Under the Milky Way (tonight)

It might surprise you to hear it, but there is a new fashion disturbing the dusty world of history academia. The boffins call it “Big History”, a term they use to explain a multi-disciplinary examination of the history of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present day.

By calling it Big History, that doesn’t mean necessarily that the next time you see an historian he will automatically be carrying a tape measure or even a bathroom scales. Some things are just too darn big to put a proper measure upon. What we call Big History is really an attempt to illustrate one of the fundamental points about history, the fact that we’re all part of a larger story and, in order to see where we are going in that story, we need to see where we have come from.

The “Vitruvian Man” c1490 by Leonardo da Vinci. (Source: Wikipedia, from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice)

There are some who will argue that the name “Big History” is a bit of a vague term and that what we really have is just the same thing that has been taught in the hallowed halls of our places of learning since Renaissance times. In 15th century Italy for instance, Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci developed the concept of the Universal Man which placed man at the centre of the universe, a limitless figure in his capacity for knowledge. We’ve come a long way in our understanding since then but it is an irony that in the modern age, when mankind is at last in a position to understand what is truly our quite insignificant place in the Cosmos, we have reached a point where we no longer look to the heavens and wonder – a thing our ancestors had done previously since they first stepped away from the camp fire light at night to gnaw on a bone of the woolly mammoth.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquistion

Light pollution from our cities and the glowing screens of hand held smart phones have shut out the night sky from observation and our minds in a way unknown to Galileo, even after all that unpleasant business with the Inquisition and the comfy chair.

Halley’s Comet photographed in the skies over Rosanna, February, 1986

Those of us of a certain age will remember back to a time in our youth when the much touted Halley’s Comet made its generational pilgrimage to the inner solar system in 1985. I remember my mother telling me from an early age that a school teacher had told her about his stunning observation of Halley’s previous visit in 1910 and how, although he would be long dead by the time of its return, he expected most of the children in his class would live to see its return in the mid-1980s. I remember thinking it a bit of a letdown when it finally arrived, the light pollution of the skies over Rosanna lessening the effects of the comet in the sky, but I did manage to take this photograph with a fast slide film, an image that with a little modern day Photoshop enhancing is at least some sort of a record of the event and of a time in my life.

Star gazing at Yallambie, March, 2018

On a scale of all things then, there is no greater subject than the study of the night sky. On a weekend last month a friend brought his telescope to Yallambie and on a dark, moonless night he demonstrated it to us in the back garden in the shadow of our Bunya Pine. His telescope was a homemade affair that would have done Galileo proud. It consisted of not much more than a pipe with an old photo copier lens attached, mounted on a tripod but capable of producing surprisingly effective results. We turned it to what looked to my eye to be a fairly bright spot in the heavens to find a spreading glow of light that hinted at unknown worlds and infinite possibilities.

The Great Nebula in Orion as photographed by Joseph Turner in 1883 using the Great Melbourne Telescope. (Source: Museum Victoria)

Our friend identified it as the “Great Nebula in Orion” and then turned our attention to Alpha Crucis, a multiple star system which appeared to our eyes as a single star at the base point of that most familiar constellation to Australian eyes, the Southern Cross.  In quick time we then looked at Betelgeuse, Sirius, Aldebaran, the globular cluster Omega Centauri and the Pleiades, the latter known by many things in the mythology of ancient peoples the world over but called the seven Karatgurk sisters in a story of the local Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.

Indigenous Australians call it their Dreamtime but to look up at the stars is to literally look back into time. One of the greatest of the many great achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope was the Hubble “Deep Field” observations where the mighty telescope was turned continuously to seemingly empty points of space to record long exposures of the faintest light. What the astronomers found still does my head in to think about. In those supposedly empty patches of space the telescope recorded tens of thousands of galaxies, each galaxy itself filled with countless billions of stars. Not bad for an empty patch of sky in an expanding and ever accelerating universe where, as Carl Sagan once famously observed, the number of stars is far greater than the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.

It sort of puts you into your place doesn’t it? Our ancestors used to look towards the Moon and in an exercise in Pareidolia, constructed a face from what they observed. We’ve all done that at some point but at the end of last January the world got a chance to see the “Man in the Moon” in full detail when it was treated to a magnificent Super Blue Blood Moon – a total lunar eclipse of a second full moon in a month during the Moon’s closest orbital approach to the Earth.

Super Blue Blood Moon in the north eastern sky over Yallambie, 31 January, 2018

We looked at it at Yallambie that night through my father’s old binoculars and I photographed it at the moment of totality with the longest lens I could find, unfortunately without a tripod and with the camera perched hand held on the top of the pickets of a garden fence. The resulting photograph doesn’t really do what we saw that night justice but then that’s true of most things that happen to you in life.

Photograph of the moon by Joseph Turner using the Great Melbourne Telescope,1874. (Source: Museum Victoria)

In 1874 a locally produced photograph of the Moon recorded in stunning detail was reproduced and distributed to schools, libraries and Mechanics Institutes throughout Victoria. The image was the creation of Melbourne’s very own 19th century wonder of astronomy, the “Great Melbourne Telescope”. It is a little known fact but Melbourne was once home to what was then the second largest telescope in the world, the GMT or “Great Melbourne Telescope”, a reflecting telescope with a polished speculum (metal) mirror of 48 inches (1.2 metres) diameter. Conceived in the 1840s, designed by leading British astronomers and manufactured in Ireland it was erected at the Observatory in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens in 1869 where it was intended to explore the nature of the nebulae in the southern skies.

Erection of the Great Melbourne Telescope c January, 1869. The telescope was erected in the open air, with the building that eventually housed it constructed around the telescope once the main components of the instrument had been assembled. (Source: Museum Victoria)

Cutting edge technology for its day, the Great Melbourne Telescope was beset with problems from the outset and was quickly overtaken by instruments installed at other more appropriate, non-city based locations worldwide, but for Melburnians of the 1870s and 80s it remained as a visible evidence of their city’s claim to be one of the great capital cities of the world and a tangible proof of “Marvellous Melbourne”.

By the 20th century however the Great Melbourne Telescope had become more or less old hat. It was dismantled and its component parts sold in 1944 to the Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra where, with many modifications, it continued to be put to good use observing the Southern skies. In 1984 Museum Victoria acquired a large number of discarded artefacts of the Great Melbourne from the Mt Stromlo Observatory which the Museum intended to form as part of a new collection. It was a fortunate move because in 2003 the Mt Stromlo Observatory was itself all but destroyed in the devastating Canberra bush fires of that year. The fires were so intense that the aluminium domes of the Observatory buildings melted at 660°C but in a stroke of unplanned luck, the intense fires stripped away all the modern aluminium and plastic additions to the GMT leaving behind little beyond its original steel and cast iron components. With the pieces Museum Victoria had already secured in 1984 it was thought that 90% of the original instrument had survived.

Bush fires surround suburban Canberra during the 2003 firestorm that destroyed the Mt Stromlo Observatory. (Source: Wikipedia)

Since 2003 a dedicated band of volunteers and staff at Museum Victoria have since been carefully restoring the pieces of the Great Melbourne Telescope, recasting and machining the missing parts with a dream of one day returning it in working order to its original building at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

On an Easter long weekend as we ponder our Creator and an out of control Chinese space station threatens to come crashing down around our ears in a sort of April 1st prelude, wouldn’t that be a stunning Phoenix like contribution to history on a scale both small, and large?

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