Ordinary Meeting, 2003 January 4


Astronomers and Oddities

Mr Hingley expressed his privilege at having been invited to address the Association for the first time. He explained that the RAS library placed great emphasis on keeping items of great obscurity and rarity, rather than items such as Newton's Principia, which are found in a great many other academic libraries. Its archive included the original photographic plate of an astrophotograph of the 1882 comet. This plate marked the start of astrophotography as we know it today. The library had been used on a great number of occasions in tracing early observations. For example, one observer had predicted an event similar to the collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in 1994, based on historical archives in the library. More recently, the archives had been used by the Beagle 2 team to assist them with Martian landing site selection.

The RAS had been conceived by a group of 14 astronomers in the Freemason's Tavern, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London on 1820 January 12. This had been against a background of great opposition from the influential Sir Joseph Banks, then life President of the Royal Society. He was concerned, perhaps rightly, that the formation of the RAS would leave the RS with no unique ground of its own. This concern had also led him to oppose the foundation of the Royal Institution in 1799. The Duke of Somerset had previously pledged to be the first President of the new Astronomical Society, but withdrew his offer when he heard of Banks' opposition. This problem was eventually overcome when William Herschel agreed to be the first President, despite his initial refusal on the grounds of his age. Herschel served as the first President, though he never chaired a meeting. In 1831, the Society was granted a Royal Charter by William IV on March 7, and then became known as the Royal Astronomical Society.

Mr Hingley explained that from 1834, the government had made free accommodation available to the RAS in Somerset House, on the Strand. In 1874, the Society had moved to its present location in New Burlington House, having previously refused an offer from the government of accommodation in Kensington, on the grounds that this was a distant suburb of the city at that time.

The Society continued to hold a large archive of Herschel's work. This had been stored at Churchill College, Cambridge, but had recently been moved to Burlington House to make space for the Thatcher collection at the College. Included in this collection was Herschel's famous star count map of the universe, sometimes known as the "amoeba model", which showed a reasonable approximation to the shape of the Milky Way. In fact, many of the assumptions made in constructing this model were incorrect.

The speaker described the current activities of the RAS as including the publication of a number of journals, most notably the Monthly Notices, which was one of the "big five" journals in astrophysics. Astronomy and Astrophysics was a more recent venture, with a more glossy approach. Generally, this new publication was considered to have been a success. The Observatory was not produced by the RAS, but had always been published in close collaboration with the Society. It was intended to publish more speculative subject matter.

The Gold Medal of the Society was intended to reward those who had made significant advances in the field, and was first awarded to Charles Babbage. It is often forgotten that the pioneer of the computer was a close acquaintance of John Herschel, who dreamt that a steam-operated machine might replace his tiresome calculation tables. It was Babbage who provided the realisation of this dream.

Mr Hingley explained that much of the library's stock dated from the 19th century. At this stage the RAS had been a young Society, and made a purchasing drive to stock its library. Generally, it had a superb collection of articles relating to people and instruments, but less actually relating to the sky. The collection of Presidential portraits was surely a superb historical record. The library included around 4000 rare pre-1850 items, including a number of star atlases from the 1800s. A personal favourite of the speaker was a first edition copy of Copernicus' 1543 Rotating Celestrial Spheres.

The treasures of the library included the archives of the Spitalfield Society – a group of gentlemen who met to discuss mathematical problems. When this Society closed, it was subsumed into the RAS and the archives retained. Tragically, many annotated copies of books from Spitalfield were discarded in favour of clean copies, which is an example of how attitudes have changed in the last century. Furthermore, the minutes of the Society had also been lost without trace. The librarian personally believed they had been lent to University College London and lost during the blitz.

The speaker had often heard the criticism made that the RAS was a highly reactionary organisation, but pointed out that it had been selling large astrophotographic prints from as early as 1870. This move was surely a very revolutionary step at that time, and most certainly not reactionary. Finally, the speaker discussed some of the more bizarre enquiries he had received as librarian, which included one forwarded by BAA Assistant Secretary Eddie Watson-Jones: "What is known about the unknown?" A number of astrologers had also approached him over the years with various concerns.

In response to a question, Mr Hingley said that the RAS library would be very willing to answer inquiries from any BAA member, whether an RAS member or not. However, readers would be expected to join the RAS if they intended to make prolonged use of the library. He issued a stern warning to any astrologers contemplating approaching him, however!

The President thanked Mr Hingley for his excellent and unusual talk, before adjourning the meeting until Saturday February 15 at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge.


Dominic Ford

© 2003 Dominic Ford / The British Astronomical Association.




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