Read CHAPTER XI of Maria Mitchell: Life‚ Letters‚ and Journals, free online book, by Maria Mitchell, on


“The dissemination of information in regard to science and to scientific investigations relieves the scientist from the small annoyances of extreme ignorance.

“No one to-day will expect to receive a letter such as reached Sir John Herschel some years ago, asking for the writer’s horoscope to be cast; or such as he received at another time, which asked, Shall I marry? and Have I seen her?

“Nor can it be long, if the whole population is somewhat educated, that I shall be likely to receive, as I have done, applications for information as to the recovery of stolen goods, or to tell fortunes.

“When crossing the Atlantic, an Irish woman came to me and asked me if I told fortunes; and when I replied in the negative, she asked me if I were not an astronomer. I admitted that I made efforts in that direction. She then asked me what I could tell, if not fortunes. I told her that I could tell when the moon would rise, when the sun would rise, etc. She said, ‘Oh,’ in a tone which plainly said, ‘Is that all?’

“Only a few winters since, during a very mild winter, a young lad who was driving a team called out to me on the street, and said he had a question to ask me.

“I stopped; and he asked, ‘Shall we lose our ice-crop this winter?’

“It was January, and it was New England. It took very little learning and no alchemy to foretell that the month of February and the neighborhood of Boston would give ice enough; and I told him that the ice-crop would be abundant; but I was honest enough to explain to him that my outlook into the future was no better than his.

“One of the unfavorable results of the attempt to popularize science is this: the reader of popular scientific books is very likely to think that he understands the science itself, when he merely understands what some writer says about science.

“Take, for example, the method of determining the distance of the moon from the earthone of the easiest problems in physical astronomy. The method can be told in a few sentences; yet it took a hundred years to determine it with any degree of accuracyand a hundred years, not of the average work of mankind in science, but a hundred years during which able minds were bent to the problem.

“Still, with all the school-masters, and all the teaching, and all the books, the ignorance of the unscientific world is enormous; they are ignorant both waysthey underrate the scientific people and they overrate them. There is, on the one hand, the Irish woman who is disappointed because you cannot tell fortunes, and, on the other hand, the cultivated woman who supposes that you must know all science.

“I have a friend who wonders that I do not take my astronomical clock to pieces. She supposes that because I am an astronomer, I must be able to be a clock-maker, while I do not handle a tool if I can help it! She did not expect to take her piano to pieces because she was musical! She was as careful not to tinker it as I was not to tinker the clock, which only an expert in clock-making was prepared to handle.

“... Only a few weeks since I received a letter from a lady who wished to come to make me a visit, and to ‘scan the heavens,’ as she termed it. Now, just as she wrote, the clock, which I was careful not to meddle with, had been rapidly gaining time, and I was standing before it, watching it from hour to hour, and slightly changing its rate by dropping small weights upon its pendulum. Time is so important an element with the astronomer, that all else is subordinate to it.

“Then, too, the uneducated assume the unvarying exactness of mathematical results; while, in reality, mathematical results are often only approximations. We say the sun is 91,000,000 miles from the earth, plus or minus a probable error; that is, we are right, probably, within, say, 100,000 miles; or, the sun is 91,000,000 minus 100,000 miles, or it is 91,000,000 plus 100,000 miles off; and this probable error is only a probability.

“If we make one more observation it cannot agree with any one of our determinations, and it changes our probable error.

“This ignorance of the masses leads to a misconception in two ways; the little that a scientist can do, they do not understand,they suppose him to be godlike in his capacity, and they do not see results; they overrate him and they underrate himthey underrate his work.

“There is no observatory in this land, nor in any land, probably, of which the question is not asked, ’Are they doing anything? Why don’t we hear from them? They should make discoveries, they should publish.’

“The one observation made at Greenwich on the planet Neptune was not published until after a century or moreit was recorded as a star. The observation had to wait a hundred years, about, before the time had come when that evening’s work should bear fruit; but it was good, faithful work, and its time came.

“Kepler was years in passing from one of his laws to another, while the school-boy, to-day, rattles off the three as if they were born of one breath.

“The scientist should be free to pursue his investigations. He cannot be a scientist and a school-master. If he pursues his science in all his intervals from his class-work, his classes suffer on account of his engrossments; if he devotes himself to his students, science suffers; and yet we all go on, year after year, trying to work the two fields together, and they need different culture and different implements.

“1878. In the eclipse of this year, the dark shadow fell first on the United States thirty-eight degrees west of Washington, and moved towards the south-east, a circle of darkness one hundred and sixteen miles in diameter; circle overlapping circle of darkness until it could be mapped down like a belt.

“The mapping of the dark shadow, with its limitations of one hundred and sixteen miles, lay across the country from Montana, through Colorado, northern and eastern Texas, and entered the Gulf of Mexico between Galveston and New Orleans. This was the region of total eclipse. Looking along this dark strip on the map, each astronomer selected his bit of darkness on which to locate the light of science.

“But for the distance from the large cities of the country, Colorado seemed to be a most favorable part of the shadow; it was little subject to storms, and reputed to be enjoyable in climate and abundant in hospitality.

“My party chose Denver, Col. I had a friend who lived in Denver, and she was visiting me. I sought her at once, and with fear and trembling asked, ’Have you a bit of land behind your house in Denver where I could put up a small telescope?’ ‘Six hundred miles,’ was the laconic reply!

“I felt that the hospitality of the Rocky mountains was at my feet. Space and time are so unconnected! For an observation which would last two minutes forty seconds, I was offered six hundred miles, after a journey of thousands.

“A journey from Boston to Denver makes one hopeful for the future of our country. We had hour after hour and day after day of railroad travel, over level, unbroken land on which cattle fed unprotected, summer and winter, and which seemed to implore the traveller to stay and to accept its richness. It must be centuries before the now unpeopled land of western Kansas and Colorado can be crowded.

“We started from Boston a party of two; at Cincinnati a third joined us; at Kansas City we came upon a fourth who was ready to fall into our ranks, and at Denver two more awaited us; so we were a party of six’All good women and true.’

“All along the road it had been evident that the country was roused to a knowledge of the coming eclipse; we overheard remarks about it; small telescopes travelled with us, and our landlord at Kansas City, when I asked him to take care of a chronometer, said he had taken care of fifty of them in the previous fortnight. Our party had three telescopes and one chronometer.

“We had travelled so comfortably all along the Santa Fe road, from Kansas City to Pueblo, that we had forgotten the possibility of other railroad annoyances than those of heat and dust until we reached Pueblo. At Pueblo all seemed to change. We left the Santa Fe road and entered upon that of the Rio Grande.

“Which road was to blame, it is not for me to say, but there was trouble at once about our ‘round-trip ticket.’ That settled, we supposed all was right.

“In sending out telescopes so far as from Boston to Denver, I had carefully taken out the glasses, and packed them in my trunks. I carried the chronometer in my hand.

“It was only five hours’ travel from Pueblo to Denver, and we went on to that city. The trunks, for some unexplained reason, or for no reason at all, chose to remain at Pueblo.

“One telescope-tube reached Denver when we did; but a telescope-tube is of no value without glasses. We learned that there was a war between the two railroads which unite at Pueblo, and war, no matter where or when it occurs, means ignorance and stupidity.

“The unit of measure of value which the railroad man believes in is entirely different from that in which the scientist rests his faith.

“A war between two railroads seemed very small compared with two minutes forty seconds of observation of a total eclipse. One was terrestrial, the other cosmic.

“It was Wednesday when we reached Denver. The eclipse was to occur the following Monday.

“We haunted the telegraph-rooms, and sent imploring messages. We placed ourselves at the station, and watched the trains as they tossed out their freight; we listened to every express-wagon which passed our door without stopping, and just as we were trying to find if a telescope could be hired or bought in Denver, the glasses arrived.

“It was now Friday; we must put up tents and telescopes, and test the glasses.

“It rained hard on Fridaynothing could be done. It rained harder on Saturday. It rained hardest of all on Sunday, and hail mingled with the rain. But Monday morning was clear and bright. It was strange enough to find that we might camp anywhere around Denver. Our hostess suggested to us to place ourselves on ‘McCullough’s Addition.’ In New York or Boston, if I were about to camp on private grounds I should certainly ask permission. In the far West you choose your spot of ground, you dig post-holes and you pitch tents, and you set up telescopes and inhabit the land; and then the owner of the land comes to you, and asks if he may not put up a fence for you, to keep off intruders, and the nearest residents come to you and offer aid of any kind.

“Our camping-place was near the house occupied by sisters of charity, and the black-robed, sweet-faced women came out to offer us the refreshing cup of tea and the new-made bread.

“All that we needed was ‘space,’ and of that there was plenty.

“Our tents being up and the telescopes mounted, we had time to look around at the view. The space had the unlimitedness that we usually connect with sea and sky. Our tents were on the slope of a hill, at the foot of which we were about six thousand feet above the sea. The plain was three times as high as the hills of the Hudson-river region, and there arose on the south, almost from west to east, the peaks upon peaks of the Rocky mountains. One needs to live upon such a plateau for weeks, to take in the grandeur of the panorama.

“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people. Camping parties who put up telescopes are always supposed to be corporations with particular privileges, and curious lookers-on gather around, and try to enter what they consider a charmed circle. We were remarkably free from specialists of this kind. Camping on the south-west slope of the hill, we were hidden on the north and east, and another party which chose the brow of the hill was much more attractive to the crowd. Our good serving-man was told to send away the few strollers who approached; even our friends from the city were asked to remove beyond the reach of voice.

“There is always some one to be found in every gathering who will not submit to law. At the time of the total eclipse in Iowa, in 1869, there passed in and out among our telescopes and observers an unknown, closely veiled woman. The remembrance of that occasion never comes to my mind without the accompaniment of a fluttering green veil.

“This time it was a man. How he came among us and why he remained, no one can say. Each one supposed that the others knew, and that there was good reason for his presence. If I was under the tent, wiping glasses, he stood beside me; if the photographer wished to make a picture of the party, this man came to the front; and when I asked the servant to send off the half-vagrant boys and girls who stood gazing at us, this man came up and said to me in a confidential tone, ’They do not understand the sacredness of the occasion, and the fineness of the conditions.’ There was something regal in his audacity, but he was none the less a tramp.

“Persons who observe an eclipse of the sun always try to do the impossible. They seem to consider it a solemn duty to see the first contact of sun and moon. The moon, when seen in the daytime, looks like a small faint cloud; as it approaches the sun it becomes wholly unseen; and an observer tries to see when this unseen object touches the glowing disc of the sun.

“When we look at any other object than the sun, we stimulate our vision. A good observer will remain in the dark for a short time before he makes a delicate observation on a faint star, and will then throw a cap over his head to keep out strong lights.

“When we look at the sun, we at once try to deaden its light. We protect our eyes by dark glassesthe less of sunlight we can get the better. We calculate exactly at what point the moon will touch the sun, and we watch that point only. The exact second by the chronometer when the figure of the moon touches that of the sun, is always noted. It is not only valuable for the determination of longitude, but it is a check on our knowledge of the moon’s motions. Therefore, we try for the impossible.

“One of our party, a young lady from California, was placed at the chronometer. She was to count aloud the seconds, to which the three others were to listen. Two others, one a young woman from Missouri, who brought with her a fine telescope, and another from Ohio, besides myself, stood at the three telescopes. A fourth, from Illinois, was stationed to watch general effects, and one special artist, pencil in hand, to sketch views.

“Absolute silence was imposed upon the whole party a few minutes before each phenomenon.

“Of course we began full a minute too soon, and the constrained position was irksome enough, for even time is relative, and the minute of suspense is longer than the hour of satisfaction.

“The moon, so white in the sky, becomes densely black when it is closely ranging with the sun, and it shows itself as a black notch on the burning disc when the eclipse begins.

“Each observer made her record in silence, and then we turned and faced one another, with record in handwe differed more than a second; it was a large difference.

“Between first contact and totality there was more than an hour, and we had little to do but look at the beautiful scenery and watch the slow motion of a few clouds, on a height which was cloud-land to dwellers by the sea.

“Our photographer begged us to keep our positions while he made a picture of us. The only value to the picture is the record that it preserves of the parallelism of the three telescopes. You would say it was stiff and unnatural, did you not know that it was the ordering of Nature herselfthey all point to the centre of the solar system.

“As totality approached, all again took their positions. The corona, which is the ‘glory’ seen around the sun, was visible at least thirteen minutes before totality; each of the party took a look at this, and then all was silent, only the count, on and on, of the young woman at the chronometer. When totality came, even that ceased.

“How still it was!

“As the last rays of sunlight disappeared, the corona burst out all around the sun, so intensely bright near the sun that the eye could scarcely bear it; extending less dazzlingly bright around the sun for the space of about half the sun’s diameter, and in some directions sending off streamers for millions of miles.

“It was now quick work. Each observer at the telescopes gave a furtive glance at the un-sunlike sun, moved the dark eye-piece from the instrument, replaced it by a more powerful white glass, and prepared to see all that could be seen in two minutes forty seconds. They must note the shape of the corona, its color, its seeming substance, and they must look all around the sun for the ‘interior planet.’

“There was certainly not the beauty of the eclipse of 1869. Then immense radiations shot out in all directions, and threw themselves over half the sky. In 1869, the rosy prominences were so many, so brilliant, so fantastic, so weirdly changing, that the eye must follow them; now, scarcely a protuberance of color, only a roseate light around the sun as the totality ended. But if streamers and prominences were absent, the corona itself was a great glory. Our special artist, who made the sketch for my party, could not bear the light.

“When the two minutes forty seconds were over, each observer left her instrument, turned in silence from the sun, and wrote down brief notes. Happily, some one broke through all rules of order, and shouted out, ‘The shadow! the shadow!’ And looking toward the southeast we saw the black band of shadow moving from us, a hundred and sixty miles over the plain, and toward the Indian Territory. It was not the flitting of the closer shadow over the hill and dale: it was a picture which the sun threw at our feet of the dignified march of the moon in its orbit.

“And now we looked around. What a strange orange light there was in the north-east! what a spectral hue to the whole landscape! Was it really the same old earth, and not another planet?

“Great is the self-denial of those who follow science. They who look through telescopes at the time of a total eclipse are martyrs; they severely deny themselves. The persons who can say that they have seen a total eclipse of the sun are those who rely upon their eyes. My aids, who touched no glasses, had a season of rare enjoyment. They saw Mercury, with its gleam of white light, and Mars, with its ruddy glow; they saw Regulus come out of the darkening blue on one side of the sun, Venus shimmer and Procyon twinkle near the horizon, and Arcturus shine down from the zenith.

We saw the giant shadow as it left us and passed over the lands of the untutored Indian; they saw it as it approached from the distant west, as it fell upon the peaks of the mountain-tops, and, in the impressive stillness, moved directly for our camping-ground.

“The savage, to whom it is the frowning of the Great Spirit, is awe-struck and alarmed; the scholar, to whom it is a token of the inviolability of law, is serious and reverent.

“There is a dialogue in some of the old school-readers, and perhaps in some of the new, between a tutor and his two pupils who had been out for a walk. One pupil complained that the way was long, the road was dusty, and the scenery uninteresting; the other was full of delight at the beauties he had found in the same walk. One had walked with his eyes intellectually closed; the other had opened his eyes wide to all the charms of nature. In some respects we are all, at different times, like each of these boys: we shut our eyes to the enjoyments of nature, or we open them. But we are capable of improving ourselves, even in the use of our eyeswe see most when we are most determined to see. The will has a wonderful effect upon the perceptive faculties. When we first look up at the myriads of stars seen in a moonless evening, all is confusion to us; we admire their brilliancy, but we scarcely recognize their grouping. We do not feel the need of knowing much about them.

“A traveller, lost on a desert plain, feels that the recognition of one star, the Pole star, is of itself a great acquisition; and all persons who, like mariners and soldiers, are left much with the companionship of the stars, only learn to know the prominent clusters, even if they do not know the names given to them in books.

“The daily wants of the body do not require that we should say

“’Give me the ways of wandering stars to know
The depths of heaven above and earth below.’

But we have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more are we capable of seeing.

Besides learning to see, there is another art to be learned,not to see what is not.

“If we read in to-day’s paper that a brilliant comet was seen last night in New York, we are very likely to see it to-night in Boston; for we take every long, fleecy cloud for a splendid comet.

“When the comet of 1680 was expected, a few years ago, to reappear, some young men in Cambridge told Professor Bond that they had seen it; but Professor Bond did not see it. Continually are amateurs in astronomy sending notes of new discoveries to Bond, or some other astronomers, which are no discoveries at all!

“Astronomers have long supposed the existence of a planet inferior to Mercury; and M. Leverrier has, by mathematical calculation, demonstrated that such a planet exists. He founded his calculations upon the supposed discovery of M. Lesbarcault, who declares that it crossed the sun’s disc, and that he saw it and made drawings. The internal evidence, from the man’s account, is that he was an honest enthusiast. I have no doubt that he followed the path of a solar spot, and as the sun turned on its axis he mistook the motion for that of the dark spot; or perhaps the spot changed and became extinct, and another spot closely resembling it broke out and he was deceived; his wishes all the time being ’father to the thought.’

“The eye is as teachable as the hand. Every one knows the most prominent constellations,the Pleiades, the Great Bear, and Orion. Many persons can draw the figures made by the most brilliant stars in these constellations, and very many young people look for the ‘lost Pleiad.’ But common observers know these stars only as bright objects; they do not perceive that one star differs from another in glory; much less do they perceive that they shine with differently colored rays.

“Those who know Sirius and Betel do not at once perceive that one shines with a brilliant white light and the other burns with a glowing red, as different in their brilliancy as the precious stones on a lapidary’s table, perhaps for the same reason. And so there is an endless variety of tints of paler colors.

“We may turn our gaze as we turn a kaleidoscope, and the changes are infinitely more startling, the combinations infinitely more beautiful; no flower garden presents such a variety and such delicacy of shades.

“But beautiful as this variety is, it is difficult to measure it; it has a phantom-like intangibilitywe seem not to be able to bring it under the laws of science.

“We call the stars garnet and sapphire; but these are, at best, vague terms. Our language has not terms enough to signify the different delicate shades; our factories have not the stuff whose hues might make a chromatic scale for them.

“In this dilemma, we might make a scale of colors from the stars themselves. We might put at the head of the scale of crimson stars the one known as Hind’s, which is four degrees west of Rigel; we might make a scale of orange stars, beginning with Betel as orange red; then we should have

Betelgeuze, Aldebaran, ss Ursae Minoris, Altair and a Canis, a Lyrae,

the list gradually growing paler and paler, until we come to a Lyrae, which might be the leader of a host of pale yellow stars, gradually fading off into white.

“Most of the stars seen with the naked eye are varieties of red, orange, and yellow. The reds, when seen with a glass, reach to violet or dark purple. With a glass, there come out other colors: very decided greens, very delicate blues, browns, grays, and white. If these colors are almost intangible at best, they are rendered more so by the variations of the atmosphere, of the eye, and of the glass. But after these are all accounted for, there is still a real difference. Two stars of the class known as double stars, that is, so little separated that considerable optical power is necessary to divide them, show these different tints very nicely in the same field of the telescope.

“Then there comes in the chance that the colors are complementary; that the eye, fatigued by a brilliant red in the principal star, gives to the companion the color which would make up white light. This happens sometimes; but beyond this the reare innumerable cases of finely contrasted colors which are not complementary, but which show a real difference of light in the stars; resulting, perhaps, from distance,for some colors travel farther than others, and all colors differ in their order of march,perhaps from chemical differences.

“Single blue or green stars are never seen; they are always given as the smaller companion of a pair.

“Out of several hundred observed by Mr. Bishop, forty-five have small companions of a bluish, or greenish, or purplish color. Almost all of these are stars of the eighth to tenth magnitude; only once are both seen blue, and only in one case is the large one blue. In almost every case the large star is yellow. The color most prevailing is yellow; but the varieties of yellow are very great.

“We may assume, then, that the blue stars are faint ones, and probably distant ones. But as not all faint stars or distant ones are blue, it shows that there is a real difference. In the star called 35 Piscium, the small star shows a peculiar snuffy-brown tinge.

“Of two stars in the constellation Ursa Minoris, not double stars, one is orange and the other is green, both very vivid in color.

“From age to age the colors of some prominent stars have certainly changed. This would seem more likely to be from change of place than of physical constitution.

“Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. ’All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.’

“Observations of this kind are peculiarly adapted to women. Indeed, all astronomical observing seems to be so fitted. The training of a girl fits her for delicate work. The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman’s eyes are trained to nicety of color. The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer. Routine observations, too, dull as they are, are less dull than the endless repetition of the same pattern in crochet-work.

“Professor Chauvenet enumerates among ‘accidental errors in observing,’ those arising from imperfections in the senses, as ’the imperfection of the eye in measuring small spaces; of the ear, in estimating small intervals of time; of the touch, in the delicate handling of an instrument.’

“A girl’s eye is trained from early childhood to be keen. The first stitches of the sewing-work of a little child are about as good as those of the mature man. The taking of small stitches, involving minute and equable measurements of space, is a part of every girl’s training; she becomes skilled, before she is aware of it, in one of the nicest peculiarities of astronomical observation.

“The ear of a child is less trained, except in the case of a musical education; but the touch is a delicate sense given in exquisite degree to a girl, and her training comes in to its aid. She threads a needle almost as soon as she speaks; she touches threads as delicate as the spider-web of a micrometer.

“Then comes in the girl’s habit of patient and quiet work, peculiarly fitted to routine observations. The girl who can stitch from morning to night would find two or three hours in the observatory a relief.”