Writer in Residence · 07/16/2011

What He Saw

In 1823, Reverend Thomas Dick saw fortifications on the moon.

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Before Copernicus, astronomers and philosophers saw the earth as the center of the universe.

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In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli saw “canali” on Mars. Translated into English, “canali” can mean either channel or canal. Given that channels are natural and canals are artificial, Schiaperelli’s Italian word was translated to mean canals. It is unclear which word the astronomer would have preferred for his discovery.

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To see stellar parallax is to see a change in angular position between two stationary objects or stars. These objects don’t actually need to be stationary as long as the observer is also moving, as all observers on Earth are. In other words, stellar parallax is the visible shift of an object against the background of another object due to a change in the observer’s position.

To astronomers up until the 19th century, stellar parallax was the only way to prove that Copernicus was right.

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In 1669, Robert Hooke found stellar parallax in gamma Draconis. It was a huge parallax too, 15”. The search for parallax had been a primary concern to most astronomers since Copernicus shocked the universe into a heliocentric system, which is to say that Hooke was content with his discovery.

In the 1720s, James Bradley discovered that Hooke hadn’t found the first instance of stellar parallax. Bradley explained that Hooke thought he’d seen the minute shift in the star because he’d forgotten to shift his telescope to account for the earth’s annual rotation. Hooke was conned by the aberration of starlight.

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In 1907, Karl Bohlin observed Andromeda’s stellar parallax. He believed that it was part of the Milky Way and close enough to see its parallax.

Andromeda is an island universe and therefore not a part of the Milky Way.

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When Ptolemy looked up at the night, he saw stars stuck to a great spherical vault that hung somewhere beyond the orbit of Saturn.

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Immanuel Kant was the first to see that the universe is shaped like a pancake. He thought he had stolen the idea from Thomas Wright based on a review of Wright’s newest book. Kant (and the reviewer) misread the book.

Kant also saw his moral laws as universal moral laws, by which he meant that all intelligent terrestrial and extraterrestrial beings should obey his philosophy.

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William Herschel built big telescopes to sweep the night sky. His monstrous 48-inch-aperture reflecting telescope saw forests, canals, pyramids, and extensive vegetation on the moon. Even as Herschel catalogued the thousands of new nebulae and star clusters he discovered, he dreamt of building bigger telescopes. He wanted a telescope big enough to display Lunarians with clarity.

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The symbol signifying stellar parallax angle is the same symbol as inches but it means arc seconds.

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Tycho Brahe estimated that the distance from the earth to the sun was 1,150 earth radii and the distance from the earth to the Saturn was 123,000 radii. This made the ceiling stained with stars roughly 14,000 earth radii away from his telescope.

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In 1838, Friedrich Bessel announced that he saw the first true instance of stellar parallax. John Herschel proclaimed that his discovery was the “greatest and most glorious triumph which practical astronomy has ever witnessed.”

In 1669, Robert Hooke measured a stellar parallax of 15” in gamma Draconis. In the 1690s, England’s Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed saw a 40” parallactic shift in Polaris. Giuseppe Piazzi, a prominent Italian astronomer in the early 1800s, saw parallax in not one but three stars: Aldeberan, Sirius, and Procyon. Fellow Italian D. Calendrelli saw a 4.4” parallactic shift in Vega. John Brinkley, Ireland’s Astronomer Royal, had also seen stellar parallax in: Vega, Altair, Arcturus, and Deneb. They all saw optical illusions.

Bessel really did see parallax, and in 1838, the Copernican theory of a heliocentric universe was finally accepted.

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Some of his canals were 300 kilometers wide.

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In 1795, the Astronomer Royal of Greenwich Observatory fired his assistant for improper seeing. The more technical term would be “flawed observational technique.” Nevil Maskelyne relieved David Kinnebrooke of his duties for 800 msecs of skewed research. Kinnebrooke, up until his last second of breath in the observatory, swore that his data was accurate. Maskelyne insisted that it didn’t match his own observations, thereby making his less experienced assistant’s wrong.

In 1826, Friedrich Bessel went over this data and found that the observations of both Kinnebrooke and Maskelyne were correct. Bessel discovered what is today known as personal equation, that is, that everyone has a slightly different reaction time to light, and observations must be given a window of error to account for this snapshot discrepancy.

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In 1846, Lord Rosse built a behemoth 72-inch-aperture reflecting telescope and through it, he resolved the Orion nebulae. He was sure he could resolve any nebula. In 1847, William Bond of Harvard University used a 15-inch refracting telescope to verify Rosse’s resolution of Orion.

In 1864, William Huggins used spectroscopy to reveal that some nebulae, Orion included, are glowing gases; therefore, they cannot be resolved.

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In 1933, Fritz Zwicky looked into the California sky and saw what could not be seen. He saw a swallowing darkness, a darkness that eats light. In 1933, Zwicky theorized that darkness covers other matter. He did not necessarily assume that it unrelentingly consumed, just that it blanketed.

His idea has manifested itself as dark matter. Dark matter distorts close to 95% of what is seen.

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On February 18, 1930, Clyde Tombaugh saw a tiny dot move from one point to another while going through January photographic plates. This tiny dot was later named Pluto.

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Between 1876 and 1909, many people saw dark spots against the sun’s surface. The aberration was named Vulcan. Most hoped it was a new planet. LeVerrier, mathematical co-discoverer of Neptune, was a staunch believer in Vulcan.

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The canals made a spider web across Mars, an intricate pattern of straight lines running to and fro, bringing thawed ice to Martians huddled in small huts.

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In 1835, The New York Sun reported that John Herschel saw Lunarians from his observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. The moon people were described as half-human, half-bat chimeras. They were seen engaging in rational conversations. The moon was also residence to other fantastical creatures such as unicorns and miniature zebras. From the tip of Africa, John Herschel also saw large temples, signifying the Vespertilio-homos’ belief in God. Near the Bay of Rainbows, Herschel and his team sighted creatures glowing beyond angelic. They assumed these were the superior forms of Vespertilio-homo.

In 1840, a reporter from The Journal of Commerce asked to see Herschel’s records. Sun reporter Richard Adams Locke revealed that he had written the entire account himself.

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Percy Shelley saw stars and suns as hells.

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Adriaan van Maanen saw slight shifts in the internal movements of spiral nebulae in 1916 and concluded that spiral nebulae rotate. Using this information, Harlow Shapley strongly argued against the Island Universe Theory in what is now known as the Great Debate. Both Shapley and van Maanen believed that if spiral nebulae rotated at the speed predicted, they could not be island universes, but more importantly, they could not sustain life.

Edwin Hubble re-examined the mathematics and found no evidence to support van Maanen’s claim for rotation. Hubble went so far as to exclaim that van Maanen only saw what he expected to see.

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In 1915, Einstein published a paper that accounts for the advance of the perihelion of Mercury. He proved that Vulcan cannot exist.

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In 1917, Adriaan van Maanen saw a star whiter than all the others he had seen. It wasn’t brighter or bigger, just whiter. He couldn’t explain it to others, but he did get a star named after him.

Van Maanen’s star is a white dwarf. It was the second white dwarf discovered.

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By 1883, Schiaparelli observed his canals geminate, or double. He claimed that he couldn’t see the gemination before because his telescope had been too weak. By 1884, all telescopes were judged based on their ability to resolve this phenomenon.

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Of course, Pluto isn’t even a planet anymore.

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On March 13, 1781, William Herschel saw a curious object that he thought could be either a nebulous star or a comet. Even after trustworthy professionals told him it was most likely a planet, he insisted it was a comet. Even after comet expert Messier explained to him that it couldn’t be a comet because it lacked comet-like traits, William Herschel remained steadfast in his belief that he’d found another comet. After much hard-headedness, in June 1782, he finally called the object “my planet” and wanted to name it Georgium Sidus after King George III.

This comet is what is now known as Uranus.

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In “Essay of Man,” Alexander Pope wrote:

Superior beings, when of late they saw
          A mortal man unfold all Nature’s law,
Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape
And shewed a Newton as we shew an Ape.

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Pope did not need to see an extraterrestrial to portray him.

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In 1844, Ellen White had a vision. She counted the moons of Jupiter and gave majestic descriptions of the rings of Saturn. Then, she spoke of the people who lived on Saturn. She saw their purity and beauty, a glowing cleanliness that Earthlings lacked. She saw a world without sin. The Saturnians were extremely tall, she said.

Ellen White was the main prophetess and co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventists.

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Uranus was seen at least 23 times before its discovery in 1781.

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During a time when belief in plurality was at its height, William Whewell spoke out against it. During a time when people believed that God would not waste His time on creating heavens without populating them, William Whewell studied the undeniable facts of Geology, and from this, he surmised that if Geology was correct in asserting that the Earth was billions of years old and humans were not, then God was wasteful with Time, and if God could be wasteful with an atom of time, why not an atom of space? William Whewell shook plurality.

Still, when William Whewell looked up into the heavens, he saw that Jupiter was populated with fish people, beings not as evolved as humans, but they couldn’t be because Jupiter wasn’t even a solid planet. Rather, their planet was composed of a viscous liquid, and any beings on that planet would need to have been cartilaginous and glutinous masses. His fish people had no hands.

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Most believed that the canals were used as irrigation systems. Schiaparelli said he saw vegetation along the edges of the canals.

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In 1876, Richard Proctor saw that planets, like humans, go through an aging or evolutionary process. By looking around our own solar system, we could unravel the entire universe. The first stage is the youthful stage, where planets burst energetic flames of hydrogen and helium. Richard Proctor compared this to our sun. The second stage surges great heat but lacks the display of bright lights. Proctor claimed that Saturn and Jupiter vivify this phase. The third stage shows less heat and less light. It isn’t a spectacular evolutionary moment, but it is the condition of the Earth, a mediocre blink in planetary life. Finally, there is the stage that signifies the decay of both heat and light, a metaphorical sigh in remembrance of fireworks and playfulness. This is where the moon is, our moon. Richard Proctor describes it as planetary decrepitude.

He believed that life could be supported only during the earthlike phase. The first two stages are too hot and the last too cold. It’s not certain that he believed in an apocalyptic future, but it would seem that Richard Proctor did believe in plurality.

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Proctor was a principal popularizer of modern astronomy.

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Joseph Smith was the First Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He saw visions of angels living on distant planets but governing Earth.

This was not included in the Book of Mormon. Perhaps that was a wise idea.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned his position as pastor because he couldn’t reconcile his beliefs with the administration of the Lord’s Supper. He believed in astronomy. He saw that the revelations of astronomy can force any thinking person to reject not only atheism but also the fundamentals of Christianity, particularly the notion of divine incarnation and redemption.

Emerson once questioned that given the developments of modern astronomy, who can be a Calvinist or who an Atheist?

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Percival Lowell was a wealthy man. He became so excited by the Canals of Mars that he built an observatory to see the amazing canals himself. Lowell Observatory housed a 24” refracting telescope, and through that telescope, Lowell saw geminations.

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According to Bode’s Law, there should be a planet in rotation between Mars and Jupiter.

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On January 1, 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi saw signs of the planet. By January 14, it started to move. By February, it was no longer visible, and few believed Piazzi’s claim that he’d found the missing planet. Karl Friedrich Gauss, a young and brilliant mathematician, saved the day by charting the planet’s hypothetical position based off of Piazzi’s observations. December 31, 1801, Piazzi sighted the planet once again and named it Ceres.

Ceres is located in what is today known as the asteroid belt. It is the largest and most prominent asteroid.

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Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at Lowell Observatory.

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In 1947, residents in New Mexico saw strange lights flashing from an abnormal flying structure. On June 14, William Brazel found abnormal bits of debris on his farm.

People now take pilgrimages to Roswell.

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It was not until 1894 that someone suggested that the Canals of Mars might be an optical illusion. This someone was E. Walter Maunder. He was, for the most part, ignored.

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When the Atomists looked up at the Heavens, they saw something homogeneous but infinite, stars randomly thrown onto a never-ending canvas, a universe without purpose. When Aristotle and his followers extended their gaze upwards, they saw the opposite of what the Atomists saw. The exact opposite.

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In 1903, E. Walter Maunder published the results of an experiment. A group of schoolboys were shown a picture of Mars without canals but with the appropriate topographical features. They were asked to replicate the drawing freehand and at various distances. They all drew canals.

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In 1277, Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, became concerned that too many theologians, Thomas Aquinas in particular, saw the universe the way the Aristotelians had. As such, Bishop Tempier decreed the Condemnation of 1277, which contained 217 propositions, and anyone who believed any of these propositions was threatened with excommunication.

Tempier feared that theologians had rationalized God’s powers to such an extent that they put limitations on His abilities. Proposition 34 states “that the first cause [God] could not make several worlds.”

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In 1608, Galileo Galilei saw the Heavens as the Heavens had never been seen before. In 1608, Galileo made minor adjustments to his seeing machine and raised his newly invented telescope to crystallize images of night. Through this mechanical invention, he made sensational discoveries. Among these were: that the moon has both mountains and oceans; that Jupiter has four moons orbiting it; and that there are many more stars than had ever been seen or imagined.

Galileo did not use these discoveries to prove or disprove plurality.

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Isaac Newton saw that a 200-pound earthling would weigh at least twice that amount on Jupiter and twenty-three times that on the Sun.

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Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “I believe there is one Supreme most perfect Being, author and father of the gods themselves. For I believe that man is not the most perfect Being but one, but rather that there are many degrees of beings superior to him.”

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Auguste Comte, founder of Positivism, believed that one should only study what can be seen and, therefore, known.

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In 1909, Eugene Antoniadi fully resolved Mars. There were no canals. Slowly, the world came to accept that the infamous Canals of Mars were merely an optical illusion.

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Alfred Russell Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution, staunchly argued against plurality. Among the principles of evolution are chance and time, and the possibility of the exact series of mutations that brought forth sentient beings on Earth being replicated elsewhere is beyond impossible. Wallace saw plurality in the most practical manner.

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In 1913, Antoniadi wrote, “Ponderous volumes will still be written to record the discovery of new canals. But the astronomer of the future will sneer at these wonders; and the canal fallacy, after retarding the progress of astronomy for a third of a century, is doomed to be relegated into the myths of the past.”

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Reverend Thomas Dick cited the population of the Saturn’s rings to be 8,141,963, 826, 080.

Editor’s Note: This piece was excerpted from Parabola, published by Chiasmus Press.

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Lily Hoang is the author of Unfinished, The Evolutionary Revolution, Changing (recipient of a PEN Beyond Margins Award), and Parabola (winner of the 2006 Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest). With Blake Butler, she co-edited the anthology 30 under 30. She serves as Fiction Editor at Puerto Del Sol, Associate Editor at Starcherone Books, and Editor at Tarpaulin Sky. She teaches in the MFA program at New Mexico State University.

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posted by Tim Horvath