|Astronomy & Geophysics 44 (6) 6.32|
An interpreter of early astrophysics
Agnes Mary Clerke and the Rise of Astrophysics by Mary Brück, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 275p plus plates, hbk, £35, ISBN 0521 808448.
Agnes Mary Clerke (18421907) was a remarkable Victorian. She was born a generation too soon to have been eligible for the women's university colleges, and never worked in fundamental astronomical research in her own right, but by the time of her death she was one of the most respected interpreters of the new astronomy of astrophysics in the world. I use the word interpreter in clear contrast with popularizer, for like Mary Somerville, her predecessor in that tradition, whose mantle Dr Brück sees her as inheriting, Agnes Clerke worked at the highest intellectual level. Her System of the Stars (1890) can be seen in many ways as an up-to-date version of Mary Somerville's Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), and when Agnes Clerke used the word popular, it simply meant equation-free and aimed at a well-educated and cultured audience, and not what we might today style as popular. As an interpreter of contemporary astronomy, therefore, Agnes Clerke was a person who, possessing as she did a thorough mastery of the scientific developments which had taken place since the days of Sir William Herschel, placed them into historical context. She showed how the science of astrophysics had come into being and how the spectroscope had transformed cosmology almost beyond recognition between 1860 and 1880.
This was possible, moreover, because of Agnes's own background and that broad literary culture which enabled her not only to read and understand the key research papers which were transforming astronomy, but also to form a network of direct contacts and friendships with the leading contemporary astrophysicists and their wives.
Agnes Clerke was the daughter of a highly cultivated middle-class family living at Skibbereen and later Dublin, in Ireland. Her father was a Trinity College, Dublin, graduate, who managed the Skibbereen bank before becoming a Court Registrar in Dublin. He came from a Protestant Anglo-Irish family whose ancestors had nonetheless enjoyed excellent relations with their Roman Catholic neighbours, and had actively campaigned during the Georgian period to get the government to remove legal disabilities from Catholics. John Clerke was also a keen amateur astronomer, who owned telescopes and provided the Skibbereen local time service.
Agnes's mother Catherine was a daughter of the prosperous Roman Catholic Deasy family which owned breweries at Clonakilty and practised law. Agnes, her sister Mary Ellen, and her brother Aubrey were brought up as Roman Catholics, with no apparent religious conflict between their two sets of relatives, and one invaluable eye-opener that Mary Brück (herself a Roman Catholic Irishwoman) brings out is the easy intermixing between Christian denominations that often took place within the gentry classes of early Victorian Ireland.
Languages, literature, and history formed the Clerke children's education, and it seems that the training given to Agnes and to Mary Ellen was no less thorough and wide-ranging than that given to their brother Aubrey, who later came to practise at the London bar. Following the family move to Florence in 1867 (father and brother returning to Dublin and London to keep their law terms), Agnes and Mary Ellen seized the opportunity to become truly accomplished linguists in all the main European languages, and in particular they turned themselves into internationally recognized authorities in Italian history and contemporary politics Mary Ellen especially writing articles on the contemporary unification of Italy for English and Irish papers.
Writing, indeed, became the key to Agnes's astronomical carer, and this may also have been an economic necessity for two thirty-odd-year-old intellectual sisters who showed no apparent interest in marriage. (Indeed, brother Aubrey also remained a bachelor, and all three Clerke children later came to share the same house in Redcliffe Square, London.) Agnes first came to prominence in the late 1870s when she was invited to produce some articles for the prestigious Edinburgh Review. As some of them were on Italy and the Scientific Revolution she rapidly emerged as the leading historian of astronomy of the late Victorian period, not only continuing to write for the Edinburgh Review to the end of her life, but also becoming the chief history-of-science contributor to the Dictionary of NationalBiography and the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, where the frequent appearance of the letters A M C at the end of articles still indicates the range of her scholarship. By 1885, when her monumental History of Astronomy in the 19th Century appeared, her academic reputation was established. Then Agnes's critical scholarly studies in the history of cosmology and in the still-developing science of astrophysics saw her emerge as the age's foremost interpreter of these sciences, and a person from whom American observatory directors and European professors sought opinions, and whose suggestions they seriously weighed.
What is truly remarkable was the sheer intellectual range that this domestically educated young Irishwoman acquired, spanning the classics, fluency in well over half-a-dozen languages, Renaissance and modern history and, of course, astronomy and astrophysics. Nor would we forget that as a devout Roman Catholic she and her siblings enjoyed close relations with the highest echelons of the British Catholic hierarchy, donating and bequeathing substantial sums of money to support both spiritual and educational projects in Catholic Christianity. Her interest in the scientific and spiritual possibility of life on other worlds and the likelihood of our having cosmic companions, her willingness to accept that, after an initial divine creation, life on Earth had evolved into its present species in a naturalistic way, and the published acknowledgement she received in the works of the evolutionist Alfred Russell Wallace show that she saw no conflict existing between modern science and her Christian faith. Indeed, in contradistinction to Huxley, Tyndall and Spencer, Agnes Clerke was at pains to point out that modern science and even evolution could be understood in a Christian context and did not necessarily have to stand on atheistic or agnostic predicates.
Indeed, the case of Agnes Clerke quite fails to fit many of the accepted paradigms which certain modern historians attempt to impose upon the lives of clever and aspiring women in the past. For Agnes, who was naturally shy and did not even like to be photographed, made a very good independent living, did not need a job, worked on easy and respected terms with some of the leading astronomers and intellectuals of the age, had no connections with feminist political movements, was internationally renowned by the age of 50, and was both an evolutionist and a deeply devout Christian.
I feel that Mary Brück's work brings her subject very much to life. It is based entirely on primary-source research, using Irish, English, and family records, letters in the archival collections of observatories around the world and, of course, Agnes's own quite massive list of publications. And significantly, it is mercifully free from any of that sociological jargon or obfuscatory gobbledegook which so often mars books written by contemporary female scholars about their predecessors. But there again, one would not expect it from the author, whose mastery of plain English makes her work a delight to read. It is thoroughly referenced, making it possible to identify the sources consulted, while the six-page appendix reprints extracts from some of Agnes Clerk's published papers, thus giving the reader a sense of her prose style.
My only wish is that Dr Brück could have said a little bit more about the financial aspects of Agnes Clerke's career assuming that the document exists. As one who is interested in how Victorian Grand Amateur astronomy was paid for, I would have liked to know more about Agnes's earning capacity. What did she get paid for an article in the Edinburgh Review or the Encyclopaedia Britannica? What did her extremely successful books bring in in cash terms? It is clear, for example as one might expect from a woman descended from bankers, lawyers and successful entrepreneurs on both sides that Agnes was not unaware of the potential profitability of her books from the way in which she tried, in an age without international copyright law, to make sure that her British-published books were not pirated by unscrupulous American publishing houses.
But this is an incidental point. What really matters is that Dr Brück has brought Agnes Clerke before us as a truly remarkable Victorian. And from the range of Agnes's erudition and from the nature of her individual character and temperament, Dr Brück has made us think again about many aspects of Victorian culture: about non-feminist intellectual women, about Ireland, about science and Roman Catholicism, and about that revolution in astrophysics upon which modern astronomy is based, which Agnes Clerke was the first to chronicle.
A hotbed of star formation in M17, about 5500 light years away in Sagittarius. Red represents sulphur; green, hydrogen; and blue, oxygen in this HST Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 image, roughly 3 light years across (NASA, ESA and J Hester [ASU]).
The second half of this year has seen a bumper crop of books arriving in the A&G office. There's a range from the most straightforward of reference books to the beauties of Hubble Space Telescope images. I'll mention just a few. A gem among them is a revised edition of Steven Weinberg's The Discovery of Subatomic Particles (Cambridge University Press, 2003, £18.95, pbk). The first edition of this book came out in 1983, as part of the Scientific American Library. In that classic work, Weinberg set out the discoveries of modern physics in context, describing the discoveries in the past that set the scene for today's fundamental science. In this revision he re-emphasizes the links between ancient and modern (in physics terms), and brings his treatment bang up to date. Although the focus of this book is on elementary particles, what it provides is a lively, personal and authoritative account of the way scientists found out about matter: what it is made of and how it behaves, at the most fundamental level. Thus is the basis of much of modern physics and chemistry, and so it contains the foundations of modern astronomy and geophysics.
Weinberg draws together the lives of the scientists who took significant steps forward, with succinct accounts of what it was they achieved, and how the scientific culture of the times influenced both their work and its reception. It is a very good read, combining lively informal syntheses of basic physics with solid quantitative science: there are appendices discussing key concepts, such as radioactive decay, along with equations and calculations throughout the text and footnotes for more abstruse points. It is well illustrated, with figures and photographs, including many of the scientists themselves, in portraits and in the lab. Weinberg stresses the significance of scientific culture without losing sight of the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day work, and in doing so puts across much of the key concepts of physics today. His descriptions of how the discoveries that he documents were made provide an illustration of the scientific method in action, as well as fleshing out the classic experiments that underpin undergraduate physics. This book should be part of any physicist's library and, I think, it would be a valuable addition to any physics course.
Undergraduates or anyone starting astronomy or astrophysics will find the Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy (revised edition, Oxford University Press, 2003, £8.99, pbk, ISBN 0 19 860513 7) worthwhile and extremely good value. The editor, Ian Ridpath and his team, have drawn together a comprehensive collection of technical terms covering traditional astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, planetary science and related fields, and provided concise and informative definitions. Although a small book, the closely spaced but clear typeface and compact figures ensure that it does not have limited scope. Keen observers, students of astronomy and anyone wanting to track down those proliferating acronyms will keep it on their shelves. It will be especially welcome, I suspect, among those coming to astrophysics research from backgrounds in physics and maths, who need a helping hand with the terminology of a science that is constantly developing while holding firmly on to its history and traditions.
A different approach to astronomy comes from The Rough Guide to the Universe (John Scalzi, Rough Guides Ltd, 2003, £10.99, pbk, ISBN 1 85828 939 4). This is definitely not to be confused with any sort of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, despite the Rough Guides' more familiar role as the traveller's friend. This is one of a series of informal reference books and gives a lively, potted history of the universe and how to observe it. It has a lot of the at a glance style of the travel guides, typified by the very first chapter title: The first 15 billion years in 15 minutes. It is not a book that goes into any great depth, but it is a lot of fun and gives a good general overview of current astronomy.
About a third of the book is taken up with star charts, with many focusing on particular constellations, complete with snippets of information about their discovery, history or oddities. There are plenty of good diagrams and colour pictures of planets, comets and stars, and the text is informative and, in its way, thought-provoking. There is also a useful list of resources, mainly on websites, including societies and observatories, in the UK and USA. This is Astronomy Light, if you like: a book for someone who wants to find out more about astronomy, but would recoil from something that looks like a textbook, or a children's book, or anything that looks too dull, thick or heavy.
On the other hand, if it is beautiful images that appeal, then Hubble: the Mirror on the Universe (Robin Kerrod, David & Charles, 2003, £15.99, hbk, ISBN 0 715316427) is worth a look. This book is based around spectacular images from the Hubble Space Telescope and takes readers on a colourful tour of stars, galaxies, planets and things that will one day become planets, among other sights of the universe. The text provides a narrative to bind the images together, starting with the birth of stars in clouds of dust and finishing with technical information about Hubble, its history and the future of space telescopes. Many of the images will be familiar to astronomers, but not to those outside the field, for whom this book provides an informative and very attractive introduction.
Those who favour a more conventional approach to astronomy might enjoy Redshift 5 (Focus Multimedia, £29.99, www.focusmm.co.uk), the latest version of the astronomy software that draws together star maps and catalogues, image databases, asteroid information and a host of information sources and formats for home observing. Afficionados of Redshift 3 will find all their favourite features here, plus useful additions such as dim screens for night viewing and better display options.
My final choice is a book that tackles an unusual target in planetary science: Mercury. It's a timely publication, as this tiny planet is the target of forthcoming space missions from NASA and ESA, but it also mirrors the development of planetary sciences, from a subdivision of astronomy, without the awe-inspiring explosions and relativistic turmoil, to a fascinating science in its own right, where you really can explore new worlds, near to and yet very far from Earth.
Exploring Mercury the Iron Planet (Robert G Strom and Ann L Sprague, Springer Praxis, 2003, £24.50, pbk, ISBN 1 85233 731 1) is a great introduction to the reasons for exploring this part of the solar system. It begins with the historical and observational facts about Mercury, covering technical details of the Mariner missions in some detail. But its main thrust is the treasure unearthed in the data from these 1970s missions. There are extensive maps and images, covering photographic, spectroscopic, radar, magnetic, and other remotely sensed data from Mariner throughout the book. As a bonus, there is an extensive set of high-resolution images on a CD that comes with the book.
This book melds together an introduction to many of the techniques applied on Mercury with their application in deducing a suprising amount of information about the surface, composition and environment of this planet. But what makes it fascinating is the detail obtained from these reprocessed Mariner images; the authors not only identify faults on the surface of the planet, but can deduce how their type and shape changes across the face of Mercury, and so suggest a form of tectonics found nowhere else in the solar system so far! Strom and Sprague certainly whet this reader's appetite for Mercury missions to come.
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