Back in the late 19th century, when astrophotography was still in its infancy, stargazers had to get creative if they wanted to take snapshots of the heavens. Luckily, there were people around like Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, a talented French artist with a penchant for astronomy. Trouvelot moved to the States with his family when he was in his 20s, and is probably best known for an unfortunate incident in which he introduced the gypsy moth into North America – now a notorious pest of hardwood trees.
The upside of this mishap, though, was that Trouvelot turned to astronomy and began to draw what he saw in the night sky. For some of his illustrations – the close-ups of the planets and the Moon, for example – Trouvelot used some of the most powerful telescopes available at the time, such as the 26″ refractor at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.. For others, like his depictions of the comet and the meteor shower, Trouvelot just drew what he observed with his naked eye.
In 1882, the artist published fifteen of his drawings in a book – the Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings Manual. Here are some of my favourites, starting off with a stunning aurora and a Cyclops-esque Jupiter:
The aurora borealis (Northern Lights), observed 1st March 1872
The planet Jupiter, observed 1st November 1880
Ever wondered what the difference is between meteorites, meteors and meteoroids? In this 12-minute ode to her astrophysicist sister, “Emily”, Joanna Newsom attempts to explain:
“The meteorite is a source of the light / And the meteor’s just what we see / And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee.”
The only problem is that Joanna’s got meteorites and meteoroids mixed up. Meteoroids are small chunks of rock and debris in the Solar System. In other words, they’re the “source of the light” because they glow if they fall through a planet’s atmosphere. If a meteoroid reaches the Earth’s surface and survives impact, it becomes known as a meteorite – a dull stone, “devoid of fire”. A meteor is just the visible path of a meteoroid as it passes through a planet’s atmosphere (a shooting star), so she got that one right.
But does anyone really care about this little mix-up? Probably not. And in any case, a small amount of artistic license is quickly forgiven when the song’s as beautiful as this one.
Click here to read all of the previous “Songs of Science” posts.