The Brilliant 19th-Century Astronomical Drawings of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot


The first photo of the moon was taken in 1850 by Louis Daguerre, from whom the daguerrotype gets its name. We have no idea what that first image looked like as it was lost in a studio fire. But the need to catalog the heavens with modern tools had started, and was both fascinating as it was lacking. Into this evolution of science and art stepped Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, the French immigrant, living in the States, an amateur scientist and an illustrator. He would dismiss photography of the heavens as “so blurred and indistinct that no details of any great value can be secured.” And by illustrating instead by he saw through telescopes, he secured a place in art *and* science history.

Trouvelot might have thought his scientific papers would be his legacy. He wrote fifty in his lifetime. Instead it is his roughly 7,000 illustrations of planets, comets, and other phenomena that still please us to this day. The New York Public Library has put 15 of his best up on their site, and over at this page, you can compare what Trouvelot saw—-the great astronomer Emma Converse called Trouvelot the “prince of observers”—-to photos from NASA’s archive.




Even if his Mars is a bit fanciful, looking translucent like a fish egg, his understanding of the planet echoes in the following century of sci-fi paranoia. Something strange must be there, he suggests.

Harvard hired him to sketch at their college’s observatory, and he used pastels to bring the planets to life. Engraving or ink would not have worked as well as these soft shapes and determined lines. His rendering of the moon surface is accurate but also fanciful, like whipped cream. And his sun spots might not be accurate, but they replicated the god-like forces at work on its tumultuous surface. His Saturn is the most realistic of them all. Even the NASA image doesn’t look too different to Trouvelot’s art.

These images also help rehabilitate Trouvelot’s other legacy—-the dreaded Gypsy Moth. Before his stint as amateur scientist, he was also an amateur entomologist, and while researching silkworms and silk production, accidentally let European gypsy moths into North America, where they wreaked havoc on the forests of North America. Saturn’s rings may look the same back then as they do now, but so does the damage of the gypsy moth, which according to Wikipedia is up to $868 million in damages per year.

via Kottke

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

17th Century Scientist Gives First Description of Alien Life: Hear Passages from Christiaan Huygens’ Cosmotheoros (1698)

Astrobiologists can now extrapolate the evolutionary characteristics of possible alien life, should it exist, given the wealth of data available on interplanetary conditions. But our ideas about aliens have drawn not from science but from what Adrian Horton at The Guardian calls “an engrossing feedback loop” of Hollywood films, comics books, and sci-fi novels. A little over three-hundred years ago — having never heard of H.G. Wells or the X-Files — Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens answered the question of what alien life might look like in his work Cosmotheoros, published after his death in 1698.

Everyone knows the names Galileo and Isaac Newton, and nearly everyone knows their major accomplishments, but we find much less familiarity with Huygens, even though his achievements “make him the greatest scientist in the period between Galileo and Newton,” notes the Public Domain Review.




Those achievements include the discovery of Saturn’s rings and its moon, Titan, the invention of the first refracting telescope, a detailed mapping of the Orion Nebula, and some highly notable advancements in mathematics. (Maybe we — English speakers, that is — find his last name hard to pronounce?)

Huygens was a revolutionary thinker. After Copernicus, it became clear to him that “our planet is just one of many,” as scholar Hugo A. van den Berg writes, “and not set apart by any special consideration other than the accidental fact that we happen to be its inhabitants.” Using the powers of observation available to him, he theorized that the inhabitants of Jupiter and Saturn (he used the term “Planetarians”) must possess “the Art of Navigation,” especially “in having so many Moons to direct their Course…. And what a troop of other things follow from this allowance? If they have Ships, they must have Sails and Anchors, Ropes, Pillies, and Rudders…”

“We may well laugh at Huygens,” van den Berg writes, “But surely in our own century, we are equally parochial in our own way. We invariably fail to imagine what we fail to imagine.” Our ideas of aliens flying spacecraft already seem quaint given multiversal and interdimensional modes of travel in science fiction. Huygens had no cultural “feedback loop.” He was making it up as he went. “In contrast to Huygens’ astronomical works, Cosmotheoros is almost entirely speculative,” notes van den Berg — though his speculations are throughout informed and guided by scientific reasoning.

To undermine the idea of Earth as special, central, and unique, “a thing that no Reason will permit,” Huygens wrote — meant posing a potential threat to “those whose Ignorance or Zeal is too great.” Therefore, he willed his brother to publish Cosmotheoros after his death so that he might avoid the fate of Galileo. Already out of favor with Louis XIV, whom Huygens had served as a government scientist, he wrote the book while back at home in The Hague, “frequently ill with depressions and fevers,” writes the Public Domain Review. What did Huygens see in his cosmic imagination of the sailing inhabitants of Jupiter and Saturn? Hear for yourself above in a reading of Huygens’ Cosmotheoros from Voices of the Past.

Huygens’ descriptions of intelligent alien life derive from his limited observations about human and animal life, and so he proposes the necessity of human-like hands and other appendages, and rules out such things as an “elephant’s proboscis.” (He is particularly fixated on hands, though some alien humanoids might also develop wings, he theorizes.) Like all alien stories to come, Huygens’ speculations, however logically he presents them, say “more about ourselves,” as Horton writes, “our fears, our anxieties, our hope, our adaptability — than any potential outside visitor.” His descriptions show that while he did not need to place Earth at the center of the cosmos, he measured the cosmos according to a very human scale.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Jocelyn Bell Burnell Changed Astronomy Forever; Her Ph.D. Advisor Won the Nobel Prize for It

A few years back, we highlighted a series of articles called The Matilda Effect — named for the feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, whose 1893 essay “Woman as an Inventor” inspired historians like Cornell University’s Margaret Rossiter to recover the lost histories of women in science. Those histories are important not only for our understanding of women’s contributions to scientific advancement, but also because they tell us something important about ourselves, whoever we are, as filmmaker Ben Proudfoot suggests in his “Almost Famous” series of short New York Times documentaries.

Proudfoot casts a wide net in the telling, gathering stories of an unknown woman N.B.A. draftee, a would-be first Black astronaut who never got to fly, a man who could have been the “next Colonel Sanders,” and a former member of the Black Eyed Peas who quit before the band hit it big. Not all stories of loss in “Almost Famous” are equally tragic. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s story, which she herself tells above, contains more than enough struggle, triumph, and crushing disappointment for a compelling tale.




An astronomer, Bell Burnell was instrumental in the discovery of pulsars — a discovery that changed the field forever. While her Ph.D. advisor Antony Hewish would be awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1974, Bell Burnell’s involvement was virtually ignored, or treated as a novelty. “When the press found out I was a woman,” she said in 2015, “we were bombarded with inquiries. My male supervisor was asked the astrophysical questions while I was the human interest. Photographers asked me to unbutton my blouse lower, whilst journalists wanted to know my vital statistics and whether I was taller than Princess Margaret.”

In the film, Burnell describes a lifelong struggle against a male-dominated establishment that marginalized her. She also tells a story of supportive Quaker parents who nurtured her will to follow her intellectual passions despite the obstacles. Growing up in Ireland, she says, “I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. But at that stage, there weren’t any women role models that I knew of.” She comments, with understandable anger, how many people congratulated her on her marriage and said “nothing about making a major astrophysical discovery.”

Many of us have stories to tell about being denied achievements or opportunities through circumstances not of our own making. We often hold those stories close, feeling a sense of failure and frustration, measuring ourselves against those who “made it” and believing we have come up short. We are not alone. There are many who made the effort, and a few who got there first but didn’t get the prize for one unjust reason or another. The lack of official recognition doesn’t invalidate their stories, or ours. Hearing those stories can inspire us to keep doing what we love and to keep pushing through the opposition. See more short “Almost Famous” documentaries in The New York Times series here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Sounds of Space: An Interplanetary Sonic Journey

There are those of us who, when presented with dueling starships in a movie or television show, always make the same objection: there’s no sound in outer space. In the short film above, this valid if aggravatingly pedantic charge is confirmed by Lori Glaze, Director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Science Division. “Sound requires molecules,” she says. “You have to be able to move molecules with the sound waves, and without the molecules, the sound just doesn’t move.” Space has as few as ten atoms per cubic meter; our atmosphere, by contrast, has more ten trillion trillion — that’s “trillion trillion” with two Ts.

No wonder Earth can be such an infernal racket. But as every schoolchild knows, the rest of solar system as a whole is hardly empty. In twenty minutes, the The Sounds of Space takes us on a tour of the planets from Mercury out to Pluto and even Saturn’s moon of Titan, not just visualizing their sights but, if you like, auralizing their sounds.




These include real recordings, like those of Venusian winds captured by the Soviet lander Venera 14 in 1981. Most, however, are scientifically informed constructions of more speculative phenomenon: a “Mercuryquake,” for instance, or a “Methanofall” on Titan.

A collaboration between filmmaker John D. Boswell (also known as Melodysheep) and Twenty Thousand Hertz, a podcast about “the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds,” The Sounds of Space was recently featured at Aeon. That site recommends viewing the film “as an exploration of the physics of sound, and the science of how we’ve evolved to receive sound waves right here on Earth.” However you frame it, you’ll hear plenty of sounds the likes of which you’ve never heard before, as well as the voices of Earthlings highly knowledgable in these matters: Glaze’s, but also those of NASA Planetary Astronomer Keith Noll and Research Astrophysicist Scott Guzewich. And as a bonus, you’ll be prepared to critique the sonic realism of the next battle you see staged on the surface of Mars.

via Aeon

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch an Accurate Reconstruction of the World’s Oldest Computer, the 2,200 Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism, from Start to Finish

There’s nothing like an ancient mystery, especially one as seemingly insoluble as the origins of “the world’s first computer,” the Antikythera mechanism. Discovered off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, the corroded collection of gears and dials seemed fake to scientists at first because of its ingeniousness. It has since been dated to 100 to 150 BC and has inspired decades of research and speculative reconstruction. Yet, no one knows who made it, and more importantly, no one knows how it was made.

“The distance between this device’s complexity and others made at the same time is infinite,” says Adam Wojcik, a materials scientist at the University College of London. “Frankly, there is nothing like it that has ever been found. It’s out of this world.”




The expression should not make us think of ancient aliens — the Antikythera mechanism contains more than enough evidence of human limitation, showing a geocentric model of the cosmos with the only five planets its maker would have known.

The 2,000-plus year-old device continues to reveal its secrets, including hidden inscriptions found during CT scans of the object, as Smithsonian reported in 2015. The mechanism is “similar in size to a mantel clock, and bits of wood found on the fragments suggest it was housed in a wooden case. Like a clock, the case would’ve had a large circular face with rotating hands. There was a knob or handle on the side, for winding the mechanism forward or backward. And as the knob turned, trains of interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds. Instead of hours and minutes, the hands displayed celestial time.”

If the Antikythera mechanism is a “celestial clock,” who better to design and build its reconstruction than a clockmaker? That is exactly what we see in the videos above, created for the clockmaking YouTube channel Clickspring. Using the best scientific model of the mechanism to date — published this year by Dr. Tony Freeth and colleagues of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project — Clickspring shows how the device might have fit together and makes educated guesses about the right placement of its dozens of small parts.

You can see a preview of the Antikythera reconstruction project at the top, watch the full project above, and see individual episodes showcasing different phases of construction on YouTube. The model “conforms to all the physical evidence,” Freeth writes, “and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.” What no one can figure out, however, is just how the ancient Greek artisans who made it shaped precision metal parts without lathes and other modern tools of the machine-makers trade. Researchers, and clockmakers, may have pieced together the Antikythera puzzle, but the mystery of how it came into existence at all remains unsolved.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Finnish Astrophotographer Spent 12 Years Creating a 1.7 Gigapixel Panoramic Photo of the Entire Milky Way

In the final, climactic scene of Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, the Milky Way engulfs the protagonist — an aesthete who keeps himself detached from the world, a universal perspective overtaking an insignificant individual.

We now know the Milky Way itself to be a minuscule part of the whole, just one of 100 to 200 billion galaxies. But until Edwin Hubble’s observations in 1924, it was thought to contain all the stars in existence.

The Milky Way-as-universe is a powerful image, and certainly more comprehensible than the universe as astronomers currently understand it. Its vastness can’t be compressed into a symbolic form like the via lactea, “Milky Way,” or as the Greeks called it, galaktikos kýklos, “milky circle.” Andy Briggs summarizes just a few of the ancient myths and legends:

To the ancient Armenians, it was straw strewn across the sky by the god Vahagn. In eastern Asia, it was the Silvery River of Heaven. The Finns and Estonians saw it as the Pathway of the Birds…. Both the Greeks and the Romans saw the starry band as a river of milk. The Greek myth said it was milk from the breast of the goddess Hera, divine wife of Zeus. The Romans saw the river of light as milk from their goddess Ops.

A barred spiral galaxy spinning around a “galactic bulge” with an empty center, a “monstrous black hole,” notes Space.com, “billions of times as massive as the sun”… the Milky Way remains an awesome symbol for a universe too vast for us to hold in our minds.

Witness, for example, the just-released image further up, a 1.7 gigapixel panoramic photo of the Milky Way, from Taurus to Cygnus, 100,000 pixels wide, pieced together from 234 panels by Finnish astrophotographer J-P Metsavainio, who began the project all the way back in 2009. “I can hear music in this composition,” he writes at his site, “from high sparks and bubbles at left to deep and massive sounds at right.”

Over 12 years, and around 1250 hours of exposure, Michael Zhang writes at Petapixel, Metsavainio “focused on different areas and objects in the Milky Way, shooting stitched mosaics of them as individual artworks.” As he began to knit the galactic clouds of stars and gasses together into a Photoshop panorama, he discovered a “complex image set which is partly overlapping with lots of unimaged areas between and around frames.” Over the years, he filled in the gaps, shooting the “missing data.” He describes his equipment and process in detail, for those fluent in the technical jargon. The rest of us can stare in silent wonder at more of Metsavainio’s work on his website (where you can also purchase prints) and Facebook, and let ourselves be overtaken by awe.

via Petapixel and Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Researchers Develop a Digital Model of the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism, “the World’s First Computer”

What’s the world’s oldest computer? If you answered the 5-ton, room-sized IBM Mark I, it’s a good guess, but you’d be off by a couple thousand years or so. The first known computer may have been a handheld device, a little larger than the average tablet. It was also hand-powered and had a limited, but nonetheless remarkable, function: it followed the Metonic cycle, “the 235-month pattern that ancient astronomers used to predict eclipses,” writes Robby Berman at Big Think.

The ancient artifact known as the Antikythera mechanism — named for the Greek Island under which it was discovered — turned up in 1900. It took another three-quarters of a century before the secrets of what first appeared as a “corroded lump” revealed a device of some kind dating from 150 to 100 BC. “By 2009, modern imaging technology had identified all 30 of the Antikythera mechanism’s gears, and a virtual model of it was released,” as we noted in an earlier post.




The device could predict the positions of the planets (or at least those the Greeks knew of: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), as well as the sun, moon, and eclipses. It placed Earth at the center of the universe. Researchers studying the Antikythera mechanism understood that much. But they couldn’t quite understand exactly how it worked, since only about a third of the complex mechanism has survived.

Image by University College London

Now, it appears that researchers from the University College of London have figured it out, debuting a new computational model in Scientific Reports. “Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself,” lead author Tony Freeth tells The Engineer. In the video above, you can learn about the history of the mechanism and its rediscovery in the 20th century, and see a detailed explanation of Freeth and his team’s discoveries.

“About the size of a large dictionary,” the artifact has proven to be the “most complex piece of engineering from the ancient world” the video informs us. Having built a 3D model, the researchers next intend to build a replica of the device. If they can do so with “modern machinery,” writes Guardian science editor Ian Sample, “they aim to do the same with techniques from antiquity” — no small task considering that it’s “unclear how the ancient Greeks would have manufactured such components” without the use of a lathe, a tool they probably did not possess.

Image by University College London

The mechanism will still hold its secrets even if the UCL team’s model works. Why was it made, what was it used for? Were there other such devices? Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another several decades to learn the answers. Read the team’s Scientific Reports article here. 

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How the World’s Oldest Computer Worked: Reconstructing the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Little-Known Female Scientists Who Mapped 400,000 Stars Over a Century Ago: An Introduction to the “Harvard Computers”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

As team names go, the Harvard Computers has kind of an oddball ring to it, but it’s far preferable to Pickering’s Harem, as the female scientists brought in under the Harvard Observatory’s male director were collectively referred to early on in their 40-some years of service to the institution.

A possibly apocryphal story has it that Director Edward Pickering was so frustrated by his male assistants’ pokey pace in examining 1000s of photographic plates bearing images of stars spotted by telescopes in Harvard and the southern hemisphere, he declared his maid could do a better job.

If true, it was no idle threat.




In 1881, Pickering did indeed hire his maid, Williamina Fleming, to review the plates with a magnifying glass, cataloguing the brightness of stars that showed up as smudges or grey or black spots. She also calculated—aka computed—their positions, and, when possible, chemical composition, color, and temperature.

The newly single 23-year-old mother was not uneducated. She had served as a teacher for years prior to emigrating from Scotland, but when her husband abandoned her in Boston, she couldn’t afford to be fussy about the kind of employment she sought. Working at the Pickerings meant secure lodging and a small income.

Not that the promotion represented a financial windfall for Fleming and the more than 80 female computers who joined her over the next four decades. They earned between 25 to 50 cents an hour, half of what a man in the same position would have been paid.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

At one point Fleming, who as a single mother was quite aware that she was burdened with “all housekeeping cares …in addition to those of providing the means to meet their expenses,” addressed the matter of her low wages with Pickering, leaving her to vent in her diary:

I am immediately told that I receive an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand.… Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men?… And this is considered an enlightened age!

Harvard certainly got its money’s worth from its female workforce when you consider that the classification systems they developed led to identification of nearly 400,000 stars.

Fleming, who became responsible for hiring her coworkers, was the first to discover white dwarfs and the Horsehead Nebula in Orion, in addition to 51 other nebulae, 10 novae, and 310 variable stars.

An impressive achievement, but another diary entry belies any glamour we might be tempted to assign:

From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination of photographs, and of work involved in the reduction of these observations.

Pickering believed that the female computers should attend conferences and present papers, but for the most part, they were kept so busy analyzing photographic plates, they had little time left over to explore their own areas of interest, something that might have afforded them work of a more theoretical nature.

Another diary entry finds Fleming yearning to get out from under a mountain of busy work:

Looking after the numerous pieces of routine work which have to be kept progressing, searching for confirmation of objects discovered elsewhere, attending to scientific correspondence, getting material in form for publication, etc, has consumed so much of my time during the past four years that little is left for the particular investigations in which I am especially interested.

And yet the work of Fleming and other notable computers such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon is still helping scientists make sense of the heavens, so much so that Harvard is seeking volunteers for Project PHaEDRA, to help transcribe their logbooks and notebooks to make them full-text searchable on the NASA Astrophysics Data System. Learn how you can get involved here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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