned it but I'm writing a little book on the transits of Venus (with John Westfall, long-time director of the transits of Mercury and Venus section of the ALPO) and hope to include quite a lot on Janssen and his visit to Japan. Perhaps you have contacts locally and can help point me to information about his visit. I will also be pursuing French sources.

Also, I hope someday to visit Japan -- and your corner of it in particular. Recalling an earlier American who traveled there: "The fancy took me to go to Noto."


All the best,

(18 November 2001 email)


@ . . . . . . .Dear Masatsugu, Just a brief reply to your very interesting comments --I am thrilled that the meteors were so beautiful in Japan! it is clear that David Ascher has really mastered his subject; the peaks turned out much as he expected.

From here, they were better than they were in Tunisia a year ago. The rate was hundreds an hour between 10:00 and 11:00 GMT when I was watching.


This would have corresponded to David Ascher's first peak, which occurred a few hours before you began to observe.

It is pleasant to think each of us were able to share this special moment together from opposite sides of the globe.

You will be swamped with meteor reports at the moment, so I will not detain you further. I do so greatly appreciate the exciting news from Japan. Meanwhile, I shall copy some of the material I have on Janssen and the transit expedition and will place it in the regular mail for you. Ever,

(18 November 2001 email)


@ . . . . . . . Dear friend, I received some messages from David Strauss, whose biography of Percival Lowell was published this past year by Harvard. He mentions a kind of Lowell cult in Japan -- and was there on a visit this past summer. .....


Anyway, I think he'd like to be in touch, so if you are interested I can follow up. It would be nice to have a conference on Lowell's visits and works on Japan -- as seen from a century something -- Mars and the rest.


I'd love to follow Lowell's route to Kyoto someday. All the best,

(20 November 2001 email)


Note) The following is an email from David STRAUSS to Bill SHEEHAN:


@ . . . . . . . Bill: Thanks for the info on "Epic Moon" which I have now ordered. Looking forward to reading you again. Tom Williams suggested the idea of considering your book with its different approach to the moon along with Whitaker Interesting to hear your account of Sept. 11 as experienced from South Africa.


I'm not hopeful that we Americans will escape our innocence. After all, we have had a number of rude awakenings. In the old days, when historians talked about the national character--now out of fashion--they used to say that a fundamental American trait was innocence. If so, we can expect to have more Sept. 11ths. A depressing thought.


I'm curious about your Japanese astronomer friend. My wife and I were actually in Japan this summer on Lowell business. I gave a paper at a conference at International Christian University in Tokyo and two lectures at other universities, but by far the most amazing experience was participating in the founding of the Lowell Society of Japan. A number of well-known astronomers were at the founding meeting at ICU. Then, several of us ventured to Kanazawa and then the Noto Peninsula to retrace some of Lowell's steps. In fact, we stayed the night in Anamizu on the peninsula where Lowell himself stayed.


There, we visited a local baker who has created a Lowell cake which he is selling with considerable success to the local population. A strange business, indeed.

Good to be back in touch.





@ . . . . . . .Thank you for forwarding Ed Grafton's stunning image of Saturn to me.

Tom Dobbins and I have written an article for the February issue of S&T on the forthcoming series of Saturn occultations, which I'll gladly preview to you if you wish -- our main purpose is to pique visual observers to look out for the outer ring. This image shows it beautifully. Vive la planetary imaging!

(22 November 2001 email)


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