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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Through Rugged Ways to the Stars

Through Rugged Ways to the Stars - Harlow Shapley If I were offered the option of going back in time and living the life of a person other than myself, I think I would choose to be Harlow Shapley. Of course I would need to be provided his intelligence, energy and personality to make it work. He experienced the adventure of being on the cutting edge of scientific discovery, traveled and lectured throughout the world, rubbed shoulders with luminaries such as Albert Einstein, lived a varied and interesting life, and even got in trouble with the House On Un-American Activities Committee (which I consider to be a badge of honor). Then he gave a speech in 1967 that is remembered over 40 years later by a student who was in the audience (see end of this review for an explanation of this).

I learned about Shapley from the book, The Day We Found The Universe, which prompted me to search for this autobiography by Shapley written near the end of his life. His personality as a good story teller comes through in this autobiography. The book is based largely on his oral recollections recorded on tape.

He grew up in rural Missouri about 15 miles from Lamar. Interestingly, Hubble was from Missouri too, but Hubble spent his life trying to forget about where he came from. Shapley in contrast was proud of his humble rural past.

With only a grade school education (actually the equivalent of only 5th grade) and a couple months of business school training (where he learned short-hand) he got a job as a reporter for a newspaper in Chaute, Kansas. After several years, and several different jobs, he decided to enroll in the new School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. But when he got there he learned that the opening of that department had been delayed a year. So he had to find an alternative major. So on the spot he opened the course catalog and turned to the beginning and saw the word "Archaeology" which he didn't know how to pronounce. So he turned to the next page and saw the word "Astronomy" which he did know how to pronounce. So he enrolled in astronomy. And the rest is history.

He was obviously very intelligent and well liked by all who met him. (Later in life there were a few people who didn't like him, one of whom was Edwin Hubble.) Shapley would have been a success at whatever field he chose. It just happened to be astronomy. He seemed to be interested in anything that crossed his path. He had a life long interest in cataloging plant species and types of ants. Even though he had no formal training in myrmecology, he actually had some of his research findings published in science journals based on his hobby of observing of the relationship between temperature and the speed of the ants. He found that he could determine the air temperature within the accuracy of one degree by measuring the speed at which the ants were moving. He admits that another way is to look at a thermometer.

From MU he went to Princeton to get his PhD. Then he married a girl from Kansas City and moved to California to work at the Wilson Observatory near Pasadena. His wife was "good with figures" and helped him calculate astronomical orbits on their honeymoon trip to California. The couple must have been a match made in heaven.

His major contribution to the field of astronomy was to determine the size of the Milky Way Galaxy and the fact that the earth was not in the center of the Galaxy. Many have wondered why he didn't go on to determine the distances to the other galaxies. There are a variety of reasons, one of which is that he was promoted too soom. It can be argued that if he had stayed at the Wilson Observatory in California where he made his early findings, he would have gone on to the make many of the same findings that Hubble ended up making. But he became the director of the Harvard Observatory at a young age. And since he was at Harvard, he no longer had access to the necessary equipment to continue that work.

Another reason Shapley didn't pursue the issue of the distance to other galaxies was that he accepted the findings of his friend, Van Maanen, which indicated that their distances were about to the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy. Van Maanen's observations were later found to be bogus.

Shapley can be considered to be the modern Copernicus for determining that the earth's sun is not located at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. My favorite quotation by Harlow Shapley is:
"The solar system is off center and consequently man is too."

Here's another famous quotation of his:
'Some piously record "In the beginning God", but I say "In the beginning hydrogen".'

I think I'll start a campaign to change the name of the Hubble Telescope to the Shapley Telescope.

Perhaps I'm a fan of Shapley's because I met him once. I heard Shapley give a talk over 40 years ago when I was a student in college. He was an old man and retired by then (he would have been about 80), but I remember him to be a most charming and interesting story teller. I remember him telling a story about some astronomer he knew who gave a speech and afterward was harassed by a woman who wanted to know what was beyond the edge of space. She wasn't satisfied with any of the answers being given so she finally demanded to know what would happen if she went to the edge of space and stuck her hand through it. The astronomer replied, "Lady, I wish you would!"