Wind in the Window

One very windy morning last week I lay in bed listening to the wind whistling in the window above me.  It was playing a pentatonic scale!  Albeit accompanied by some very complex and interesting overtones.  The pitches formed a major pentatonic scale: G♭4 – A♭4 – B♭4 – D♭5 – E♭5.

This led me to reflect on the origins of human music.  Even though there were no windows in prehistoric times, there has always been the sound of the wind amongst the rocks and the trees, and a myriad of other sounds in the natural world.  These sounds of nature must have provided the initial impetus for human music making, both vocal and instrumental.

Prime Meridians

The choice of the prime meridian (0° longitude) is, of course, completely arbitrary.  Here in the U.S., it is not uncommon to find 18th & 19th century maps and navigational aids showing the prime meridian going through Philadelphia or Washington, D.C.  In October 1884, the International Meridian Conference convened in Washington, D.C.  At that conference, 22 of 25 nations voted to make the longitude line through Greenwich, England the internationally recognized Prime Meridian (0° longitude). Santo Domingo voted against the resolution, and France and Brazil abstained.

Eugène Delporte and the Constellation Jigsaw

Belgian astronomer Eugène Joseph Delporte (1882-1955) discovered 66 asteroids from 1925 to 1942, but he is best remembered for determining the official boundaries of the 88 constellations, work he completed in 1928 and published in 1930.  The constellation boundaries have remained unchanged since then.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded, incidentally, in Brussels, Belgium in 1919, established the number of constellations at 88—the same number, coincidentally, as the keys on a piano—in 1922 under the guidance of American astronomer Henry Norris Russell (1877-1957).  The IAU officially adopted Delporte’s constellation boundaries in 1928.

All the constellation boundaries lie along lines of constant right ascension and declination—as they existed in the year 1875. Why 1875 and not 1900, 1925, or 1930? American astronomer Benjamin Gould (1824-1896) had already drawn up southern constellation boundaries for epoch 1875, and Delporte built upon Gould’s earlier work.

As the direction of the Earth’s polar axis slowly changes due to precession, the constellation boundaries gradually tilt so that they no longer fall upon lines of constant right ascension and declination. Eventually, the tilt of the constellation boundaries will become large enough that the boundaries will probably be redefined to line up with the equatorial coordinate grid for some future epoch. When that happens, some borderline stars will move into an adjacent constellation. Even now, every year some stars change constellations because proper motion causes them to move across a constellation boundary. For faint stars, this happens frequently, but for bright stars such a constellation switch is exceedingly rare.

1892: First Auroral Photography

One hundred and twenty five years ago this month, on January 1, 1892, two Germans, astronomer & physicist Martin Brendel (1862-1939) and geographer & meteorologist Otto Baschin (1865-1933), arrived at Alta fjord near Bossekop in northern Norway to study the Northern Lights and conduct magnetic field measurements.  Their latitude was just shy of 70° N.  Brendel began photographing the aurora the next day, and his first extant photograph (the first ever) was taken on January 5, 1892.

Edward Emerson Barnard (1857-1923), incidentally, was to establish his reputation as an extraordinarily gifted astrophotographer later that same year when he began taking photographs of comets, clusters, nebulae (including galaxies), and the Milky Way using the 6-inch Crocker astrographic camera at the Lick Observatory.

The first extant photograph of the aurora, taken on January 5, 1892 by Martin Brendel
The first extant photograph of the aurora, taken on January 5, 1892 by Martin Brendel
Martin Brendel and his photograph of the aurora borealis on February 1, 1892 (below)
Martin Brendel and his photograph of the aurora borealis on February 1, 1892 (below)
Nordlichtdraperie - that's German for "northern lights curtains" - charming!
Nordlichtdraperie – that’s German for “northern lights curtains” – charming!

Otto Baschin (1865-1933)
Otto Baschin (1865-1933)

Catchers of the Light: A History of Astrophotography by Stefan Hughes