Starry Starry Night

One stereotypical character of the Victorian Age is the “gentleman scientist”, men (and they were, with the exception of Lady Ada Lovelace, all men) with the financial wherewithal to putter around in their scientific pursuits without the need to actually work for a living.  Charles Darwin, Humphrey Davy, and Benjamin Franklin were all men of independent means and scientific interests.

Another was William Parsons.  Although less famous than the examples above, William Parsons was fortunate enough to inherit an earldom and a large estate in Ireland upon his father’s death. Now as the 3rd Earl of Rosse, he was free to concentrate on his astronomical pursuits.

Although Ireland may seem to have disadvantages as the site of an astronomical observatory—cloudy skies, moisture, and an elevation close to sea level come to mind—he had plenty of land there and plenty of money. So Lord Rosse started building increasingly larger telescopes at Birr Castle culminating in 1845 in a massive instrument with a 72-inch diameter mirror dubbed “The Leviathan of Parsonstown”. It was unlike any previous telescope, requiring massive machinery to move.  It wasn’t until 1918 when the 100-inch Mount Wilson telescope in California was built that a larger telescope was achieved.

The Leviathan of Parsonstown

Lord Rosse’s special interest was solving the nebula problem. Nebulae were faint fuzzy objects in the sky. One group of astronomers believed that they were gas clouds, while the opposition thought them clusters of stars which only appeared fuzzy when observed through telescopes of insufficient size.

And there was no telescope of more sufficient size than the Leviathan.  Observations were made.  Some nebulae were resolved into clusters of stars by the Leviathan’s colossal eye.  Others remained stubbornly fuzzy.  The issue was not resolved. (In fact, those objects in the sky called nebulae are two different things:  gas clouds, and galaxies filled with stars, but that wasn’t determined until even larger telescopes with cameras attached were developed.

And that last point is important.  When the Leviathan was built, photography was in its infancy, and astronomical photography even more so. Observations were recorded by making hand-drawn sketches. One of Lord Rosse’s most famous sketches was of the nebula numbered M-51 which he made in 1845. Lord Rosse drew a nebula with spiral arms and a second smaller nebula interacting with it.  The sketch was so much clearer than what had ever been seen before that it was widely reproduced and published in many popular astronomy books of the day throughout Europe.

Drawing by Lord Rosse of nebula M-51 (now called the Whirlpool Galaxy) through the 72-in Leviathan telescope.
The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

It does not take much imagination to recognize that Lord Rosse’s sketch of what we now know as the Whirlpool Galaxy greatly resembles the stellar swirls and eddies of Vincent van Gogh’s immortal painting “Starry Night”  Do we know for certain that van Gogh had seen Lord Ross’s sketch? No. Perhaps he did. Or perhaps his artistic vision could tap into the scientific discoveries being made during that time. The two men weren’t contemporaries—“Starry Night” was painted in 1889, forty-four years after Lord Rosse’s sketch—but the sketch was well known.

Perhaps, Lord Rosse and van Gogh approached the same subject from two different vantage points—science and art.  While “Starry Night” is now fixed for all time, progress on astronomical instruments and the observations they are able to make have continued.  Below is a photograph of the Whirlpool Galaxy taken by the Hubble Telescope.  While the abstract billows and curls of Lord Rosse’s sketch appear to us different than they did in 1845, the majesty of the this immense galaxy still provokes awe, just as van Gogh’s does.

M-51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

2 thoughts on “Starry Starry Night

  1. As ever, I enjoyed your article here, but feel I must take issue with your statement that Sir Humphrey Davy was a ‘gentleman scientist’. He wasn’t – he came from very humble stock rather than the ‘landed gentry’, but was clearly a very clever bloke who achieved great things and outstanding recognition very early in his lifetime – despite originating from the lower classes. He had to work for a living, hence . . . not a ‘gentleman scientist’.

    In addition to Ada Lovelace, I would like to offer Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) as another worthy Victorian ‘lady scientist’. She wasn’t exactly from the upper classes but did have a wealthy background, albeit from trade. She received great recognition for her achievements (first woman to receive the Order of Merit) in the foundation of nursing as a profession and the establishment of standards of care. That is probably what she is best known and respected for, but she was also a brilliant statistician and ‘presenter’ of data in a way that had real impact. I would argue that she helped drive widespread (possibly worldwide) improvements in public health policy by using scientific/statistical arguments as the engine.

    In former times (before we started this return to the dark ages on the back of covid), there was a museum dedicated to Miss Nightingale at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. It might now be lost & gone forever, but I went there a few years ago & was moved to see original examples of her work – including what she called a Coxcomb chart. She was the first woman to be elected (October 1858) a Fellow of the Statistical Society of London and was also made an honorary foreign member of the American Statistical Association in 1874.

    I believe she met Charles Babbage & do wonder whether she ever crossed paths with Michael Faraday. Their lifespans overlapped, both spent a lot of time in London, had similar faiths & likely moved in overlapping circles, but I can’t find anything on record of such a meeting.

    Sorry to take up so much space on your blog, but as you might have gathered I’m a Florence fan. I’ll stop now :^) .

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  2. Thanks for your reply and your information about Florence Nightingale. If you count medicine among the sciences (which I surely do), she would indeed be included.

    Also, a good point about Humphry Davy. I hadn’t realized that he came from such humble stock as he did. I think I was influenced by Lady Davy’s snobbery towards Michael Faraday (who was definitely NOT a gentleman scientist, but usually considered one of the first Professional Scientists.)

    There are also a series of letters between Faraday and Ada Lovelace in which she attempts to get a position to work with him. His reply can be paraphrased as “I’m getting too old for this.”, so her reputation obviously preceded her.

    Thanks for your always pertinent comments!

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