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M45, The Pleiades. Image: Filip Lolić.

An interview with Carmen Rush, local historian of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada—10.04.19 talk at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum

By Brian Carroll on October 1, 2019

Carmen Rush is the astronomy historian of the Ottawa Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). Her talks are some of the most popular at the Ottawa Centre’s meetings.

At the next meeting of the Ottawa RASC is on Friday, October 4th, Carmen Rush will give a talk about astronomer Charles Messier.

Apartment613 had the opportunity to interview Carmen Rush about her upcoming talk on Friday, October 4th at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Apt613: Who was Charles Messier?

Carmen Rush: He was a French astronomer in the 1700s, and he discovered many comets, which was a real feat in that time. He discovered 13 on his own, and studied, in great detail, 41 others. In doing so, he also put together a catalog of deep sky objects so he would not confuse them with comets. It has 110 objects listed and it is still used today.

So, Messier was a comet hunter. Why were comets so important in his day that kings and governments would employ full-time astronomers?

Comets were the source of great fear among the population. This was true over all civilizations because people did not understand what suddenly was appearing in the sky. In the scientific revolution that began in 1700s, there were academics who studied them in great detail and it became quite a competitive feat. Who was going to discover the next comet and track its path and discover where it was going to go?

It was very crucial to do things like that for a monarch because the going reputation of comets was that it foreshadowed, typically, the death of a monarch. So if an astronomer was on staff with a king, it was not only reassuring to him, but it was also very lucrative for the country because, discovering a comet came with great prestige. The comet discoverer would be admitted into various scientific societies.

Not only that, the astronomers were very good at designing equipment. So if a monarch was able to get an astronomer to design various spyglasses and small telescopes, it was very useful in warfare.

“I don’t try and deliver a lot of math and science because that’s not really the message I want to convey. What I’m trying to do is put science in historical context.”

Carmen Rush

First-timers, beginners and experienced astronomers alike listen attentively to your historical presentations at the Ottawa RASC. What do you do to satisfy those groups?

I don’t try and deliver a lot of math and science because that’s not really the message I want to convey. What I’m trying to do is put science in historical context.

The great thing about these biographies and these stories is fundamentally they appeal to everybody—because they are the story of the human condition where there is great conflict or difficulties that someone encounters in trying to set a goal for themselves. Many obstacles. In the end they persevere and triumph. Often, it’s the transformation of a victim into a hero. That sort of story resonates with everybody.

Also it’s very humbling to think that these people in the 1700s were capable of making such wonderful discoveries with no technology and things that we just take for granted in our society. It reminds us about the strength of human ingenuity.

One confusing thing for beginners is that some objects in the sky have multiple names. Some of these names are numbers preceded by a prefix: M, IC, NGC, HD. What is an astronomy catalog?

An astronomy catalog typically is a list of either deep sky objects or it can be of just basic stars. In the case of Messier, his 110 objects that he created in his Messier catalog were fuzzy objects that are typically galaxies or nebulae of some sort, that to him through his telescopes looked like a comet, but weren’t because they didn’t track the same way. So he just recorded them and made a list of them. Every one of those 110 objects is given a number and then the capital letter M in front of that number (M for Messier). That’s why typically you have M45 being the Pleiades.

M45, The Pleiades. Image: Filip Lolić.

“There were others as well. But the Messier catalog has great historical and, I would say, emotional attachment among all the people because of the story of his life.”

Messier had a contemporary rival. It was William Herschel who had much better equipment, and he was able to put together a much more comprehensive star catalog that was first called the general catalog and then later, as it was improved upon, the New General Catalog. It contained at first 2,000 elements and now I think it contains about 8,000. The NGC numbers are the New General Catalog and then the IC is the Index Catalog that was done in the late 1800s. It has about 5,000 objects.

It just depends on who was doing the catalog at the time. There were others as well. But the Messier catalog has great historical and, I would say, emotional attachment among all the people because of the story of his life.

Messier was a comet hunter… Why did he create a catalog of fuzzy objects?

It wasn’t really his intention at first. He just got so frustrated with having to dodge around these objects that previously he had studied only to determine that they were not comets. He decided just to make a list of them. He never really intended it to be a comprehensive catalog.

First of all, he realized his equipment was not too good. He was resigned for a long time to work under the umbrella of an astronomer called DeLisle who did not have very great equipment.

He was also working in very difficult times. The French Revolution came in the middle of that.

He basically did it as a help to other comet hunters so that they would not trip over these same objects all the time when they were looking for comets.

But they do have a lot of significance. He didn’t discover them all. He did discover some of the objects, but a lot of them were well known over the centuries. For example, M1 is the Crab Nebula that was discovered already in 1054 by the Chinese. He just very accurately tracked its position and recorded it, which was something that was not really done at that time.

As far as Messier was concerned, his list of “fuzzy objects” was a discard list—things that weren’t comets. But modern astronomers find them both attractive and scientifically significant. What kind of things are the Messier objects?

There are 110 objects.

A large number of them—38—are galaxies.

28 are something called a globular cluster, which is a cluster of stars that rotate around a common centre point, gravitationally, that tends to hold a spherical shape.

Others are nebulous, open clusters, which are the same kind of idea except that the stars don’t form a circular pattern.

Four are planetary nebulae, which are these gaseous clouds that look like a planet, but they aren’t. They’re remnants of an explosion of a star or other things.

One of them, in fact, is our Milky Way. That’s M24. It’s the Milky Way star cloud.

And the Crab Nebula (M1) is a remnant of a supernova explosion.

M1, The Crab Nebula. Photo: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

We tend to celebrate the successes of famous people. But, as comet hunter David Levy says, failure makes success sweeter. Most lives are not all sweetness and light. Often in your talks the most interesting details are how your protagonists hit rough spots in their careers, and how they overcame or bypassed them. Can you give an example from Messier’s life?

Messier came from a family of 12 children and his father died when he was very young. So his oldest brother had to go to work immediately. Messier never ended up getting formal schooling. He was tutored as best as his older brother could do at home. That was actually a great impediment to him to get ahead in the scientific world because, to get into scientific societies, people immediately wanted to see what his credentials were. Even though he was very successful in finding these comets and studied a lot as he went.

It was a great impediment to his whole life. It took him until he was 40 years old for the government of France and the king of the day to recognize that he actually deserved accolades. Again, it’s a study of hardship but perseverance, because in the end he got where he wanted to go and it’s a source of inspiration.

You mentioned something else: he was alive at the time of the French Revolution. Can you tell us something about that?

He basically lost everything. The equipment he was using with some of his other partners was scrutinized by the army. Because it was telescopes, they thought they were spies. Most of the equipment was destroyed. They were forced to go into exile. It was only afterward that Napoleon, of all people, recognized his talents and gave him the Legion of Honour after the Revolution was over.

And one of his closest scientific friends was guillotined.

Is there a question I should have asked?

Maybe what started my giving talks?

I’m a retired math high school teacher. I was always aware of a lot of these names because, in a lot of math textbooks, usually in the margin beside the exercises, they would have some kind of little historical fact about some of these scientists.

When I joined the club (the RASC), I thought, there’s a lot of various scientific talk going on in these meetings, but who are these people? I just started doing my own reading and thought, bravely, one day I think I’ll give a talk.

I found it so inspiring also to think that these people lived hundreds of years ago and yet look at what they did! We pride ourselves on rivalling them. But most of what we’re doing is thanks to our equipment.

Carmen Rush will present her talk about Charles Messier during the next meeting of the Ottawa Centre of the RASC at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Friday October 4th at 7:30pm. For more information see the Ottawa RASC website. The meeting is open to the public. Admission to the meeting is free. Parking at the museum is $4.