Tuesday, 7 July 2009

From the surface of Mercury to Mars Hill



New Horizons. August 2001. Artwork commissioned for the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Pluto's horizon spans the foreground, looking past its moon, Charon, toward the distant, star-like Sun. Painting by Dan Durda..

I had come west from Roswell to Phoenix to visit my son in July, against his good advice. He referred to Phoenix in the summer as "The surface of Mercury"... OK, he was right, IT WAS HOT...but after a few days visit he accompanied us north to Prescott (which I just learned means priests cottage) for another family visit, and then up to Flagstaff.
While I was in Flagstaff I stopped by the Lowell Observatory to visit. This is the site H.P. Lowell had created as an observatory to study Mars and also to search for a planet he predicted was outside the other planets from the effects on the outer planets, He called this not-yet-found planet, Planet X.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, observers of Mars drew long straight lines that appeared on the surface between 60 degrees north and south of the martian equator. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli called these lines canali, which became canals in English. Lowell extended this observation to a theory that Mars had polar ice caps that would melt in the martian spring and fill the canals. He even extended the theory to include intelligent life on Mars that had designed the canals.

Eventually it became clear that there were no martian canals, but Mars hill went on to be the sight where a self educated Kansas schoolboy found his dream of working in astronomy in 1929, when the observatory director, V M Slipher,"handed the job of locating Planet X to Clyde Tombaugh, a 23-year-old Kansas man who had just arrived at the Lowell Observatory after Slipher had been impressed by a sample of his astronomical drawings." [keep astronomical drawings in mind, it matters to the story].
On the nights of Jan 23 and 30th of January, 1830, he found a planet in the images that he thought was the Planet X. "The discovery made front page news around the world. The Lowell Observatory, who had the right to name the new object, received over 1000 suggestions, from "Atlas" to "Zymal".[21] Tombaugh urged Slipher to suggest a name for the new object quickly before someone else did.[21] Name suggestions poured in from all over the world. Constance Lowell proposed Zeus, then Lowell, and finally her own first name. These suggestions were disregarded.[26]

The name "Pluto" was proposed by Venetia Burney (later Venetia Phair), an eleven-year-old schoolgirl in Oxford, England. Venetia was interested in classical mythology as well as astronomy, and considered the name, one of the alternate names of Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld, appropriate for such a presumably dark and cold world. She suggested it in a conversation with her grandfather Falconer Madan, a former librarian of Oxford University's Bodleian Library. Madan passed the name to Professor Herbert Hall Turner, who then cabled it to colleagues in America.
The object was officially named on March 24, 1930."

As I sat in the theater watching a video at the institute, a familiar name rolled across the credits...


The picture at the top of the blog is one of his commissioned works. Dan had been a student in my class the first year I taught advanced HS math. To say that I taught Dan would be a stretch, he had his head in the clouds long before he met me, and never lost his vision. Today he works at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, and is an expert on Asteroids. He even has one named for him, Asteroid 1992 YC3 named 6141 Durda.

Sometimes with the best ones, all you can hope to do is hold the light on the path they have already set for themselves, and help them go past.... Dan's dream was once to go cave diving on one of the porous asteroids he studies... I hope he makes it.... You Go DAN!
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