Philosophy 167: Class 11 - Part 13 - Observational Astronomy in England: the Greenwich Observatory, Flamsteed's Research, and the Professionalization of the Scientific Community.

Smith, George E. (George Edwin), 1938-


  • Synopsis: John Flamsteed, the first royal astronomer of England, founded the Greenwich Observatory. Flamsteed used the observatory to create a new star catalog, replacing Tycho's.

    Opening line: "Now England doesn't have a Royal Observatory and France not only has one, they're sending expeditions out."

    Duration: 9:34 minutes.

    Segment: Class 11, Part 13.
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Now England doesn't have a Royal Observatory and France not only has one, they're sending expeditions out. They fill transactions, it's filled with these wonderful new discoveries being made in the Paris Observatory. What's going on in England? John Flamsteed, he became the first royal astronomer. He grew up in Darby, was sickly, the best I could gather it was fairly severe asthma.
So he didn't go to college. He was self educated. Came from a reasonably well to do family, taught himself to use telescopes and taught himself astronomy, so that by the 1670's he was a relatively highly accomplished astronomer. And to just give an example, he too in parallel with Cassini, tried to determine the parallax of Mars when Roche was in Cayanne, and Cassini and him exchanged letters, and from there on there was a mutual respect for the two, the two had for one another.
Because Flamsteed as a semi amateur had managed to do very, very good observations of Mars for the purpose in question, thereby substantiating Cassini's own observations. And this became an important thing at this time for both, I'll come back to this, but for both observatories, namely they started cross checking one another and that gave them a great deal more confidence, but I'll come to that in a moment.
So Flamsteed decides that England has to have a royal observatory too. He takes some of his family's money, he get's money and I never remember this name from Jonas Moore and he turns to Christopher Wren. Then an architect and says design me an observatory. It's still standing, this is a diagram from the time.
I'll pass around, this is for me attending it, going to it. You were there for Bradley's stuff? No? You didn't go, okay. But, that's what it looks like today. It sits up above the Thames, on the South side of the Thames maybe 15 miles. On boat it's like a 25 minute ride down the Thames.
The National Maritime Museum is there and Princess Ann's palace is there, both right on the river. Princess Ann's summer palace. And up above on the hill is the Greenwich Observatory. It continued to function into the 20th century, but of course light pollution once we had electricity etc., killed it as a functioning observatory so it's now a museum.
It's a very, very interesting place to go to if and when you're ever in London. So this gets set up. Flamsteed's money, Christopher Wren's design. This is the observatory, the room people would look at. It's called the octagonal room because, of course, it's an octagon shape. To look at different things.
Again, fairly long telescope being used there but notice, sitting on tripods. And over on the other side is a sextant, sextant mounted reasonably well. I gave you for reading the preface to The British History of the Skies which is Flamsteed's major publication in life. It's three huge volumes, I didn't bring it in tonight because it was published in 1720's after he died.
It's a 44 year effort. That Flamsteed spent doing a catalog of the stars. Here was his thinking, he did not have Compani telescopes. He knew how superior they were, so he thought it's not for me to reconstruct Astronomy from the ground up. That's Cassini. I will do double checks for him, I will work with him when he wants, what did you observe here to compare?
But Flamsteed decides instead to do a star chart. And spends 44 years doing a star chart to replace the Tycho star chart. It lasted for a whole century. It's a beautiful thing called the British History of the Skies. But it's typical sort of Flamsteed's personality, recognizing he can't really compete with Cassini on what Cassini's doing, but he could provide something major on his own that Cassini wasn't doing, and simultaneously support Cassini whenever Cassini needed it etc.
And Cassini could turn to him on questions of star chart. So they formed a reasonably good relationship with one another that lasted right through. Flamsteed dies around 1720, and Cassini 1712. You're gonna hear Flamsteed's name come up again and again with Newton. it's a complicated story. Newton and he had a falling out.
It's not Newton at his best. Let's put it that way. But the real instigator of the problem was Halley. Halley wanted to take over the observatory as the royal astronomer. He had been an assistant to Flamsteed. They didn't get along terribly well. And so Halley connived to have Newton, as President of the Royal Society, throw Flamsteed out of this house that Flamsteed paid to build, and replace him with Halley.
He did not succeed. But when Flamsteed died, Flamsteed's wife was sufficiently afraid that they would destroy all of his work on the star chart that she sneaked them out and got them published where the Royal Society couldn't touch them, for fear of what they would do to them.
That's how bad it got, but Flamsteed's a very important person from here forward to us, cuz anytime Newton had a serious question about Astronomy? He had somebody to write and get the answer. Flamsteed was totally reliable on that regard, very honest. You'll see letters from him week after next, and you'll be struck at how candid and helpful he tries to be.
So that's the Royal Observatory in Britain, it's still there of course in Greenwich, Mean Greenwich time is the meridian passing right through the middle of the observatory to this day. Probably more famous for that now than anything else. But what we get here now, and almost to the point that I'm gonna summarize for the night.
What we've gotten to at this point Is, we've got a professionalization of science in both Paris and England. We've got all these people working full time doing scientific work, or nearly full time. We've got societies, we've got journals, Journal De Savant, is coming out from the Royal Academy.
Their Memoir of the Royal Academy, starts in the 1690's. It's still published. It's been published ever since. But they didn't start their own journal til a little later. Professionalization and to play on the Dickens' name, a Tale of Two Cities. These two cities are working in coordination with one another.
They've got Huygens as a common member of both, going back and forth with some frequency to London and back to Paris. They're acutely aware of what's going on in each others location. There's constant communication. There's publication in England of the French work. There's publication in France of the French and the English work, it's just a totally different world sociologically from what science was in 1644.
In fact, it's our modern world, sociologically. And that's a huge, huge change. It's true that Newton was an isolated figure in the sense that he kept to himself. But he read voluminously, and therefore was totally aware of what was going on around him. And when he had questions, especially in Astronomy, off it would go to Flamsteed for the answer.
So, creating this different professional world of science means things happen that just weren't happening before, because a lot of money's going into it, a lot of people are working on it, and they're really pushing the art. In contrast to isolated individuals, like Horrock's, pushing it as best they could on their own.
Another way to say that, I'll come right back, another way to say this is somewhere in the 1650's they caught up with Horrock's, but then they went so far beyond him in maybe early 1660's, that you really get science as we know it today and I repeat what I said 3 weeks ago.
Very strong commitment to the empirical world being the ultimate arbiter of things.