Searching for John Goodricke

St. John the Baptist at Hunsingore, North Yorkshire. The low, flat stone in the foreground marks the Goodricke Vault. The stone is the same as that used in the church.

There’s just one kind favor I ask of you…

You can see that my grave is kept clean.

–Bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson

Those lyrics, as sung by Bob Dylan on his first album, made a strong impression on me at age thirteen. Decades later, I was thrilled to hear contemporary blues singer Geoff Muldaur’s “Searching for Blind Lemon” songs, describing his road trip to East Texas to find Blind Lemon’s grave. Muldaur sang,

Gotta find Blind Lemon…

See that his grave is kept clean.

The very human plea in Jefferson’s song–do not forget me, honor my memory–is powerful and ageless. Bob Dylan and Geoff Muldaur felt it, and so did I. And, still later, I would find it relevant to the life of an astronomer who lived two centuries ago.

I have mentioned before that much of the “common wisdom” about the life of John Goodricke is incorrect. One of the primary sources of misinformation, unfortunately, was the distinguished Czech-British astronomer Zdenek Kopal. In his scientific work, Kopal did much to further our understanding of the variable stars John studied. Like me, Kopal was fascinated with the young man and made a trip here to try to see where he lived, worked, and eventually was buried. Unfortunately, Kopal did not apply the same rigorous standards to his historical research that he did to his science. His thoughts on Goodricke, published in his 1980 memoir Of Stars and Men, are almost entirely speculations. Perhaps the most egregious example of an unfounded assumption concerns John Goodricke’s burial place. Kopal visited the village church at Hunsingore, about 12 miles from York, in 1959 to look for Goodricke in the family vault in the church.

The Goodricke Vault stone seen from above. The indentation where a plaque was removed is clearly visible.

He does not mention whether he actually went into the church, but he found a plain stone in the churchyard which (he wrote) “had the initials J.G. scratched upon it.” From this, Kopal concluded that the members of John’s family had been ashamed of him and had him buried outside the family vault, because they considered his deafness a “blot on the family’s escutcheon.” This allegation flies in the face of everything I have learned about John Goodricke–his education and his access to telescopes, clocks, and everything else he needed to do his research suggest that his family supported him. Most seriously, this story has been repeated in astronomy textbooks, including the one I used for many years. I needed to know whether the story was true, and if it was not, to correct it. So in the spring of 2009 I came to York “Searching for John Goodricke.”

The words "The Goodricke Vault" can be seen on the side of the stone.  The letter "E" is above; the stone is facing east.

The words "The Goodricke Vault" can be seen on the side of the stone. The letter "E" is above; the stone is facing east.

With a baronetage, the Goodrickes were “patrons of the parish” in their local parish of Hunsingore. The family home, Great Ribston, has a chapel with parts dating back to the Knights Templars in the 12th century. The first Goodrickes were buried there, but in the 18th century Sir John Goodricke, the fifth baronet and grandfather of John the Astronomer, decided to build a family vault at the church of St. John the Baptist in Hunsingore for future Goodricke burials. Sadly, the family’s fortunes were on the wane, and their decline was to be hastened by the attractions of betting on horse racing and cards. Sir John’s son, Henry, predeceased him, leaving John the Astronomer, the eldest son, as heir to the baronetcy. When John died at 21, his younger brother Henry (the lack of imagination in names is maddening and confusing!) became the sixth baronet. It was Henry’s son Sir Harry James who finally lost the entire estate, apparently due to his gambling debts. Soon after his death in 1833 the estate was sold to the Dent family, who still own it today, and this is what has made tracking a burial place difficult.

Clearing away ivy to read monuments around the location of the old church. This one is dated 1787.

Clearing away ivy to read monuments around the location of the old church. This one is dated 1787.

In the 1850s, the Dents, as patrons of the parish, began to plan to build a new church. This required acquiring more land and arranging for the re-burial of everyone who had been buried within the old church. By 1868 the new church was finished, and that is the church that Zdenek Kopal, and I, visited. There is no Goodricke vault inside the church, because the Goodrickes are all buried in the churchyard, marked by one single stone from the original church. It is undecorated and bears no names; only on one side, often overgrown with grass, does it say “The Goodricke Vault.” The current vicar showed me the stone, and told me that the burial registrar could be found in the North Yorkshire County Record Office. He also told me that he had heard that, many years ago, a plaque with the name of John Goodricke had been fixed to the stone. One can see that something was once there. That plaque was supposedly taken to the University of York, where I am currently in residence, for restoration but no one knows what has become of it!

Interior of the current church.  There is no Goodricke vault because the Goodrickes are buried in the churchyard.

Interior of the current church. There is no Goodricke vault because the Goodrickes are buried in the churchyard.

My visit to the County Record Office was uneventful beyond a spat with the microfilm viewer. I learned to read eighteenth century handwriting fairly quickly (the records went back to the sixteenth, and that was much harder). I found entries for Sir John and Dame Mary, John’s grandparents; Henry Goodricke Esquire and his wife Levina Benjamina, John’s parents; Sir Henry, John’s brother, Sir Harry James, John’s nephew, and the following:

“John Goodricke, Esquire, Grandson and Heir Apparent of the Right Honorable Sir John Goodricke, Baronet of Great Ribston, buried in the new Cemetery at Hunsingore on Friday the 27th day of April, 1786.”

Far from being ostracized by his family, John was embraced, supported, and eventually laid to rest after his premature death at age 21. From this part of the project I have learned the importance of not projecting our own prejudices about what people might believe and how they might act. And I can sing along with Geoff Muldaur with only a slight change of words:

Gotta find John Goodricke…

See that his grave is kept clean.


With York City Archivist Joy Cann (left).

With York City Archivist Joy Cann

What a busy week it has been! We’ve been to three different archives this week looking for documents about the Goodrickes. The York City Archives are my second “home,” as they hold the original research notebooks of John Goodricke and Edward Pigott. They also have local newspapers and other sources of information dating back into the 1700s. We’ve become quite good friends with one of the Archivists, Joy Cann, and last Sunday Joy and her partner Dave invited us to drive out to Londesborough, about 30 miles from York, to see snowdrops.

These are lovely little white flowers which come from a bulb; they spring up before crocuses. I don’t know why they aren’t more widely grown in the States.



We had about four inches of snow on Saturday night, and Ron, Joy, and I had to push the car up a hill right before reaching the village.

The snowdrops were lovely, and the village ladies served up delicious tea and cakes in the hall alongside the 13th century church. It was a great day out!

A Wikimedia shot of a snowdrop flower

A Wikimedia shot of a snowdrop flower

But I digress. Tuesday found us on a bus to Leeds, about 25 miles away. Leeds is the business and industrial capitol of Yorkshire. It is the home of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, a private trust run mostly by volunteers. They hold a collection of Goodricke family papers and deeds, as well as papers of the Dent family, who purchased Ribston, the Goodricke family home, in the 1830s. Upon arrival and checking everything except pencils, notebooks, and a laptop, we were presented with an enormous binder cataloging the collection. The deeds go back to about 1200, as the property at Ribston was then in the hands of the Knights Templars. Thankfully, I did not need to look at these, as my Latin is more than a little rusty! We did look at several documents from the 1700s, and these deepened my suspicion that the Goodricke family, although possessed of a great deal of land, were short of cash. There are several mortgages of about £4000 (equivalent to more than £250,000 today!) The situation was not uncommon, but it’s still a bit of a mystery as to why they needed to mortgage the estate. There was an uncle–a minister in the Church of England–who had a love for racehorses and kept quite a stable. In “respect” to his profession he always raced his horses under an assumed name! He was also renowned as the best whist player in England–another dubious distinction for a clergyman in those days. Within two more generations the Goodricke estates would be gone; in 1838 the nephew of John the Astronomer left the remnants to a friend to settle a gambling debt and an empty title to the last Goodricke baronet.

Today’s trip was to Wakefield, another 10 miles or so beyond Leeds, and we made this trip by train. Here the destination was the West Yorkshire Registry of Deeds, where we found more documentation about specific loans and mortgages. What is the relevance of all this to the story of John Goodricke? First, several of the loans were taken out during John’s childhood. He was sent to two private boarding schools, and these were not cheap. As the eldest son, he would have inherited the estate. Perhaps the family were investing in educating him to become the best possible steward of their properties. At any rate, they seem not to have been rolling in riches as many previous cursory biographers have assumed.

Next week we go to yet another remote site, the North Yorkshire County Record Office in Northallerton. Here we’ll look at records of the parish church where John and his family are buried. Last May I was here to check out the 1980 allegation of a famous astronomer, Zdenek Kopal, that John was not buried with his family because they were ashamed of his deafness as a “blight on the family’s escutcheon.”

York Railway Station

York Railway Station

To close, I’d just like to mention how much easier a project which requires so much travel to different sites is in the UK because of the well-developed mass transit system. There are at least two trains and three buses per hour between York and Leeds. The only occasions upon which we’ve needed a car so far have been for excursions into the country with family and friends. I’m really enjoying the break from driving!

Next time: “Searching for John Goodricke”: his burial place.

John Goodricke

John Goodricke

Portrait of John Goodricke at age 19 or 20.

In this installment I’ll say a bit more about John Goodricke, the subject of my sabbatical research project. As an “amateur” astronomer (since he did not receive pay for his work), as a deaf scientist, and as someone who made great achievements while still in his teens, John is often written about in introductory textbooks. I’ve learned that much of the biographical data given about him is, in fact, incorrect. While I eventually plan to put his life and work into a broader perspective, it’s imperative to get the facts straight first! I’ll return to this shortly.

So what, exactly, did John Goodricke do that merited recognition in his own day and remembrance today? He studied stars whose light varies in time. The variation can happen for different reasons. Two of John’s three favorite stars are eclipsing binary stars: two stars in orbit around each other, so far away that they look like a single star from Earth, and which are aligned so that they periodically block each other’s light.

John’s first discovery (and the one that won him the Copley Medal from the Royal Society of London) was of the period of variation of Algol. This star is in the constellation of Perseus, and it is traditionally drawn on star charts as the blinking “eye” of Medusa, the horrible Gorgon with snakes for hair. In Greek mythology Perseus slew Medusa and used her head to rescue the beautiful Princess Andromeda, chained to a rock as a sacrifice to the gods


Star chart of Perseus showing Algol. The graph shows the brightness variation of Algol.

Was the “blinking” of Algol noticed earlier, causing it to be identified as a monster’s eye? While the stars’ variability had been suspected, no one had systematically observed it. What John Goodricke discovered was how long the brightness variation takes — about nine hours, every 2.867 days. His value is within 4 minutes of the modern one! He and his collaborator, Edward Pigott, correctly suggested that the dimming was caused by a “darker body,” and between themselves they suggested that it might be a planet. Other astronomers preferred to explain the variation as due to “starspots,” analogous to sunspots, and John and Edward’s explanation was not proven correct for nearly another century. The technique of detecting extrasolar planets by means of eclipses, now being used by NASA’s Kepler mission, was suggested in 1783 by Goodricke and Pigott.

This was put up in the 1950s by the York Civic Trust.

This plaque was put up in the 1950s by the York Civic Trust.

Back to some of the inaccuracies I’ve encountered: John is often described as “congenitally deaf,” or “deaf and dumb,” or a “deaf-mute.” Because his family were landed gentry (he would have been a baronet, had he lived longer), it is assumed that he and his family were quite wealthy. In the 1950s, Zdenek Kopal, a famous astronomer, went looking for John’s tomb and did not find it. He wrote that perhaps the “rather staid” Goodricke family felt that John’s deafness was a “blot on the family’s escutcheon.” He also suggested that the Goodrickes were “country squires” primarily interested in fox hunting and horse racing, and for this reason they had no use for their intellectual son. I’ll close this installment by addressing some of these allegations, and take up the others next time.

John was born in Groningen, the Netherlands, in 1764, while his father Henry was a diplomat there. John’s mother, Levina Benjamina, was the daughter of a Belgian merchant, and from her name is seems likely that she was of Jewish heritage. According to the family history, John suffered a severe illness at an early age, and this left him deaf. However, there is no reason to think he would not have been capable of speech, and my reading of his journals suggests that he probably did so. For example, in discussing his dealings with a clockmaker he writes, “I spoke with Mr. Hartley….”

Great Ribston

Great Ribston, the family estate of the Goodrickes, today. John never lived here.

All but one of John’s four younger siblings were born in Groningen, and at some point the family returned to York. While the family possessed a large estate, Great Ribston, about 15 miles west of York, John never lived there. His grandfather, the baronet, would have had right of possession, and Sir John worked for most of his life as the English Envoy Extraordinaire to Sweden. The great estate was rented out, and Henry, Levina, and their children lived in other family properties around York. Why was this? It turns out that having a title and a big house does not make one immune to money problems. I am still working through the details, but there is a long trail of loans and mortgages. Interestingly, Henry and Levina made the investment to send John to two excellent (and expensive) schools: the Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh was the first school for the deaf in the British Isles. Pupils were taught to lip read and, when possible, to speak. After leaving Braidwood’s, John attended the Warrington Academy, a “Dissenting” or “Freethinking” Academy originally founded to prepare Protestant clergymen for denominations other than the Church of England. There astronomy was part of the curriculum, and there is evidence that John was observing the sky when he was just fifteen. I discovered this on my first research trip to York two years ago; the drawing in question was made two years before any of John’s published astronomical work.

This week Ron and I are going to visit the Yorkshire Archaeological Society in Leeds to examine property records, wills, and diaries of the Goodrickes.

John lived in and observed from this house.  It was divided into several flats at this point -- eighteenth century "apartments."

John lived in and observed from this house. It was divided into several flats at this point -- 18th century "apartments."

Introduction to York

I’ll be writing this blog to describe my activities during a sabbatical in York, England, over the spring of 2010. My official goal here is to research and write about the life of John Goodricke (1764-1786). In his short life he was able to determine the periods of variability of three stars which are still important in modern astronomical research. For this, he received the Copley Medal from the Royal Society of London when he was just 19 years old! The award has since gone to Charles Darwin, Dmitri Mendeleev, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking. His accomplishments are all the more impressive because Goodricke had been deaf since the age of five. Goodricke is still remembered and considered an inspiration to amateur astronomers and to those with hearing impairments; I’m trying to trace how he went about his astronomical work and also to describe his life in more detail than has previously been found. I also have a wealth of new observational data on asteroids to work on, so I’m staying very busy.

York is a fascinating city in its own right. Halfway between London and Edinburgh, it gave its name to Yorkshire, England’s largest county (a county here is roughly the equivalent of one of our states). York was founded in AD 71 and has a rich Roman, Saxon, and Viking history. It has the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps, medieval walls around the city center, and tiny, ancient shopping streets.

My husband, Ron Emmons, and I arrived in mid-December along with daughter Masha. We’d had the experience of searching for and renting a flat entirely over the Internet, which turned out quite happily. Our home here is in narrow St Martins Lane, within the city walls. The view from the living room is of the church of St Martin-cum-Gregory and its churchyard; the earliest parts of the church date back to before 1066! It looked very peaceful covered with the snow that covered all of the UK when we arrived.

Daughter Susanna, who was spending the fall semester studying in France, arrived for Christmas, and we were among the lucky families who did not have travel disrupted because of the snow and cold. In fact, our English Christmas was just as I’d always pictured English Christmases — snow, a holly wreath, carols, and midnight services at York Minster on Christmas Eve. Of course, all the snow was atypical, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.

After Christmas it was time to work! I am an Honorary Visiting Professor in the Physics Department at the University of York. A good deal of my historical research is being done away from the department. The York City Archives, in the city center, is host to the collection of journals, letters, and papers of John Goodricke and his collaborator and mentor, Edward Pigott. They are currently undergoing renovations and so are only open to the public on Friday and Saturday, so just as most people’s workweek is winding down, mine is ramping up. I will also be visiting other data archives across Yorkshire, as well as Oxford, Cambridge, Greenwich, and London. Lately I’ve found that York is a treasure trove of historical data, and I’ve spent time in the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research and in the York Minster Library.

I’m having a great time getting to know my colleagues in the physics department. There are no “real” astronomers on staff; the department’s biggest specialty is nuclear physics. Yet astronomy attracts students, as it does everywhere, so I am filling a gap in the program. There is a small campus observatory, and the department hopes to develop their program further. To this end, last week we held an all-day astronomy “event.” Schoolchildren from the surrounding area heard talks and did projects, amateur astronomers brought telescopes, we gave tours of the campus and the observatory, and Marek Kekula, a public astronomer from the Royal Greenwich Observatory, gave a public lecture to 300 invited guests. I was asked to comment upon the talk, which was easy to do because it was excellent. The evening ended with a few colleagues and the speaker joining Ron and me for a quiet drink at our local pub. Next week we are hosting more schoolchildren, but no more invited speakers and guests.

Last weekend was the York Residents Festival. Many of the local attractions which normally charge admission were free! We took a tour of Barley Hall (a medieval townhouse which was only rediscovered recently during renovations in surrounding buildings) and the Royal Opera House. We attended a lecture on the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell, an author who was a contemporary of the Bronte sisters and whose books are well worth reading today, and Sunday we attended a folk music club with great local talent.

I’ll write more about what I’m learning about John Goodricke next time.

Final Night

Our view

The view from our rooms on Cerro Tololo.

I’m writing this from my office back on campus after our 26-hour trip home. The last night of observing was clear and a bit too eventful: the observatory’s Internet connection went down a couple of hours before sunset. I had prepared a file to tell us where to point the telescope that night, as I always do, but for some reason–fatigue, probably!–I had not yet downloaded it. To my amazement, a commercial planetarium program gave perfectly acceptable results, and we were on the asteroid with no time lost.

We arrived back in La Serena just in time for a fiesta; it was the beginning of a week-long celebration leading up to Chile’s national holiday. The CTIO and Gemini facilities were hosting the fiesta, and we were invited for food, dancing, and music. We enjoyed empanadas (delicious turnovers filled with meat and/or vegetables), and then we realized that we were far too tired to wait for the main courses. We made a quick trip to the supermercado for enough food for the next 24 hours, and it was fun to see Chilean flags everywhere. There was a large display of chicha, a fermented grape drink which is traditional during the September holidays.

We had a few hours on Saturday before heading to the airport. Kundan headed off to explore La Serena, while I visited with my friends Gustavo Arriagada, his wife Ivonne, and their daughter Pamela. The last time I saw Pamela, she was about three years old, and now she is a graduate student in astronomy at Universidad Catolica de Chile! She has recently been awarded time on the Gemini telescope–and she has one proud papa! When Gustavo and I met, he was an electronics engineer, fixing broken tape drives. He is now the Director of Engineering for all of Gemini. We had a good visit, talking about politics (there and here), Facebook, high school reunions, and the challenges of caring for aging parents. So many things are universal!

So now the grind begins (after catching up in classes!) The data must be prepared, reduced, and analyzed. And, within a month, observing proposals are due again for next spring and summer! It’s a never-ending cycle. Much as I might grumble about sleep deprivation, I am reminded, as always, of the words of the great Chilean singer and songwriter, Violeta Parra:

Gracia a la vida

Que me a dado tanto…

Thanks to life

Which has given me so much….

The view of the Andes from the "astronomers' table" on Cerro Tololo.

The view of the Andes from the

Chicha is a grape drink very popular during the national holidays.

At the supermarket: Chicha is a grape drink very popular during the national holidays.

Linda's friends Gustavo Arriagada, Director of Engineering at Gemini, his wife Ivonne, and daughter Pamela.

Linda's friends Gustavo Arriagada, Director of Engineering at Gemini, his wife Ivonne, and daughter Pamela.

Clear Skies

Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory (CTIO) seen from the air

At last, clear skies, and we are observing! The day broke as gray and cloudy as others, but we could see a high pressure area approaching. Hour by hour the cloud cover lessened, and by sunset we had the skies we had been waiting for. Right now we are following asteroid 659 Nestor across the sky, so this will be brief.

Kundan had an adventure today: he found a ride over to the newest and largest telescope in the area, Gemini South. Both Cerro Tololo (CTIO) and Gemini are U.S. national facilities. This telescope has a mirror with a diameter of 8 meters–just under 30 feet! There is a twin, Gemini North, on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and together they can see the entire sky. An instrument change was in progress, and he reports that ten to twelve people were at work! All of this, of course, generally goes on while astronomers sleep, so it was great for Kundan to see it first-hand.

This reminds me that I have not yet mentioned how much the staff of CTIO and Gemini do to improve the experience of observing here. They are wonderfully skilled engineers, technicians, and observers who enjoy their work and who make life easier for astronomers. In the twenty years I’ve been coming here, I’ve made some lasting friendships. I always welcome the chance to return, for personal as well as professional reasons. This time, I was able to bring a few presents from Bloomington: bags of Beer Nuts!

The long night looms ahead…coffee and more observing call.

Kundan Chaudhary '11 with the Gemini South 8-meter telescope

Kundan Chaudhary ’11 with the Gemini South 8-meter telescope

Gemini South telescope

Gemini South telescope

Linda French relaxes with CTIO staff Ana Veliz, Tito Urquieta, and Kadur Flores

Linda French relaxes with CTIO staff Ana Veliz, Tito Urquieta, and Kadur Flores

Gemini Engineer Rolando Rogers puts the final touches on a new spectrograph

Gemini Engineer Rolando Rogers puts the final touches on a new spectrograph

The Elqui Valley

Linda French in Pisco Elqui

Linda French in Pisco Elqui

Another so-so night! Right now we are waiting and hoping that the clouds will clear. I just made a quick trip down to the kitchen–my night lunch got packed without milk to add to that essential of the astronomer’s life, coffee. Even on a cloudy night, this is a beautiful spot to be. To the west is the Pacific, to the east, the higher Andes. We are at about 7,000 feet altitude, and we look over to peaks of 12,000 and 14,000 feet. Right now they are still covered with snow at high altitudes.

In the valleys lie small towns–Ovalle, Andacollo, and right below us, Vicuna, home of the beloved poet Gabriela Mistral. I will say more about “La Gabriela” to close this blog, but Vicuna itself is worthy of a mention. The clear air and dark skies that astronomers sought on the peaks is still to be found in the valleys as well. About ten years ago, the people of Vicuna, with the assistance of Cerro Tololo astronomers and technical staff, planned and constructed a municipal observatory, El Observatorio de Mamalluca. Its purpose is solely to allow the public to view the beauty of the southern skies. Five years ago my husband and I visited Mamalluca, and I was thrilled to see for the first time the Southern Cross and some of the glorious star clusters that those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere never see. After all, when I am on Tololo, if it is clear I am observing–and if it’s cloudy, I can’t see the sky! Another town, Andacollo, has followed with its own observatory, and the people of Chile are seeing what a valuable natural resource their dark skies are.

As one drives up the Elqui Valley it narrows; the mountains rise sharply on either side. Because we are on the edge of a desert, the higher elevations are arid, while the regions on either side of the river are fertile. This region produces most of the grapes used for pisco, a delicious grape brandy that packs a considerable wallop.

Someone asked about my suitcase–it did arrive just in time for the trip up the mountain, but not before I went to the mall. While I’d prefer to be haggling in the marketplace for one-of-a-kind crafts, there’s something to be said for having enough socks and underwear! We stopped at the airport on the way up the mountain, where the flight with my suitcase had just arrived from Santiago.

So what are we trying to find out here? Those who have been to one of my talks on asteroids can skip this paragraph. Asteroids shine (in visible light) by reflecting sunlight. Most of them are somewhat irregularly shaped, like potatoes, and they all rotate. If they are the same color on all sides, then we on Earth see more light reflected when the broad side of the potato faces us than when it is end-on. Thus, we see a graph with two peaks and two valleys when we plot the asteroid’s brightness with time. The time it takes to repeat that pattern is its rotation period, and the difference between maximum and minimum light gives a clue about its shape.

There are good reasons for thinking that asteroids made of dense materials like iron should rotate faster, on average, than those made of rock. We believe that some asteroids are “rubble piles” of debris from earlier collisions, only loosely held together by gravity, and we think that those asteroids would fly apart if they rotated very fast. (Think of those carnival rides which use “centrifugal force” to hold you against a rotating wheel as the floor falls away from your feet.) So, some astronomers predict that it might be possible to measure the average density of a group of asteroids by determining their rotation rates. This is important for the Trojan asteroids because we do not know their composition; even knowing an average density would be a help. And it turns out that the Trojans which have been studied seem to rotate more slowly than main belt asteroids, consistent with a low density. But the data set is small, and far more work needs to be done. Since the brightness changes quite a lot with rotation for most Trojans, we should be able to see the effects in somewhat cloudy skies.

One of the things I like about actually going to an observatory is the chance to talk with astronomers from other disciplines, other institutions, and other parts of the world. So far we’ve met two Dutch astronomers, an Australian living and working in Chile, and two Americans working for the U.S. National Observatories. Most people are doing galactic and extragalactic research. It’s enlivening to hear about their work and to tell them about ours. Sometimes lasting relationships spring up; when I was here in 2003, Gautham Narayan ’05 and I met Chris Stubbs who was then just moving to Harvard University. Gautham is now doing his Ph. D. research under Chris’s direction.

About Gabriela Mistral: Born in Vicuna, she began her career as a schoolteacher in the tiny hamlet of Monte Grande, further up the Elqui Valley. Almost entirely self-taught, she became a diplomat and, eventually, the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The spirit of the Valley permeates her poems. When I first came to Chile, while being driven up to the observatory, some of her lines came into my head. I asked the driver, “Wasn’t Gabriela Mistral from Chile?” He said, “She was from that town right over there.” So much to do and learn, so little time!

Observatory Office, library, and infirmary.

Round Office: Observatory Office, library, and infirmary.

Linda French with Edgardo Cosgrove, our Observer Support

Linda French with Edgardo Cosgrove, Observer Support Specialist.

The Elqui Valley

The Elqui Valley

Village square in Pisco Elqui, deep in the Elqui Valley.

Village square in Pisco Elqui, deep in the Elqui Valley.


I’m now writing after two nights on the telescope. The weather has not been great, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. This uncertainty is one of the hardest things for many astronomers to deal with.

Our first night on the mountain was spent talking with Louisiana State University astronomer James Clem. The night was officially James’s last on the telescope, and he sat in clouds until midnight or so. He showed us the operation of the telescope, the camera, and the workings of the six or so computers needed to keep them going.

Our first night on the telescope brought clearer skies, but the observing was still not good. Astronomers don’t just need clear skies, we need stable air that doesn’t make stars twinkle. That “twinkling” is due to air currents in the atmosphere, and it makes for big fat stars on our images–and for noisy data. But, we were able to focus the telescope, to find our asteroids, and practice taking a little data before things got too bad.

When observing on Cerro Tololo, life is not spartan. We stay in what is essentially a small motel, with twelve rooms. There is a central dining room staffed with professional cooks, and the food is delicious. Occasionally North American astronomers find their tastes challenged–tongue and tripe are Chilean favorites, but the chefs have an alternative ready for the Norteamericanos.

The work day takes some getting used to as well. Most astronomers have their first meal of the day at lunch, which goes from 1:00-2:00. Then we take a short trip (about half a mile, and a couple of hundred feet of climbing) to the telescopes on the summit, where we take calibration images for the night. After that, it’s time for a bit of relaxing before dinner (the time depends upon the season; right now it’s at about 5:00 p.m.), and after dinner it’s time for work in a big way. The cooks make us a “night lunch” of sandwiches, cookies, and hot drinks, and if all goes well we work through until morning. I usually save a bit of my night lunch, and fall into bed by 7:00 a.m. if I’m lucky.

Our second night looked good enough that we were able to start right at darkness, yet we could see that clouds would be arriving. Astronomers do something different than ordinary people when they talk about the weather. For most (and for me most of the time), a blue sky with some high cirrus clouds, or some puffy cumulus clouds, is just fine, and the Weather Channel forecast would call that “clear.” For astronomers–NOT! If I am trying to measure the brightness of an asteroid and a wave of cirrus passes over it, I’m going to get a false reading. The kind of program I wanted to run requires what we call “photometric” skies–no cirrus, no clouds at all. It became clear that this was not going to happen, and so we picked some new targets. These are asteroids for which more approximate measures would still be useful.

We were able to observe for about six hours before Edgardo Cosgrove, our Observer Support Specialist, walked in and said “there are clouds.” And soon we could see from our data that there were. The “day’s” work ended at about 3:30 a.m. We hope to pin down the rotation period of Trojan asteroid 659 Nestor during this run. More on that later!

Kundan Chaudhary and Observer Support Specialist Hernan Tirado inside the 4-meter telescope.

Kundan Chaudhary and Observer Support Specialist Hernan Tirado inside the 4-meter telescope.

Linda French moves the 1-meter telescope.

Linda French moves the 1-meter telescope.

Kundan Chaudhary

Kundan Chaudhary ’11

Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory, Chile

Linda French

This is being written at the end of a 24+hour trip involving four plane rides and a lost suitcase. Sophomore physics major Kundan Chaudhary and I are on our way to Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory near La Serena, Chile. It is about 500 km (300 miles) north of Santiago, and it’s one of the premier observing sites in the world. Northern Chile is the site of the Atacama Desert; although smaller than the Sahara, it’s actually drier. That makes the mountains of Chile among the best places to get above the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere to observe the heavens.

While there are lots of big telescopes here, Kundan and I are going to use a smaller one, with a mirror one meter (about three feet) in diameter. We are looking at asteroids that orbit the Sun at the same distance as Jupiter, further from the Sun than the main asteroid belt. These objects, known as Trojan asteroids for historical reasons, seem to be different from the main belt asteroids in many ways. Their composition appears to be different, for example. They seem to rotate more slowly, and they are more irregular in shape. All of this points to a different life story–a different history–than that of the main belt asteroids, and we are trying to get more information on them.

Our trip here involved flying from Bloomington to Chicago, waiting, catching a flight to Miami, waiting, flying overnight to Santiago, collecting luggage to clear customs, waiting, and then flying to La Serena. I said that it was a good thing that we had the waits in there, since that would give our luggage time to catch us. Well, of course, you guessed it–my bag didn’t make it to Santiago.

We are scheduled to go up the mountain tomorrow, a day early, in order to learn from the previous observer. I have observed here many times, using telescopes smaller and larger than the one for this run, but never this telescope, and it has its quirks. So, a little instruction is in order.

Upon arriving at the offices in La Serena, I went around to see my friends, most of whom I’ve known for 20 years. I got their recommendations for where to go shopping, and it looks as though tomorrow morning will be spent at the mall. Living five minutes away from Eastland Mall, I generally try to stay away as much as possible, but the thought of living in the same clothes until my suitcase arrives is not appealing!

More later.

Posing in the dining room on the mountain, from left: astronomers Thomas de Boer and Eiine Tolstoy of the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in the Netherlands, Illinois Wesleyan’s Kundan Chaudhary ’11 and Linda French, and Abhijit Saha of Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson.