Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Welsh astronomers

On Saturday, I'm going to drive to Carmarthenshire in Wales because it's a full moon on Sunday and I want to know more about Sir William Lower.

Around 1609-1610, Lower was observing the Moon in Traventi, south Wales (Lower was in Wales, not the Moon), while a couple of hundred miles away, a man whose name has been all over the news recently was making his first crude sketches of our cratered friend.

Thomas Harriot has become a celebrity in the last few months.

Here he is poised to eat a strawberry

Rumour has it Mr Harriot sketched the Moon, through his "Dutch trunke" (a telescope, honest), on 26 July 1609. That's a few months before our old friend Galileo Galilei did the same thing.

But what about William Lower and the Carmarthenshire astronomers?

Well, at the moment I know just a little. At Astrofest 2009, I listened to a riveting talk given by Dr Allan Chapman, the scientific historian. Of course that was a few months ago and since I've forgotten most of it. But I remember the salient points.

William Lower and his 17th-century Welsh colleagues played a very important role in mapping the moon. They were in correspondence with Thomas Harriot, right up to - and I'd guess through - the time Harriot made (and, it seems, didn't file very well) his sketches. The first of an astronomical body through a telescope.

Here's what Lower wrote to Harriot on February 6, 1610, likening his view of the moon through his telescope...
unto the description of coasts, in the dutch bookes of voyages. In the full she appears like a tarte that my cook made me last weeke. Here a vain of bright stuffe, and there darke.

So the Welsh astronomers helped greatly yet remain largely unknown. Let my investigations begin!

(Quick story - Thomas Harriot is also credited with bringing the potato back from the Americas (eat your core out, Sir Walter). And designing the first crinkle oven chip (that's a joke). But he also has another first pencilled beside his name. The first man to die from cancer caused by tobacco - keen as he was on the new plant brought back on his travels. How much of this is true, who knows? But he sounds like a bit of a character. I mean who else would pose for a portrait holding a strawberry? The lemon.)

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