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No. 49 - October 2005

Centenaries of 2005

This year sees the centenaries of several astronomers. Here are some with a Scottish connection.

John Robison

John Robison (died 1805)

Born near Glasgow in 1739, the son of a merchant, he took his MA at the University in 1756, and was inspired by the physical sciences, becoming friendly with James Watt and Joseph Black. Although his father wanted him to be a minister John went to sea as a midshipman. He was an instructor in navigation, surveyed the country around the St Lawrence, and investigated the connection between the aurora and the magnetic needle. In 1762 he was asked by the Board of Longitude to test Harrison's chronometer on its first voyage but neither the Board nor the Admiralty would pay his expenses. He gave up the Navy and returned to Glasgow to lecture in Chemistry.

In 1770 he went to St Petersburg with Admiral Knowles whom Catherine the Great had appointed to reform the Russian navy, and was made professor of mathematics at the military academy at Kronstadt with the rank of colonel. In 1773 he returned as professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh but found the average student to be far below his expectations in mathematical ability (Nothing has changed - Ed.)

He published his lecture courses - they contained a great deal of astronomy but are incomplete, and found time to write articles on optics, astronomy and electricity besides some religious and metaphysical speculations on the sciences. In 1785 he made and published observations on the positions and orbit of the "Georgium Sidus" (Uranus), which had been newly discovered by William Herschel.

Robison was LLD of Glasgow and of New Jersey, FRS and FRSE. His son, Sir John Robison (1778-1843) was a well-known scientist and administrator.

(Dictionary of National Biography 47, 434, by Paul Wood.)

tomb of Johann von Lamont Tomb of Johann von Lamont in Munich, courtesy of Storm Dunlop.
tomb of Johann von Lamont

Edward Sang (born 1805)

Born in Kirkcaldy, one of 11 children of Edward Sang, sometime provost of the town, he was educated by the brilliant but eccentric Edward Irving who instilled a love of astronomy. (This man became a flamboyant preacher but was ejected from the Church of Scotland for "heresy" and started up his own denomination - the Irvingites).

He entered Edinburgh University at a very early age and was in delicate health, but his mathematical talent soon caught the attention of professors Leslie and Wallace. He worked in Edinburgh as a surveyor and civil engineer but taught classes in mathematics, physics, navigation and astronomy in the city and in Leith. From 1841 he was briefly professor of Mechanical Sciences at Manchester New College, then went to Sebastopol to help set up railways, ironworks and engineering schools.

In 1854 he returned to teach mathematics in Edinburgh and to publish a formidable 112 papers, mostly on engineering subjects, astronomical tables and 7-place logarithms. For 40 years he laboured on a huge work - astronomical, trigonometric Al and logarithmic tables to 15 and 28 places, which were unpublished at his death in 1890 but his two daughters who had helped him presented the 47-volume manuscript to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Sang was LLD of Edinburgh, FRSE, awarded the Makdougall-Brisbane and Keith Medal of RSE and the silver medal of RSSA. Some of his apparatus is preserved in the scientific instrument collection at the Royal Museum of Scotland.

(Dictionary of National Biography 48, 939, by A.D.D. Craik.)

Johann von Lamont

Johann von Lamont (born 1805)

John Lamont was born at Corriemulzie near Braemar. When he was only 12 his father, a forester, died and he was sent to be educated at St James' monastery at Regensburg, Germany. Prior Benedikt Deasson instructed him thoroughly in mathematics and physics, he was appointed assistant at Bogenhausen Observatory near Munich, and took his doctorate of philosophy in 1830. He became director of the observatory in 1835 and professor of astronomy in 1852.

He devised new instruments for astronomy, meteorology and terrestrial magnetism, founded a Meteorological Association for setting up weather stations, participated in a world-wide network of simultaneous magnetic recordings and was involved in the triangulation survey of Bavaria. He observed the satellites of Saturn and Uranus, estimating the mass of the latter, found a 10.3 year magnetic declination cycle which seemed to coincide with the solar cycle, produced a 20-vol catalogue of 80,000 stars and devised a chronometer to time meridian transits of stars. He published Handbuch des Erdmagnetisums (Berlin 1849), Astronomie und Erdmagnetismus (Stuttgart 1851) and numerous other works.

His many honours include FRS, FRSE and title of nobility from the King of Bavaria. He died, single, in 1879 and his considerable wealth was used to found scholarships in sciences. A statue of him in Munich has him with an open hand, into which the locals put small coins (he was a Scotsman!) and in 1935 Sir James Jeans unveiled a memorial cairn to him on Deeside.

(Dictionary of National Biography 32, 343, by M. Dörries; Dictionary of Scientific Biography 7, 607, by D.B. Herrmann.)

Ralph Copeland

Ralph Copeland (died 1905)

He was born in 1837, the youngest of several sons of Robert Copeland, a farmer and part-owner of a cotton mill, at Woodplumpton in Lancashire. After grammar school he was apprenticed in an older brother's cotton mill but soon went off to Australia in search of adventure, as a sheep farmer and gold miner. Here he developed an interest in astronomy. On the voyage home he studied John Herschel's Outlines of Astronomy. He was then briefly an apprentice in a locomotive firm in Manchester, where with some work mates he set up a small observatory, but decided to re-train as an astronomer because of depression in the cotton trade making engineering insecure.

In 1865, after some time in a village in Hesse improving his German, he matriculated at the University of Göttingen and became a voluntary observer at the observatory. With Carl Börgen he made a series of observations of star places near the celestial equator. He took his doctorate with a dissertation "Über die Bahnbewegung von α Centauri" then with Börgen was invited on a German Arctic expedition to north Greenland, to carry out geodetic, meteorological, magnetic and natural history studies. On their return Kaiser Wilhelm I awarded them the Order of the Red Eagle.

In 1871 Copeland was appointed assistant at Lord Rosse's observatory at Birr, Ireland, where he studied the moon's radiant heat, then was assistant to Dr Robert Ball at Dunsink, where he got leave of absence to accompany Lord Lindsay to Mauritius to observe the 1874 Transit of Venus. In 1876 he became director at Lord Lindsay's great private observatory at Dunecht near Aberdeen, succeeding David Gill. Many observations were carried out, mainly on the spectra of comets, novae and peculiar stars. In 1882 he took charge of the Jamaica station for the international programme to observe the Transit of Venus, explored the superior seeing conditions in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, discovered 5 new Wolf-Rayet stars and examined the peculiar variable η Argus. Results were published in Astronomische Nachrichten, Monthly Notices, Copernicus, and new information was sent out to other observatories in the Dunecht Circulars.

Lord Lindsay, now the 26th Earl of Crawford, learned that the government intended to do away with Scotland's Royal Observatory on Calton Hill when Piazzi Smyth retired, so he offered his own instruments and vast library to the nation provided a new observing site was chosen. In time this became the new Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill, with Copeland as Astronomer Royal for Scotland and Professor of Astronomy at Edinburgh University. He continued his observing programmes, using especially his favourite instrument, the 15-inch Grubb refractor, made several total solar eclipse expeditions with a huge long-focus camera, and began rigorous Astronomy courses for the new BSc degree. At the British Association's Cardiff meeting of 1891 he suggested that the bright streaks radiating from lunar crates might be lines of glassy spherules - an extraordinary anticipation.

Copeland was FRSE, a member of the Scottish Meteorological Society and a Director of its Ben Nevis Observatory. A robust and adventurous character, he refused to retire and died at the Observatory on 27 October 1905, he is buried in Morningside Cemetery with members of his family.

(Dictionary of National Biography 13, 319, by D. Gavine.)

Hermann Brück

Hermann Alexander Brück (born 1905)

Hermann Brück was born in Berlin in 1905 and was educated at the Kaiserin Augusta Gymnasium in Berlin-Charlottenburg, a school specialising in the Classics (Latin and Greek), where he also had excellent teachers in mathematics and physics. His enthusiasm for astronomy came from outside school. Once when he was in bed with some childish illness, he was given a book to keep him amused. It was J.J. von Littrow's famous Wunder des Himmels. He kept and cherished that book for the rest of his life. Another important influence was the enthusiasm generated by a public lecture on relativity which Einstein gave in 1915 at the Popular Observatory at Berlin-Treptow. Though he did not hear it personally, he began to read all the scientific books he could find, and decided he wanted to be an astronomer.

He attended the Universities of Kiel, Bonn and finally Munich, where he took his PhD in theoretical physics in 1928. Astronomy was originally to be his major subject, but having fallen under the spell of Arnold Sommerfeld's lectures on Quantum Mechanics, he switched over but kept up astronomy as his second subject. The practical astronomy classes were held in Bogenhausen, the observatory made famous by Johann von Lamont, whose bi-centenary is being celebrated this year.

From Munich he began his astronomical career at the Potsdam Astrophysical Observatory where he worked first on solar spectroscopy with the tower telescope, and then on the observatory's main programme, the Potsdam Spectral Catalogue which complemented the Henry Draper Catalogue of spectral classification using spectra from the observatory's station in Peru. These happy days were destined to be blighted within a few years by the rise of Nazism. He decided to leave Germany in 1936, and obtained a temporary Research Assistantship at the Vatican Observatory near Rome where a spectral classification programme was also in progress. From there he went a year later to Cambridge where he was able to continue some solar spectroscopy (though the war caused much disruption in the observatory's work), rising to the rank of John Couch Adams Astronomer and Assistant Director of the Observatory. In 1947, in response to an invitation from Eamon de Valera, then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, he moved to Dublin where he undertook the task of re-founding the defunct Dunsink Observatory under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. There among other projects, he set up a large solar spectroscope for the near ultra-violet, with which to supply the extreme end of the Rowland Atlas, a programme which was completed before he left Dublin for Edinburgh after 10 years. He held the combined post of Astronomer Royal for Scotland and Regius Professor of Astronomy in the University of Edinburgh from 1957 until his retirement in 1975 at the age of 70.

Brück's years in Edinburgh were his most active and his most satisfying. He aimed from the start to introduce automatic methods of measurement and reduction into astronomy in order to deal with the vast amount of data that come from stellar spectra and direct photographs of the sky. For this purpose he appointed experts in technology and computing rather than astronomers. The result was the original Galaxy machine for measuring star images on Schmidt telescope photographs, which developed into the highly successful Cosmos machine. These foundations have borne ample fruit at the present flourishing Royal Observatory.

He occupied himself in his retirement with various historical projects including the history of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (1983) and the life of Charles Piazzi Smyth (1988). His most recent work were biographical entries for the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), including those of two of his predecessors, Piazzi Smyth and W.M.H. Greaves. Sadly he did not live to see this great opus in print. He retired to Penicuik and died on 4 March 2000.

Mary Brück. (Also Dictionary of National Biography 8, 341, by Sir Martin Rees.)


Cover page

The future of the City Observatory

Obituary: Nora Jenkinson

Centenaries of 2005

The Scottish Astronomy Weekend 2005

Book review: Atlas of the night sky

Recent observations

Forthcoming events

About the ASE Journal

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