A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Part of our celebration of The International Year of Astronomy
Like a cluttered desk, there is much of interest here, you just have to sift through a lot of other stuff to find it. Subtitled “The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington”, there is actually very little about him, which is understandable, since not much information exists. Even his official portrait for the Royal Astronomical Society hasn’t survived. More accurate is the second part of the subtitle “…How Modern Astronomy Began”. As you see, even the title is a jumble. The author throws a lot of names and incidents out and then jumps around between them in an erratic way, leaving the reader rather confused. While a linear or categorical narration is not necessary, it might have made the information more cohesive.
While the book gives an overview of the many advances made in the 1700 and 1800‘s, the central focus is on the then newly detected data about the sun itself. It was the era of amateur scientists, where someone could collect important findings from their attic, as Heinrich Schwabe, a former pharmacist in Germany, did, when he mapped sunspots and solar cycles.
Richard Carrington was a Victorian gentleman who had already devised a math formula for determining the sun’s longitude and charted the stars in the Northern Hemisphere when he made the ground breaking drawings of the huge solar flares on Sept.1, 1859. The flares were also verified by professional astronomers in Europe and India, as well as measurements at Kew Observatory, but Carrington reported details unseen by the others. The magnetic force of the flare was three times more powerful than the one in 1989, which knocked out numerous power stations across North America and damaged over a thousand satellites orbiting the Earth.
The observations were the crowning accomplishment of a man who’d been obsessed by astronomy his entire life and was now on the road to reaping the professional benefits when his father suddenly died. When Carrington returned home for the funeral, he found no one available to run the family business, a brewery, but himself. Though he intended it to be temporary, business consumed so much of his time that he fell behind his astronomy assignments. Petty politics robbed him of positions at Oxford and Cambridge and he soon had to sell his telescopes and other equipment. Though he was finally able to escape the brewery, a disastrous marriage and resulting scandals ended his life in a questionable way, possibly a suicide.
Carrington’s tragic story is scattered across several chapters, mixed in with blips about Humdolt(of penguin fame) measuring magnetic forces around the globe, Warren De la Rue taking the first photo of a solar eclipse in 1860, various scientists and their advances, all doled out in brief tidbits throughout the book in a way that makes it hard to put any of it together. Mix in plenty of data about the sun and planetary activity, solar flares of various dates and the reader feels like they are dealing with a tangled ball of yarn, without the cute kitten.
Parts of this book was truly fascinating and I did learn a lot. But it could have been imparted in a much smoother way with more organization and better editing.
Princeton University Press 2007 211 pp. ISBN-13:978-0-691-12660-9