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Newly cataloged collection of science materials now open for research

By Alicia Dietrich

A drawing of Halley's Comet by Sir John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.
A drawing of Halley's Comet by Sir John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.

A collection of science materials from the family of Sir John F. W. Herschel (1792–1871) is now open for research after a grant enabled staffers to rehouse the collection and to create an online inventory.

The Herschel family papers, acquired in 1960 with subsequent smaller accessions of additional materials, largely represent the life and work of Herschel, the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor. John Herschel has been called Britain’s first modern physical scientist, and his correspondence has been noted as one of the most valuable archives for 19th-century science.

The Herschel family papers at the Ransom Center form a significant resource for the study of the history of science in general and also for studies in astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The lives of the Herschels, their ground-breaking achievements, their interactions with other leading scientists of their time, and their influence on their colleagues’ work are topics scholars may pursue in the papers. The Ransom Center’s Herschel collection is exceeded in size only by the collection at the Royal Society in London.

The cataloging project was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.

Ransom Center receives $10,000 grant to catalog collection of science materials

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has received a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics to rehouse and rearrange its holdings of the Herschel family papers and to create an online finding aid.

The Herschel family papers, acquired in 1960 with subsequent smaller accessions of additional materials, largely represent the life and work of Sir John F. W. Herschel (1792-1871), the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor. John Herschel has been called Britain’s first modern physical scientist, and his correspondence has been noted as one of the most valuable archives for 19th-century science.

The Herschel family papers at the Ransom Center form a significant resource for the study of the history of science in general and also for studies in several individual fields, such as astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The lives of the Herschels, their pioneering achievements, their interactions with other leading scientists of their time and their influence on their colleagues’ work are topics scholars may pursue in the papers.

The Herschel family papers will be closed to scholars during the duration of the grant, which runs through Dec. 31, 2011.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

From blue skies to blue print: Astronomer John Herschel’s invention of the cyanotype

By Courtney Reed

For Sir John Herschel, science and art were inextricably linked. Son of the celebrated astronomer William Herschel—who, with the discovery of the planet Uranus, revolutionized the modern day conception of the universe—science was in John Herschel’s blood. Following in his father’s footsteps, Herschel himself became a renowned astronomer. Herschel also applied scientific exploration to art and participated in some of photography’s earliest experimentation.

An accomplished chemist, Herschel discovered the action of hyposulfite of soda on silver salts, which lead to the use of “hypo” as the most effective fixing agent for silver-based photography. Herschel also endorsed and encouraged the term “photography” and coined the terms “negative” and “positive” to refer to photographic images.

John Herschel not only searched the dark blue skies, but also searched for ways to introduce color into photography. A child of Newtonian science, Herschel knew that white light is composed of the color spectrum. The trick was to separate the white light and pinpoint specific colors: “By using the prism first to separate all but the pure prismatic tint of given refrangibility and then re-analyzing this by media I conceive it possible to obtain rays totally exempt from any colour but the elementary one wanted” Herschel theorized in a letter, dated July 6, 1839, to Henry F. Talbot, another scientist interested in experimental photography.

During his quest for color, Herschel carefully documented his experiments with hundreds of variations of chemical formulas, using engravings as source imagery to create negatives on paper. In 1842, Herschel invented the cyanotype.

The cyanotype process uses light-sensitive iron salts produced by brushing solutions of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, also known as Prussian blue, onto paper, which is then dried in the dark. Cyanotypes were not widely used until 1880, when they became popular because they required only water for fixing the image.

The cyanotype is one of Herschel’s most influential contributions to the art of photography. Not only does it lend itself to strikingly beautiful photos, but the cyanotype is also the originator of the architect blue-print.

One of Herschel’s cyanotypes is featured in the exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection. Closing in just a few weeks, the exhibition can be seen in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours until 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays. Free docent-led tours of the Gernsheim exhibition are offered at 2 p.m. on this Saturday and Sunday.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

Fellow uses astronomy collection to research novel

By Courtney Reed

John Pipkin, of Southwestern University and The University of Texas at Austin, discusses using the Herschel collection at the Ransom Center to conduct research for his forthcoming novel The Blind Astronomer’s Atlas. Pipkin’s research was funded by the C. P. Snow Memorial Fund and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.

The Ransom Center is now receiving applications for its 2011–2012 research fellowships in the humanities. The application deadline is February 1, 2011, but applicants are encouraged, if necessary, to request information from curators by January 1. About 50 fellowships are awarded annually by the Ransom Center to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.

From the Galleries: Tycho Brahe's "Astronomiae instauratae mechanica"

By Elana Estrin

Before the telescope was invented, 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe built his own instruments to measure star and planetary positions with accuracy up to one arcminute. Brahe described these home-made instruments in his 1602 book, Astronomiae instauratae mechanica, the first edition of which is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works. Mary Kay Hemenway, Research Associate and Senior Lecturer of the Astronomy Department at The University of Texas at Austin, explains why Brahe’s book is one of her favorite items in the exhibition.

The greatest observational astronomer before the use of the telescope is undoubtedly Tycho Brahe. Justly proud of his methods and the many instruments that he designed and had built, he wrote a book illustrating them in 1598—and printed less than 100 copies on his own printing press. The Other Worlds exhibition includes a copy of the first trade edition (1602) that was printed mostly from the woodblocks and plates of the private edition. The book describes his observatory, Uraniborg, on the island of Hven in Denmark and the instruments he used. These instruments measured the altitudes or angular separations between astronomical objects. This allowed him to record carefully the positions of stars, including all of those listed by Ptolemy, and make a large (six-foot) globe of the fixed stars. The most iconic illustration of the book is that of the mural quadrant that allowed the observer to measure the altitude at which celestial bodies crossed the meridian. Its great size is shown by including a life-sized portrait of Brahe himself.

Since Brahe was essentially running a research institute with the equivalent of modern-day students, post-docs, instrument makers, mathematicians who did calculations, technicians, and a library, some of these are shown in the woodcut. We see these assistants in the background—performing observations, working on the data, even doing chemical experiments. Also included are portraits of King Frederick II and Queen Sophia of Denmark—his original patrons—and his faithful dog laying at his feet. It forms a complete picture of the astronomer at work with the components necessary.

Brahe’s observations of comets were so good that they showed that comets moved throughout the solar system, dispelling Aristotle’s notion of “comets as swamp gas that exist in the space between the earth and moon.” Being able to break through the celestial spheres allowed Brahe to come up with an interesting scheme to show the structure of the universe. If we count time by years, he follows Copernicus; his plan allows the Earth to remain in the center of the universe—with the moon and sun revolving around Earth, but the other planets revolving around the sun. His data was essential for Kepler’s development of the laws of planetary motions, but he didn’t live to see the key theoretical idea of his life shot down by the very person he had hired to provide mathematical proof of his unique, Earth-centered theory.

Cassini's moon map

By Elana Estrin

Before “Where’s Waldo?” there was the “moon maiden,” a shadowy figure hiding in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works.

One of the exhibition’s highlights is a first edition map of the moon rendered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini from 1679, the rarest edition of the first published moon map. The “moon maiden,” “a tiny female silhouette,” is most likely the playful work of Cassini or his engraver. To produce this detailed map, Cassini relied on the latest telescopic observations of the moon’s craters and mountains, among other features.

From the Galleries: Halley's Comet

By Elana Estrin

Halley’s Comet was last spotted by the unaided human eye in 1986, and isn’t estimated to be visible again until 2026. For those who can’t wait another 17 years, the Ransom Center’s exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, offers visitors an early glimpse of Halley’s Comet, as rendered by John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.

Halley’s Comet was no novelty for Herschel; she discovered no fewer than eight comets in her lifetime. She drew these four illustrations of Halley’s Comet in her late eighties, after being awarded a gold medal and honorary membership from the Royal Astronomical Society. Also on display are pencil sketches of Halley’s Comet by Herschel’s astronomer nephew, John F. W. Herschel, and six illustrations of comets by various other astronomers.

How do you make the world go 'round?

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center’s Coronelli Celestial globe (ca. 1688) is almost five feet high and depicts several constellations labeled in Italian and Latin. To coincide with the current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, the technology and digital services department developed a virtual model of the globe for our website. Photographer Pete Smith and technology services graduate intern Ramona Broussard describe how they assembled this model:

The first challenge we encountered in creating this virtual model was moving the globe to the photography studio to capture high-quality images. The Ransom Center’s exhibition preparation department had to remove a door so that the large globe could fit inside the photography studio.

After our first test shots, we realized that the lighting would have to be polarized to clear up the glare coming off the shiny surface of the globe. The final lighting setup required five powerful flash units and numerous reflectors. For the animation to run smoothly, the globe had to be rotated the same distance for each photographed frame. After some investigation we found that the globe was marked with 72 longitudinal lines that were perfect to use as guides when we moved the globe for each frame. When photographing the globe we had to be careful not to skip a section or double up on one.

One person moved the globe and carefully stepped out of the frame so that the photograph could be taken. This process was repeated 72 times until the globe was photographed for one full rotation. When the photographing was complete, the exhibition preparation crew lifted the globe onto a type of dolly and rolled it out of the studio. They then replaced the door.

The next challenge was deciding how to stitch the photographs together and present them online in a usable and accurate way. We settled on using Flash because Flash is a widely adopted tool that most browsers support without the need for add-ons or plug-ins; the necessity of downloading add-ons often prevents people from accessing new multimedia.

We reviewed several online Flash tools and settled on one created by YoFLA because it was easy to use and provided several functions we wanted, including the ability to zoom, a customizable look, and predefined hotspots (or clickable areas.) YoFLA 3D Object Rotate is freely available for those who want to try it.

The first 3D object we created with 72 uncropped images was prohibitively large. To keep download time to a minimum, we created a smaller object with only 36 images that were cropped. Finally, we had a virtual globe that could be put online for easy viewing and close inspection.

New exhibitions open today

By Alicia Dietrich

Two new exhibitions, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe and Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, open today at the Ransom Center.

In conjunction with the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, the exhibition Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, drawn exclusively from the Center’s collections, showcases important astronomical discoveries of the last 500 years.

In this video, Mary Kay Hemenway, Research Associate and Senior Lecturer of the Astronomy Department at The University of Texas at Austin, shares insight about some of the items that provide an overview of centuries of astronomical discovery.