May 28, 2020

The Haunted Observatory by Richard Baum.

Often, modern society forgets the torturous path science has followed and the numerous dead ends that astronomers have traced. Anomalous observations fall to the way side, and what remains has the look of smooth, steady progress. “The Haunted Observatory-Curiosities from the Astronomer’s Cabinet” follows those mysterious log book entries through out history.

I kid you not; this book actually arrived on my doorstep on Halloween! Far from being a tome about astronomical ghosts and goblins, “The Haunted Observatory” is a collection of odd, often forgotten observations down through the history of astronomy. All were well documented by skilled observers; most remain unsolved, even today. I personally had fun using the freeware program HN Sky to set up the sky as it might have looked during the observations noted. Any sky simulation program might work in this capacity. The author is very through and lists details directly from the observers log books as to the minutiae of all events. This book also does an excellent job of portraying the history of astronomy and laying out how early astronomers actually operated. All too often, we only get rote facts, such as “Herschel discovered Uranus…” and not the details of the man or his equipment and techniques. I love to read about how early methods were employed, and the “Haunted Observatory” definitely delivers in this regard. Still, the work might prove a daunting read for someone not well grounded in the field, although the author does provide a glossary of terms. The references, which cover a quarter of the printed material, also proved to be as illuminating as the text; I found it useful to have a book mark in both, reading them each simultaneously.
The illustrations were also very well done; obviously they were obviously put together by a skilled and seasoned observer. Most books tend to go for the splashy Hubble photos; these frequently lead to disappointment for the uninitiated when viewing through the eyepiece. The color prints in The Haunted Observatory depict realistic views such as Uranus and Neptune as seen through a telescope.
Some of the curious observations covered are as follows;
Is there a planet beyond Neptune? This hypothesis was spurred by anomalies in Neptune’s orbit and was at the front of astronomical research in the late 19th century. In 1847, American astronomer James Ferguson of the US Naval observatory recorded an unknown star-like object, listed as (*k).
Are there rings around Neptune? This is at first, a startling observation, as Neptune does in fact have rings, discovered in 1989 by the spacecraft Voyager 2. That William Lassell had spotted the tenuous rings in 1847 remains unlikely.

Is there a satellite of Earths moon, or perhaps a second satellite of the Earth itself? Surprisingly, the jury could still be out on this one. Ironically, we still know less about our own cosmic backyard than we do concerning remote galaxies. Spurious sightings of objects near the eclipsed moon or in the twilight sky abound and are noted by the author. Of course, sightings of man made moons are common in the space age. This was a topic of interest in the early 20th century, and fell out of favor until the Space Age, when talk of the moon and Near Earth Objects became “sexy” again!
Are there enormous mountains on Venus? Anyone who has ever observed Venus through a telescope knows it is essentially void of telescopic detail. Venus did not give up her secrets easily, and it was an embarrassment to astronomers that we knew almost next nothing about our nearest planet until the mid 20th century. The hypothesis of a mountainous Venus arose from curious irregularities of terminator around the time the planet approached quadrature.
Observations of a “Comet-like” Venus are also discussed. These were almost certainly an atmospheric phenomena, known as a “Venus-pillar”. When the air is very cold and still airborne ice crystals can assume the same orientation and produce arcs pillars, or bows from light sources such as the sun, moon, or street lamps. Venus pillars are an extremely rare phenomenon.

Naturally, these are more common in northern climes, such as Fairbanks, Alaska and other high latitudes.

Mysterious objects sighted near the sun are also given through treatment; many are supposed to be sun grazing comets or novae. Most famous of these was the Broughty Ferry object, observed from Scotland on December 21, 1882. Many bright comets, such daylight Comet of 1843 and the Great Comet of 1910 were visible in broad daylight. Still others were discovered only during total solar eclipses, such as the Eclipse Comet of 1948. My grandmothers’ own recollections of Halleys’ Comet during its 1910 passage was most likely the Great Comet of 1910.

In the chapter entitled “Enigmatic objects”, the author delves into the observers log books for long lost objects, such as Reissigs Object, spotted on the Ophiuchus-Scorpius border in early 1803. Again, asteroids, comets, or variable stars are suspect. It is interesting for the reader to ask themselves “what did they see?” This book puts you back in time along side observer and the eyepiece. It is also noted that Uranus, Neptune, and even Pluto turned up on star charts and photographic plates before being officially recognized as planets.
“Lichtflocken” is also discussed in depth. These “luminous flakes” have been occasionally recorded near the sun and have been attributed to anything from clouds of pollen to flocks of birds. All I could think of as astronomers were noting bright objects while observing the sun telescopically was that safety measures were extremely lax! Most of the solar filters used were merely smoked glass, and must have stopped the sun down just enough that bright objects next to the sun would still be visible.
The Wartman mystery covers sightings of a hypothetical planet by Belgian astronomer Louis Wartman in 1831. Conjecture is made that Wartman may have in fact, been observing Uranus or had sighted but failed to identify Neptune, both of which were in conjunction in the 1820s.
Finally, the Coleridge effect notes the illusion of a star or planet under going occultation by the Moon to briefly “hang” seemingly in front of the Moon. The effect is famously alluded to in Samuel Coleridges’ “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”;

While clome above the Eastern bar
The horned Moon, with one bright Star
Almost atween the tips.

A lunar atmosphere was supposed in the pre-space age as the cause; near-atmospheric effects combined with psychological expectations are most likely the culprits. Planets and some stars, such as Antares, lie along the moon’s possible path and do present a tiny angular diameter. These do not “wink out” abruptly but instead fade over several seconds. Some close double stars also disappear in a “step” fashion.

The author does an excellent job in bringing these forgotten but fascinating observations to light. Far from relegating these notes to history, the author inspires us to get out and view the heavens with our own eyes, not the preconceptions handed to us. The author writes “Who indeed is there to regale our jaded senses with the glories of light and color in the open air? Certain things are familiar, so much so that we know them by rote; only rarely do they attract our close scrutiny.” Truer words were never said. Read “The Haunted Observatory”, ponder what those astute observers might have seen, then go outdoors and look up. The strange and curious may reward the patient observer!

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