Gentleman Astronomers

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Gentleman Astronomers

Modern astronomy is a job for professionals. Amateurs discover comets and make many other contributions. But most of the cutting-edge research is done by professional scientists using expensive telescopes and other equipment.

In the not-so-distant past, though, many major discoveries were made by “gentleman astronomers” — rich men who built their own telescopes and shared a passion for the stars.

That was especially true in Britain. There wasn’t much public money for telescopes, and only a handful of men made their living as full-time astronomers.

In fact, the Royal Astronomical Society was dominated by amateurs — doctors, lawyers, clergymen, and industrialists who had the time, money, and desire to study the heavens. They built entire observatories — sometimes in England, sometimes in parts of the globe with better climates for skywatching.

In 1845, William Parsons, the Earle of Rosse, built the largest telescope in the world at his estate in Ireland. Its mirror was six feet across, and the 60-foot tube was maneuvered by ropes, pulleys, and cranes. With this behemoth, Parsons drew beautiful sketches of galaxies, and suggested they were “cities of stars” beyond the Milky Way.

And in 1846, beer baron William Lassell discovered Triton, the largest moon of the planet Neptune, with a telescope of his own design. We’ll have more about this “gentleman astronomer” tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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