Tag Archives: astronomy

Vesto Slipher: Uncovering the Cosmos

The Andromeda Galaxy. Courtesy of NASA.
The Andromeda Galaxy. Courtesy of NASA.

The known universe is big; insanely big! At a staggering age of 13.8 billion years, our observable universe has a diameter of 92 billion light-years. Over the last century, astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians have helped us understand a more precise measurement of the size of the universe and how it has changed over time. The prevailing theory is the “Big Bang,” which, “At its simplest, [it] talks about the universe as we know it starting with a small singularity, then inflating over the next 13.8 billion years to the cosmos that we know today.” A key component of Big Bang cosmology, “Expansion Theory,” stipulates that the universe is expanding, rather than a static state, which accounts for the changing distances of stars and galaxies. So, how did we come to this conclusion?

Red and blue shift. Courtesy of Caltech.
Blue and red shift. Courtesy of Caltech.

Part of our understanding of the expanding universe has benefited, in no small part, to an Indiana farmer’s son named Vesto Slipher. Slipher developed spectrographic methods that allowed researchers to see a Doppler effect in the distances of what were then called “spiral nebula,” what we today call galaxies. Simply put, by measuring the longer wavelength red shift (objects moving away) and shorter wavelength blue shift (objects moving closer), Slipher demonstrated that the universe was not static. In fact, it was expanding and often pushing objects towards each other. Slipher’s name doesn’t get regularly name-checked as one of the greatest scientists of all-time, but his contributions helped to establish our current view of the cosmos.

Vesto Melvin Slipher. Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences.
Vesto Melvin Slipher. Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences.

Vesto Melvin Slipher was born on November 11, 1875 on the family farm in Mulberry, Indiana. As biographer William Graves Hoyt noted, Slipher’s early life on the farm “helped him develop the strong, vigorous constitution that later stood him in good stead for the more strenuous aspects of observational astronomy.” Slipher received a B.A. (1901), M.A. (1903), and Ph.D (1909) in Astronomy from Indiana University. His Ph.D. dissertation paper, The Spectrum of Mars, which tentatively identified atmospheric characteristics (namely, water vapor) on the red planet.

The Indianapolis Journal, June 19, 1901. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 19, 1901. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 8 1903. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 8 1903. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

Slipher’s professional career in science began in August of 1901, when he moved to Flagstaff, Arizona to fill a vacancy at the Lowell Observatory. Founded by the idiosyncratic Dr. Percival Lowell, Lowell Observatory became one of the foremost institutions of astronomy during the early 20th century. As the Coconino Sun put it, the observatory, “is known and recognized all over world for its discoveries and correct calculations.”

Dr. Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Dr. Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal/State of Arizona.
Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal/State of Arizona.

Lowell’s chief pursuit with the observatory was to prove that there were inhabitants on Mars, and hired young Slipher to help him. As early as 1908, Slipher found evidence through his spectroscopic techniques that Lowell may be on to something. The Washington Herald reported that V. M. Slipher (newspaper articles almost always identified him in print with just his initials) and his brother, Earl C. Slipher, “discovered evidences of the presence of water in the atmosphere of Mars. . . .” Sometime later, on May 20, 1909, the Hopkinsville Kentuckian noted that Slipher’s observations, “favor the view that the whitecaps about Mars poles are composed of snow rather than of hoarfrost,” and that “prevalent conditions of Mars . . .are those of a mild but desert climate, such as Professor Percival Lowell has asserted exists there.”

The Washington Herald, April 05, 1908. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Washington Herald, April 05, 1908. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Lowell’s interest in Mars, emboldened by Slipher’s results, intensified. In 1912, Slipher helped install a 13,000 feet high telescope in the San Francisco Mountains so as to refine his measurements. Slipher’s efforts culminated in a 1914 announcement of further confirmation to his Water Vapor hypothesis. The Washington, D.C. Evening Star wrote that, “while the amount of water is difficult to determine, the estimates placed it at about one-third that of the atmosphere of the earth.” While Slipher and Lowell never found Martians on the red planet, their findings established atmospheric models that are still corroborated by scientists to this day.

The Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1909. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1909. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

With his research on Mars, Slipher was only getting started. His real passion was observing the position and velocities of “spiral nebula,” and he used his spare time away from his Mars projects to advance his research. His early successes convinced Dr. Lowell to give him time devoted to this research. It came with spectacular results. In 1912, Slipher began recording spectrographic results of the Andromeda Nebula (now known as the Andromeda Galaxy) and found that they were blue-shifting, which indicated that the nebula was “not within our galaxy.” “Hence we may conclude,” Slipher observed in his published findings, “that the Andromeda Nebula is approaching the solar system with a velocity of about 300 kilometers per second.” Within the next couple of years, Slipher also discovered that the Andromeda Nebula was also rotating as it traveled, and published these results in a subsequent article. From there, the results went to the press; the Daily East Oregonian published the findings in its November 15, 1915 edition. The Caldwell Watchmen in Columbia, Louisiana also reported that the Nebula was traveling at an unprecedented speed of “186 miles a second.” Similar articles were published in the Ashland, Oregon Tidings and the Albuquerque Evening Herald.

The East Oregonian, November 25, 1915. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The East Oregonian, November 25, 1915. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Slipher eventually observed the speeds of 15 nebulae, shared his findings at the 1914 American Astronomical Society meeting, and “received a standing ovation.” His results were then published by the society in 1915, demonstrating that the average velocity of these nebulae at 400 kilometers a second. A few years later, in 1921, Slipher found a record-breaking nebula called Dreyer’s Nebula (known today as IC 447) that was traveling away from our galaxy at 2,000 kilometers a second! With nebulae moving at varying velocities and in varying directions, Slipher’s research had started a conversation about the need to reevaluate the static theory of the universe. Why were these nebula acting like this?

The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, January 17, 1921. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, January 17, 1921. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
Edwin Hubble. Courtesy of Sonoma State University.
Edwin Hubble. Courtesy of Sonoma State University.

In comes Edwin Hubble, the lawyer-turned-astronomer with the dashing looks of a movie star who pushed our understanding of the universe even further (Like Slipher, Hubble also had an Indiana connection as he taught and coached basketball at New Albany High School during the 1913-14 academic year) . As physicist Lawrence Krauss noted, Hubble used Slipher’s data on spiral nebula, combined with new observations he obtained with colleague Milton Humason, to postulate a new cosmological law. This new theorem, called “Hubble’s Law,” argued that there was a direct “relationship between recessional velocity and galaxy distance.” In other words, the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving. These results flew in the face of both Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein’s notions of the universe, which argued for a static universe. If Hubble was right, the universe was actually expanding.

To test this idea, Hubble began a new series of spectrographic experiments in the 1930s. The Muncie Post-Democrat reported on one of these experiments on November 25, 1938:

The answer [to the expansion theory], they said, may be found when the new 200-inch reflector, cast in Corning, N. Y., glassworks, is completed. If the universe is expanding, the giant reflector being built on Mt. Palomar, in California, may indicate the type of expansion. The new mirror will collect four times as much light as the 100-inch Hooker reflector now in use at Mt. Wilson.

The Muncie Post-Democrat, November 25, 1938. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Muncie Post-Democrat, November 25, 1938. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

These further experiments reaffirmed Hubble’s earlier conclusions and the expansionary model of the universe became the standard-model. The evidence was so overwhelming that Einstein changed his mind and accepted the expansionary theory. Like with his work on Mars, Slipher’s early observations helped to uncover a field-altering discovery, and as biographer William Hoyt concluded, his research “enabled astronomers to gauge the approximate age and dimensions of the known universe.”

Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. He was assisted by Slipher in his discovery. Courtesy of NASA.
Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. He was assisted by Slipher in his discovery. Courtesy of NASA.

Even after his momentous research on spiral nebula, Slipher continued to be involved in key discoveries. For example, Slipher assisted in the discovery of the planet (now dwarf planet) Pluto! A January 2, 1920 article in the Coconino Sun recalled that, “Dr. Slipher said he believes it is true that there is an undiscovered planet. This belief is due to peculiar actions of Uranus, who gets kind of wobbly sometimes in her course around the sun.” To confirm these claims, Slipher brought young scientist Clyde Tombaugh onto the project in 1928. After many attempts of photographing the unknown body, and Slipher even missing it in some telescopic photographs, Tombaugh finally discovered Pluto on February 30, 1930. The New York Times later reported the discovery on April 16, 1930. “Denial to the contrary,” the Times wrote, “Dr. V. M. Slipher, director of the Lowell Observatory [here], believes evidence indicates that the recently discovered “Planet X” is the long-sought trans-Neptunian planet, and is not a comet.” While Tombaugh rightfully gets the credit for the discovery, Slipher’s hard work in assisting the young scientist should count as one of his accomplishments.

The Coconino Sun, January 2, 1920. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Coconino Sun, January 2, 1920. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
Slipher in his later years. Courtesy of the New York Times.
Slipher in his later years. Courtesy of the New York Times.

Slipher retired from the Lowell Observatory in 1952 and spent the remaining years of his life involved in minor astronomical work and community affairs before he passed away in 1969, at the age of 94. While not a household name, Slipher’s achievements in astronomy are legendary, from his discovery of the atmospheric conditions of Mars and assisting with the discovery of Pluto to his ground-breaking research on spiral nebulae that led to our understanding of the expanding universe. In short, he helped science, and in turn humanity, further uncover the mysteries of the cosmos. Pretty good for a farm boy from Mulberry, Indiana.

“Green to be Conspicuous”: Celebrating the Irish in Hoosier Newspapers, 1837-1922

notre dame civil war rev pp cooney

Hoosier State Chronicles honors St. Patrick’s Day with this toast to the “sons and daughters of Erin.”

One of the earliest newspaper references to Hoosiers celebrating Ireland and its patron saint appeared on April 1, 1837, in the Vincennes Western Sun.  On March 17, a “large company” got together at “Mr. Jewel’s Ball Room” in Vincennes.  A writer (probably not the paper’s publisher Elihu Stout, who was notoriously pro-slavery and anti-immigrant), wrote that “The utmost harmony and good feeling prevailed;  Irishmen, descendants of Irishmen, persons from different nations and all parties, united to do honor to the Illustrious Bishop and Saint of the Emerald Isle.”

A list of toasts drunk in Ireland’s honor took up about half of the front page of the Western Sun that April 1.   One toast reads touchingly:  to “Ireland, the Land of Love and Beauty.”

In the spirit of republicanism, Patrick Doran, who had immigrated from Ireland to Boston in 1799 at age fifteen and moved to Vincennes in 1836, just a year before he served as toastmaster at Jewel’s Ball Room, offered a tribute to “The human family.  No distinction on account of clime or soil.”

Though anti-Catholic feeling in America was strong, hostility was less in Vincennes, an old French town and the cradle of Catholicism in Indiana.  The Vincennes group toasted Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, father of Catholic Emancipation, which restored civil rights to Catholics in Britain and Ireland.  “May his efforts to throw off the galling yoke of Britain be so crowned with success, that the sight of an English hireling may be as rare as that of the Snake or Toad in our favored land.”

VWS 1837-04-01 St Patricks Day Toasts (5)

For all their occasional hypocrisy regarding slavery in the U.S. itself, early Indiana papers almost always took the side of oppressed nations, especially if they were fighting against Great Britain.  Ireland’s long struggle for independence, accomplished only in 1921, was one of the major subjects in American newspapers in the 1800s.  Hoosier papers, such as the Indiana State Sentinel and the Evansville Daily Journal, enthusiastically supported the idealistic and underequipped Irish revolutionaries who launched rebellion after rebellion against Britain, including a major one in 1848.

When the Famine struck Ireland in the mid-1840s, and starvation and emigration halved its population, the U.S. began to teem with emigrants and exiled revolutionaries fleeing death and persecution in the Emerald Isle.  Hoosier papers were naturally drawn into the hot political debates surrounding Ireland’s fate and the great Irish exodus to America.

Indiana was a top destination for the Irish in the 1830s and ’40s.  One of the major engineering projects of the day, the construction of the Wabash & Erie Canal, which promised to link Evansville to Lake Erie, required an enormous amount of labor.  Thousands of Irish workers dug miles of canal ditches through pestilential marshes and helped drain off ancient wetlands, drastically altering the Hoosier landscape.  The Indiana Journal and other papers drew Irish workers here with advertisements of wages and cheap land.

2000 laborers wanted 2

Often paid in whiskey, Irish laborers frequently succumbed to alcoholism, yellow fever, and malaria along the disease-ridden canal.  Scottish foremen called “jiggers” often dispensed whiskey in ladles from buckets — perhaps not an altogether bad health move, since whiskey, unlike water, was distilled and not so laden with bacteria.  Its long-term effects, however, were of course deadly.

Irish laborers brought some Old World rivalries to America, leading to the little-known “Indiana Irish Wars” of the mid-1830s.  Gangs that probably had their roots in longstanding disputes back in Ireland divided off into “Corkonians” and “Fardowns.” Fights erupted that threatened to destroy the canal.  The Hoosier “Irish wars” took place mostly around Logansport and Lagro in northern Indiana.

Irish workers eventually saw the result of their backbreaking work abandoned after just a couple of decades, as railroads eclipsed the canal and turned it into a worthless ditch not long after the end of the Civil War.


canal ruins riley in
Wabash & Erie Canal ruins near Riley in Vigo County. Photo by www.americancanals.org.

In an 1890 lecture, Indiana State Geologist John Collett shared a fascinating anecdote from natural history that he had learned from the surveyor Perrin Kent.  Kent helped lay out part of the Wabash & Erie Canal near Williamsport in Warren County in the 1830s.  As he told Collett, during the heyday of canal construction he ran across some “Irishmen working in the swamp” along the Wabash River.  The Irish had discovered the fossilized bones of a mastodon.  The surveyor watched as they “extracted the marrow, which had changed to adipocere”  — “grave wax” formed from fatty tissues — and used it as grease for their boots.  Perhaps the Irish had been doing this for generations with bones found in the rural peat bogs of Ireland.  (Before 1883, there used to be a cranberry marsh in Medina Township, Warren County, where settlers harvested cranberries before the swamp was drained.  From 1957 to 1972, the Milburn Peat Company of Chicago harvested peat from what was left of the old cranberry bog.)

At a time when a major American political party, the “Know-Nothings,” thrived on anti-immigrant attitudes, some Hoosiers were openly against the Irish influx.  Yet nativism was never as bad here as in the East Coast cities, where ethnic riots often broke out. (One of the worst was the bloody 1849 Astor Place Riot in New York City, sparked by a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.)  Though the Know-Nothings were the most outspoken opponents of non-Anglo-Saxon immigration, the Whig Party, which disappeared from American politics during the 1860s, was often notoriously “nativist.”

The Indiana State Sentinel, published in Indianapolis, often called the Whigs out for their anti-Irish attitudes.  The paper lampooned Indianapolis resident Nicholas McCarty, failed Whig candidate for Congress in 1847 and for Governor of Indiana in 1852, for changing his mind on immigration, allegedly to curry votes.  The State Sentinel satirized McCarty on July 15, 1847, in an article called “Quite Altered.”

indiana state sentinel -- july 15 1847

Antebellum midwestern papers, frequently run by European political refugees, were huge supporters of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, which tried to topple the old monarchies.  “Young Ireland” was a major revolutionary movement led in part by a man who later played a critical role in the American Civil War.

Thomas Francis Meagher, best known in the U.S. as the commander of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade (decimated at Antietam and Gettysburg), was one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries in 1848.  Born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1823, Meagher came from the oppressed Catholic majority.  Educated by Jesuits in England, where he learned to speak with an upperclass English accent that his supporters sometimes hated him for, Meagher almost entered the Austrian army but got involved in Irish politics during the dark days of the Famine.  As one of the leaders of the failed 1848 rebellion, he was nearly sentenced to death by a judge, but received a mercy verdict and was deported for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), at that time a British penal colony at the far end of the world.


thomas_francis_magher
Meagher, deported from Ireland to Tasmania, escaped to America and came to Indiana in 1852 and 1858.

Papers in Indiana and Ohio avidly followed Meagher’s fate and were thrilled to report in early 1852 that he had escaped from Tasmania on an American whaling vessel and made a surprise appearance in New York City that May.  On June 3, the Indiana Legislature gathered in a committee of “friends of Ireland” headed by James Henry Lane of Lawrenceburg.  (Lane soon became the fiery U.S. Senator from Kansas and one of the major fighters in the guerrilla warfare that laid “Bleeding Kansas” waste from 1854 to 1861.)  “Jim” Lane’s committee invited Meagher to Indiana and resolved to show solidarity with “the glorious cause for which he was branded and exiled as a felon.”  A public letter from Hoosier legislators addressed to the Irish rebel in New York proclaimed “We love Ireland” and congratulates him on his “almost miraculous escape from the myrmidons of British oppression.”

Meagher came west in 1852, but didn’t make it to Indianapolis.  He may have stopped in Evansville, since he was in Louisville on December 20 and left for St. Louis on the steamboat Pike the next day.  Meagher made another trip to the Midwest in 1858.  At 8 o’clock at night on February 19, he gave a speech at the Universalist Church in Terre Haute.  His subject:  “St. Patrick’s Day and National Anniversaries.”  Admission to hear the famous Irish patriot was 25 cents. (The Universalist Church once sat at the corner of 4th & Ohio Streets near the old Vigo County Courthouse. )  Sadly, no transcript or any further mention of Meagher’s talk was published in Terre Haute papers.


tf meager - terre haute daily union 18 feb 1858 (2)
Terre Haute Daily Union, February 18, 1858.

Meagher became an American citizen and went on to become the editor of two anti-British newspapers in New York City:  the weekly Irish News and (with fellow rebel John Mitchel, who supported the Confederacy) the Citizen.  He went to Costa Rica just before the Civil War to explore the possibility of Irish immigration there.  Though he had previously supported the South, in 1861 Meagher helped recruit the 69th New York Regiment, the core of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, a fighting body made up mostly but not entirely of Irish volunteers.  Under Brigadier General Meagher’s command, the Irish Brigade bore the brunt of fighting along Bloody Lane at Antietam and was almost entirely wiped out at Gettysburg.  Today, a huge monument to Meagher and the Irish volunteers — most of whom were from New York but with many Hoosiers among them — stands next to the lookout tower on the Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Meagher survived the war, went west as Territorial Governor of Montana, and drowned in the Missouri River near Fort Benton in 1867 when he fell off a steamboat.


thomas francis meagher
Rebel Thomas F. Meagher was leader of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade.
69 new york infantry fort corcoran 1861
A Catholic priest leads a prayer with the 69th New York at Fort Corcoran in northern Virginia in 1861.

One of the notable “Hoosier Irish” who served with distinction in the Civil War was Father William Corby (1833-1897), a Holy Cross priest from Notre Dame and an army chaplain attached to the Irish Brigade.  Before the mostly Catholic Irish brigade went into battle on the second day of Gettysburg, Corby famously gave the unit absolution from their sins.  Pictured here in 1862 with two other priests who served in the Union Army, Corby went on to become the president of the University of Notre Dame and wrote a bestselling memoir of his experiences in the war.


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Father William Corby of Notre Dame, seated at right, with two other priests [seated center and standing left], in 1862.

corby news times
A tribute to Corby appeared in the South Bend News-Times on the fifty-ninth anniversary of Gettysburg in 1922.

The Hoosier State had an “Irish Regiment” of its own.  Father Peter P. Cooney, born in County Roscommon, Ireland, and a priest at Notre Dame, was with the 35th Indiana Infantry as it went into Georgia with Sherman.  Father Cooney was featured in a report on the Atlanta campaign published in the Daily State Sentinel on August 27, 1864.

For all their occasional hostility to the Irish (who were frequently considered an “inferior race” in the nineteenth century), American papers often celebrated Irish wit and humor.  In 1883, the Jasper Weekly Courier printed a tale about an elderly Irish woman who showed up at a railroad station just a few seconds too late.  Trying to sprint down the platform to catch her train, “she of course came to a halt, when she began to abuse the unaccommodating engine, adding with a ‘nate’ brogue: ‘Faugh! The great black ugly lump!  When she gets as old as me, she won’t run so quick!”

One more interesting story that made it into the papers is worth  sharing.  On St. Patrick’s “Eve”, 1892, sky watchers saw a strange event in several parts of the Midwest.

On March 18, the Indianapolis Journal reported the remarkable atmospheric occurrence.  A white cross was hovering around the moon.

For two or three days, in parts of Illinois, the superstitious people have been brought almost to the verge of insanity by curious phenomenal displays that have found their way into the heavens without any apparent business there and without having, so it seems, been heralded by either the Weather Bureau or scientific gentlemen in general.  The phenomena has assumed various forms and to the different classes of people who have been sightseers has spoken a various language.

white cross - indianapolis journal 18 march 1892 2

During the past twenty-four hours the papers have contained dispatches from Bloomington and Springfield, Illinois, Fort Dodge, Iowa, and other cities, describing in hectic terms phantasmagoric spectacles seldom before seen except in “hyper-borean” regions.  If these dispatches are to be believed, in some cases the empyreal display has been cut bias, in others diagonal, and at all times conveying a mundane idea that the sprites of the heavens, robed in regal costumes of variegated colors, were enjoying a ball masque on the “milky way.”

It remained for Luna, however, to confer her choicest favor upon Indianapolis and vicinity upon St. Patrick’s night.  At 11:30 o’clock last night, when the moon was at her best, she appeared in the center of a perfectly formed and perfectly visible cross of milky whiteness.  This wonderful display was visible for about thirty minutes, when it gradually merged into a sort of a hazy pale.  Such a phenomenal display is attributed entirely to atmospheric conditions.  Why the moon should appear in the center of a cross on St. Patrick’s day, however, is something that the atmosphere does not explain.

If the cross had been green, the “Sons of Erin” would have had extra cause to “jollify”:

st patricks day 2

green to be conspicuous


debs

Volunteers at a  booth on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute, Indiana, around 1922 support freeing Terre Haute native Eugene V. Debs from jail.  Five-time Socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency, Debs was imprisoned by the Wilson administration during World War I for opposing the military draft.  The sign reads “Ireland is Free — Why Not Debs?  Help Bring Debs Home for Christmas.”  (Martin Collection, Indiana Historical Society.)