Strange Cases from the Files of Astronomical Sociology

About this document

Strange Cases from the Files of Astronomical Sociology

Kevin Krisciunas

University of Notre Dame
Department of Physics
225 Nieuwland Science Hall
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556


What astronomer could not use his own surname because his father was beheaded for sorcery? Who built the only observatory worth $5 billion in today's money? Who had worse luck than you travelling thousands of miles not to observe an astronomical event? Who had one of his books bound in human skin at the request of his most ardent fan? Is there an anti-correlation between scientific output and the number of children one has? Are astronomers known for having unusual honeymoons? Who wrote the most egotistical work in the history of astronomy? What famous astronomer was present for the opening of King Tutankhamen's tomb and later began having hallucinations of an elf, which advised him on the running of his observatory? What is the strangest abstract published in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society? What well-known bad tempered astronomer was born in 1898 (the year after Bram Stoker's Dracula was published) in Varna, Bulgaria, which all vampirologists recognize as the nearest port from which any self-respecting Transylvanian vampire would embark on a sea voyage to London? In this article we provide answers to these fascinating questions.

One of the rapidly growing social science fields is that of astronomical sociology. Astronomers (and non-astronomers alike) keep wondering why we are the way we are and what motivates us.

That astronomers are considered unusual is related, I think, to our small numbers. There are some 5900 members of the American Astronomical Society. Compare this with the 1.7 million registered nurses and 2.4 million truck drivers in the United States. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century astronomers were a rare breed indeed. Most importantly, it does not help our present reputation that some very unusual stories are associated with astronomers of the past.

George Joachim Rheticus (1514-1574), who arranged for the publication of Copernicus' great book, was unable to use his own surname because his father had been beheaded for sorcery.[1]

The great pre-telescopic astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was a Danish nobleman and close friend of King Frederick II. Tycho's island observatory at Hven cost the equivalent of 30 percent of the annual revenues of the Danish crown, or about $5 billion in today's money.[2] But, on the whole it was well spent, for Tycho increased the positional accuracy of stellar positions by a factor of 10, and his observations of Mars led to Kepler's Laws and Newton's Law of Gravity.

Tycho once had an elk, which he sent as a present to his mentor, the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. But en route the elk walked up the steps to a manor house, where it drank a great quantity of beer. On the way down the stairs it broke a leg and died.[3]

It is well-known that Tycho lost the bridge of his nose in a duel with his third cousin, and that he wore a prosthetic nose piece, supposedly made of pure gold. It is less well-known that Tycho was disinterred in 1901 by some Czech scholars, who were investigating, among other things, the composition of his nose piece, which was found to contain gold, silver, and copper.[4]

A healer who served Tycho Brahe and also his sister Sophie Brahe was one Live Larsdatter, who was born in 1575 and died at the age of 123 in 1698. Having served Tycho, she outlived him by 97 years.[5]

The first man to hold an academic chair in science in colonial America was fired in 1712 for drunkeness and consorting with an ``idle hussy".[6]

The French astronomer Guillaume Le Gentil (1725-1792) made a valiant effort to observe the transits of Venus across the disk of the Sun. These transits took place in 1761 and 1769. The first transit found him stuck in the middle of the Indian Ocean, unable to make any useful observations. After spending four years in Mauritius and Madagascar, and even taking a side trip to the Philippines, Le Gentil arrived in India, built an observatory at a place called Pondicherry, and waited for the next transit, which would occur on June 4, 1769. The weather was clear for the month prior to the transit, but it clouded up on transit day, only to clear immediately after the long-awaited event. Le Gentil then contracted dysentery and remained bedridden for nine months. He booked passage home aboard a Spanish warship that was demasted in a hurricane off the Cape of Good Hope and blown off course north of the Azores before finally limping into port at Cadiz. Le Gentil crossed the Pyrenees on foot and returned to France after an absence of 11 and one-half years, only to learn that he had been declared dead, his estate looted, and its remains divided up among his heirs and creditors. Le Gentil did not give up astronomy after his return to France. In fact, he lived at the Paris Observatory and the observatory's records contain a complaint that Madame Le Gentil hung out diapers to dry in the observatory gardens.[7]

The Russian astronomer Wilhelm Struve (1793-1864) produced 272 astronomical works and 18 children. His great-grandson Otto Struve (1897-1963) produced 907 works and had zero children.[8]

The French astronomy popularizer Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) was the love object of a French countess who died at a young age of tuberculosis. They never even met, but the young woman made an unusual request to her doctor - that when she died he would cut a large piece of skin from her back and bring it to Flammarion with the request that he have it tanned, and that it be used to bind a copy of his next book. (Part of the reason was that the woman had a picture of Flammarion tatooed on herself!) And so it happened. Flammarion's first copy of Terres du Ciel was so bound, with an inscription in gold in the front cover: Pious fulfillment of an anonymous wish/ Binding in human skin (woman) 1882.[9]

The most egotistical work in the history of astronomy is the biography by W. L. Webb of the American astronomer T. J. J. See (1866-1962), known to some as ``The Sage of Mare Island." This book, chronicling the ``unparalleled" discoveries of See, is in fact an autobiography written in the third person, using a pseudonym.[10]

George Ellery Hale (1868-1938) was the founder of Yerkes Observatory, then of Mt. Wilson Observatory. Beginning at age 42 Hale received regular visits from an elf, who advised him on numerous matters, including the administration of Mt. Wilson and the planning for Palomar.[11]

Hale, Wilhelm Struve, Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1901),[12] and this author all spent part of a honeymoon visiting observatories or doing astronomical site testing.

One of the most brilliant (and most irascible) astronomers of all time was Fritz Zwicky (1898-1974). He made many significant breakthroughs, among them the discovery of the ``dark matter" permeating the Coma cluster of galaxies.

In the January 19, 1934 edition of the Los Angeles Times Zwicky was lampooned in a cartoon entitled ``Be Scientific with Ol' Doc Dabble," in which it says: ``Cosmic rays are caused by exploding stars which burn with a fire equal to 100 million suns and then shrivel from 1/2 million mile diameters to little spheres 14 miles thick." In the polemical introduction to Zwicky's Catalogue of Selected Compact Galaxies and of Post-Eruptive Galaxies (1971), known simply as ``The Red Book," Zwicky quotes the cartoon and comments: ``This, in all modesty, I claim to be one of the most concise triple predictions ever made in science." Why? Because it correctly describes the nature of origin of cosmic rays, supernovae, and the formation of neutron stars.

Zwicky was fond of standing up in seminars to remind the speaker that Zwicky had solved the particular question many years before. He also used to refer to other astronomers at Mt. Wilson and Palomar as spherical bastards. Why ``spherical"? Because they were bastards any way you look at them. One time Zwicky had the night assistant at the 200- inch fire a bullet out the dome slit in the direction the telescope was pointing to see if that improved the seeing. It did not.[13]

Russian-born Harvard astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin (1898- 1984?) was once arguing with a night assistant at McDonald Observatory about why they could not find a particular object. The night assistant suggested that one way or another the coordinates were incorrect. Gaposchkin retorted, ``I, Sergei Gaposchkin, am never wrong!" And with that he took one step backward, fell off the observing platform and broke his arm.[14] Gaposchkin's curious last publication was called, ``The 22nd most remarkable star RY Scuti."[15] It contains, among other things, a reference to a Frank Sinatra song.

In the Lowell Observatory library there is a more than one thousand page ``biography of humanity'' by Gaposhkin which is called the Divine Scramble. The LC call number is QB36.G36 1976. It contains brief biographies of scientists, autobiographical information, poetry, and (towards the end) pictures of a scantily clad septuagenarian Gaposhkin with bikini-clad ``nymphs on the beach". At the very beginning we learn that he was an ``athlete through six monstrous years, 1917-1923.'' Also, that ``you cannot be a supreme genius without being a supreme athlete all your life."

Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) was a famous mathematician and astronomer who is best known for his "method of least squares" and the "Gaussian error curve". After he died his brain was pickled and remains to this day in the physiology deparment at the University of Goettingen. [16] To find out who has Einstein's brain, click here. One of Galileo's index fingers can be found in a reliquary in the Florence History of Science Museum. [17]

In the strange death and near-death department, I only know of one astronomer who was assassinated. Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), who ruled Transoxiana, the principal city of which was Samarkand, was the most important astronomer of the 15th century. He was killed by an assassin hired by his son.[18] Jacob Herschel (1734-1792), the brother of astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822), was strangled to death. [19] Marc Aaronson (1950-1987) was crushed to death in the dome of the 4-m telescope at Kitt Peak.[20] Jeffrey Alan Willick (1959-2000), an assistant professor at Stanford, was killed by a runaway car as he worked on his laptop computer in a coffee shop.[21] My friend Eric Becklin (b. 1940) was on Aloha Flight 243 from Hilo, Hawaii, to Honolulu on April 28, 1988, when the plane lost much of its fusilage, but landed safely on Maui. One stewardess was sucked out of the plane.[22] Her body was never found. The pilot, Robert Schornstheimer, kept flying for Aloha Airlines; he was the pilot on a flight I had a number of years later.

I could go on and on, and in fact I often do. But to conclude, I often wonder, as my friends suggest, if the term ``eccentric astronomers" is repetitively redundant. Do astronomers become eccentric as a result of environmental factors such as sleep deprivation and jet lag, or do inherently eccentric people go into this business so as to have somewhere to fit in, sort of? Astronomical sociologists are hard at work trying to answer these questions.[23]


1. Concise Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (New York: Scribner's), 1981, p. 583. However, Gingerich (see ref. 17 below, p. 11) stated that Rheticus's father was executed for swindling.

2. Krisciunas, Kevin, Astronomical Centers of the World, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press), 1988, p. 44.

3. Dreyer, J. L. E., Tycho Brahe: A Picture of Scientific Life and Work in the Sixteenth Century, (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black), 1890, p. 210.

4. Ashbrook, Joseph, ``Tycho Brahe's nose," Sky and Telescope, June 1965, p. 353.

5. Christianson, John Robert, On Tycho's Island: Tycho Brahe and His Assistants, 1570-1601, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000, pp. 311-312.

6. Yeomans, D. K., ``The shaky beginning of North American astronomy," Bull. Amer. Astr. Soc., 11, 1979, p. 602.

7. Ferris, Timothy, Coming of Age in the Milky Way, (New York: William Morrow), 1988, pp. 133-4. Ryden, Barbara S., ``The astronomical odyssey of Monsieur Le Gentil," Griffith Observer 52, no. 2, 1988, p. 3. Also, Barbara Ryden, personal communication, 1 June 1993.

8. Krisciunas, Kevin, ``Otto Struve (1897-1963)," Biographical Memoirs, 61, (Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press), 1992, p. 351.

9. Blumenthal, Walter Hart, An Olio Bookmen's Bedlam of Literary Oddities, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Press), 1955, p. 85 ff. Also, Owen Gingerich, personal communication, 4 June 1993.

10. Ashbrook, Joseph, ``The sage of Mare Island," Sky and Telescope, October 1962, p. 193.

11. Preston, Richard, First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe, (New York: New American Library), 1987, p. 37. But see also Sheehan, William, and Osterbrock, Donald E., ``Hale's `Little Elf': the mental breakdowns of George Ellery Hale," Journal for the History of Astronomy , 31 , pt. 2, May 2000, pp. 93-114.

12. Sanchez, F., ``Astronomy in the Canary Islands,"Vistas in Astronomy, 28, 1985, pp. 417-430, on p. 418. Piazzi Smyth and his wife spent nearly half of their 113 day honeymoon trip camping out in cold, rainy conditions at altitude on Tenerife.

13. Preston, op. cit., p. 114.

14. The bare bones of this story is found in: Evans, David S., and Mulholland, J. Derral, Big and Bright: A History of the McDonald Observatory, (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press), 1986, p. 93. I first heard the story from a Lick Observatory astronomer who was a Harvard graduate student.

15. Bull. Amer. Astr. Soc., 11, 1979, p. 402.

16. Derbyshire, John, Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics , (Washington, D. C.: Joseph Henry Press), 2003, p. 133. On p. 134 we learn that the brain of Lejuene Dirichlet is to be found in the same department of physiology.

17. Gingerich, Owen, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing The Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus , (New York: Walker and Co.), 2004, pp. 143-144. In Ferrara Gingerich also discovered the heart of Ludovico Ariosto, the author of the Orlando Furioso .

18. See article on Ulugh Beg in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Also: "The legacy of Ulugh Beg," by K. Krisciunas, in Central Asian Monuments, H. B. Paksoy, ed. (Istanbul: The Isis Press), 1992, pp. 95-103.

19. See Latusseck, Arndt and Hoskin, Michael, ``The murder of Jacob Herschel,'' Journal for the History of Astronomy, 34, no. 2, May 2003, pp. 233-234.

20. Physics Today, July 1988, p. 91. However, this obituary only says that he died in a "tragic Kitt Peak".

21. Physics Today, October 2000, p. 105. Also, Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 32, no. 4, p. 1696 (2001), who give Willick's birth year as 1960.

22. Time, May 9, 1988, p. 38.

23. For similar research I direct the reader to Clifford A. Pickover's book Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen (Quill, 1999). It covers Tesla, Cavendish, Galton, the Unabomber, and many others. The Hungarian mathetician Paul Erdos only makes the appendix because he was not eccentric enough to warrant a whole chapter. See The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth, by Paul Hoffman (Little, Brown and Co., 1999).

next up previous
Next: About this document

Monday 19 April 2004