Seth Barnes Nicholson

American astronomer Seth Barnes Nicholson was born 130 years ago this day in Springfield, Illinois on November 12, 1891. He attended Drake University in Des Moines from 1908-1912, receiving a B.S. degree in physics (with an astronomy emphasis) in 1912. At Drake, Nicholson was inspired to pursue a career in astronomy by Prof. D. W. Morehouse (then astronomy professor and later president of Drake University). He went on to obtain a Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of California in 1915.

Even though Nicholson died in 1963, he held the distinction until the year 2000 of discovering more moons of Jupiter than anyone since Galileo. Both men discovered four satellites each. Their record has now been surpassed. Graduate student Scott Sheppard and his colleagues at the University of Hawaii discovered 10 new moons of Jupiter in 2000 using an 88-inch telescope and a sensitive CCD camera atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Jupiter is now known to harbor 79 moons.

While at Drake, undergraduates Seth Nicholson and his wife-to-be Alma Stotts calculated the orbit of an asteroid discovered by Joel Metcalf in 1909. In those days before electronic computers, the privilege of naming an asteroid usually went not to the discoverer but to the person calculating its orbit! So, in 1911, the asteroid became known as 694 Ekard—which is “Drake” spelled backwards. One wonders why they didn’t choose the name Drake, because not until 2001 was an asteroid given that name. 9022 Drake was discovered in 1988 by Carolyn & Eugene Shoemaker and it is named after Michael J. Drake (1946-2011). Discovered just a year later—though numbered earlier (requires an accurate orbit)—and receiving a name only in 2015, asteroid 4772 Frankdrake is named after SETI pioneer Frank Drake (1930-).