Archive for March 1st, 2020

Monthly Science: Maria Mitchell Astronomy Notebooks

Back in 2016, the Special Collection Library at Vassar put on Seeing the Sun: Maria Mitchell’s Observations, 1868-1888, an exhibit featuring materials from her tenure as Vassar’s astronomer, including several notebooks of observations and calculations. Being that type of guy, I spent quite a while pondering the effort required to do science.

Perhaps this notebook appeared in the exhibit:

Mitchell 8.6 - Longitude computations of occultations 1872-1875
Mitchell 8.6 – Longitude computations of occultations 1872-1875

Here’s what “calculations” looked like in 1872:

Mitchell 8.6 p9 - Occultation of 1253 BAC at 11 hrs - calculation
Mitchell 8.6 p9 – Occultation of 1253 BAC at 11 hrs – calculation

Yeah, grinding out trigonometry by hand using seven-place logarithms:

Mitchell 8.6 p9 - Occultation of 1253 BAC at 11 hrs - calculation detail 1
Mitchell 8.6 p9 – Occultation of 1253 BAC at 11 hrs – calculation detail 1

Not just by hand, but by hand with pen and ink:

Mitchell 8.6 p9 - Occultation of 1253 BAC at 11 hrs - calculation detail 2
Mitchell 8.6 p9 – Occultation of 1253 BAC at 11 hrs – calculation detail 2

Although you’ll find an occasional ink blot, she was probably using a fountain pen, rather than a dip pen, and made very few mistakes along the way. She often recorded direct instrument observations in pencil.

The next time you start pissing & moaning about how hard solid modeling is, suck it up.

Bonus: a Ginger Snap recipe suggesting it wasn’t all toil & trouble in the observatory:

Mitchell 7.5 - Ginger Snap recipe
Mitchell 7.5 – Ginger Snap recipe

The mystery ingredient is saleratus, “aerated salt”, now known as baking soda; they used potassium bicarbonate before today’s sodium bicarbonate.

I spent several pleasant hours browsing through selected notebooks in search of computations, taking pictures of pages under field conditions in ambient light. All images from Maria Mitchell Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries.

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