The 85th episode of The Sopranos, from its sixth season, is titled “Blue Comet” because one of its protagonists, a mobster fond of toy trains, is about to purchase one with that name when he gets murdered. The Blue Comet was a passenger railroad – painted blue, obviously – that linked New Jersey with Atlantic City between 1929 and 1941, offering luxury service at a tourist price. Well, one of its baggage cars was named Barnard in homage to an astronomer who lived between the 19th and 20th centuries, during which he discovered fifteen comets, the fifth nearest star to Earth, a new moon of Jupiter, and much more: his name was Edward Emerson Barnard, and today he is remembered as the greatest observational astronomer in history.

In fact, the name might ring a bell to more than one astronomy enthusiast because he is remembered with numerous eponyms, from a lunar crater to one on Mars, passing through an asteroid, a region of Ganymede (the largest satellite of the Solar System, belonging to Jupiter), a star, a nebula in Orion, and even a galaxy. Several things on our planet have also been named Barnard, such as a mountain in California, an astronomical society, a university residence, or the aforementioned railroad.

He was born in late 1857 in Nashville, a city in the U.S. state of Tennessee, to Reuben Barnard and Elizabeth Jane Haywood. It was a modest family that couldn’t provide him and his brother with a formal education, which became evident very early on because their father died three months after Barnard’s birth, leaving the widow with scarce resources. As was common at the time, Edward had to start working from a young age to help with the household economy; he began at the age of nine as an assistant to a photographer.

Photograph of the lunar crater Barnard
Photograph of the lunar crater Barnard. Credit: James Stuby / NASA / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

That first job sparked his interest in photography and shaped his professional orientation more than he would imagine, as we will see. From that hobby turned livelihood, he also began to develop an interest in astronomy. Still a child, he made a telescope out of a broken old spyglass, with which he made his first observations, still not knowing what he was seeing. This began to change when a friend gifted him a copy of “The practical astronomer”, through which he expanded his readings on the subject.

He even dedicated part of his salary to hire a mathematics tutor to cover his deficient education. By 1876, he had acquired enough knowledge to buy a 130mm refracting telescope (a model whose operation is based on the refraction of light through a group of lenses, causing parallel rays from a distant object to converge onto a point in the focal plane) with which in 1881, he made his first discovery: a comet. At that time, Barnard did not officially communicate this finding, so it was not accredited.

That oversight cost him two hundred dollars, the money that entrepreneur and philanthropist Hulbert Harrington Warner, sponsor of an observatory in Richmond, paid to each astronomer who found a new celestial body. But he soon made up for it because that same year he discovered another comet, and the next year, a third. In the end, it proved to be a fruitful decade for him in every way, as he would sight up to five more comets that he did get paid for, along with the previous ones, now claimed.

Portrait of Barnard in 1866, at the age of nine
Portrait of Barnard in 1866, at the age of nine. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

With that money, he bought a house in Nashville—dubbed The Comet House in jest by his friends—where he lived with his wife, as he had married a younger British girl named Rhoda Calvert. His profession was still that of a photographer, but he could afford to open his own studio, mainly dedicated to portraits. However, astronomy was shaping up to be his great passion; to the point that he soon became a reference in the amateur world. His colleagues, realizing this, lamented that he had not received formal education and decided to help him.

Together, they carried out a collection with which they raised enough money to pay for his university studies, which he completed by obtaining a scholarship that allowed him to continue his mathematics degree. He couldn’t finish it, but the institution where he studied, Vanderbilt University (a private university founded in Nashville in 1873 and sponsored by magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, which saw five Nobel laureates, two Pulitzers, and two U.S. vice presidents pass through its doors, one of them being Al Gore), would grant him the only honorary degree it has ever given.

Some sources say he never completed the degree, while others say he graduated and joined the faculty. In any case, he soon left the university to join the Lick Observatory, an astronomical observatory that the University of California has on top of Mount Hamilton. Founded by millionaire James Lick in 1888, the facilities were equipped with a refracting telescope, the largest in the world at that time thanks to the 91 cm diameter of its lenses. It was the perfect tool for Barnard to resume his sightings on an even larger scale, and indeed, he expanded his curriculum of discovered asteroids to fifteen. Although, in reality, he had never stopped doing so.

Image of comet Brooks obtained by Barnard in 1886
Image of comet Brooks obtained by Barnard in 1886. Credit: Edward Emerson Barnard / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

For example, in 1882, still a mere amateur as the observatory was still being finalized, he observed the gegenschein (the antisolar light, a faint glow of the night sky in the region of the ecliptic visible in the opposite direction of the Sun), a phenomenon that had been discovered by the Danish Theodor Brorsen twenty-eight years earlier, only he didn’t know it. But what he did know was photography, and he began to apply that knowledge to improving the telescope’s lenses, enhancing its performance, and to the subsequent treatment of images.

His dedication was absolute and enthusiastic (he didn’t even realize how much time he spent, and he would later star in a curious anecdote: one morning he showed up to work with his nose raw because it had frozen to the ocular). The fact is that the Lick telescope allowed him to see in 1889 a shadow on Iapetus (a moon of Saturn) as it passed behind the planet’s rings. He didn’t know it then, but he had just observed the spokes of Saturn, shadows that run perpendicular to the circular paths of the rings and whose existence could not be confirmed until a century later, thanks to images sent by Voyager I.

In 1892, Barnard was observing a nova (a sudden flash of electromagnetic radiation caused by two stars that was once considered the birth of a new one, hence the name) and noticed the gaseous emissions it produced, for him evidence of a stellar explosion. But he barely had time to analyze each discovery because they came almost one after the other, and shortly after, he noted another, Amalthea, Jupiter’s fifth moon; it was the first satellite of that planet sighted since Galileo Galilei recorded four in 1610 and was the last one overall detected by simple visual observation.

Mount Hamilton's Lick Observatory with its telescope, in an 1891 print
Mount Hamilton’s Lick Observatory with its telescope, in an 1891 print. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

However, his stay in California did not last much longer because he had a confrontation with the director of the center, Edward Singleton Holden, a prestigious astronomer and mathematician from a military background who could also boast of a good number of discoveries (twenty-two, to be exact). They clashed over who spent more time at the telescope and Holden’s ugly habit of taking credit for others’ merits. Consequently, Barnard chose to leave, and in 1895, he accepted a position as a professor of astronomy at the University of Chicago.

There, he could use the nearby telescope of the Yerkes Observatory, located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. In 1897, the refracting telescope of this observatory – founded by magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes – was equipped with a 101 cm lens, surpassing that of Lick and constituting quite a treat for its users. On the night following the installation’s debut, even before it was officially inaugurated, Barnard discovered a companion star of Vega (which, located in the constellation of Lyra, is the fifth brightest star in the night sky).

The powerful apparatus also allowed Barnard to see craters on the surface of Mars; something so unusual then that he preferred to keep it secret fearing ridicule. This fear of ridicule is somewhat surprising considering the curriculum of awards and honors he had already accumulated: that same year, the British Royal Astronomical Society awarded him the Gold Medal, adding to the Lalande Prize he had received from the French Académie des Sciences in 1892, the same year he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The tlescope at Yerkes Observatory in 1901
The tlescope at Yerkes Observatory in 1901. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

All of that was almost cut short by an obituary three days later, on May 28 of that year, if an unfortunate episode had ended as tragically as it could have. After midnight, Barnard, who had been photographing the M17 nebula with his assistant, decided to leave, leaving the observation platform (a circular structure that formed the false floor of the observatory and could be raised) at its maximum height, eleven and a half meters, so that the technicians would find it ready to work the next day. But one of the steel cables holding it up gave way, and everything collapsed. Since it was empty, there were no injuries, although it took seven months of repairs before a reopening ceremony could be held.

As can be deduced, Barnard’s work there consisted of photographing the Milky Way, and he dedicated himself to it alongside his colleague Max Wolf, an astronomer who would discover no less than two hundred and forty-eight asteroids and who was a pioneer in the application of astronomical photography to automate asteroid discovery, as opposed to the classic visual method (using long-exposure photos where asteroids appear as short lines, due to their movement relative to the fixed background of stars, facilitating their detection). Together, they discovered that certain dark regions of the galaxy were actually clouds of gas and dust obscuring the most distant stars from the background.

As we saw, Barnard had already tested the astrophotographic technique when he was at the Lick Observatory, and indeed, he found comet D/1892 T1 with it, the first one sighted by photography, although it was considered a lost comet (one that is not detected during its last passage through perihelion, the point in a celestial body’s orbit closest to the Sun), as happened with 177P/Barnard, not rediscovered until 2014 and 2008 respectively. But that scientist’s work was not limited to asteroids.

Late portrait of Barnard
Late portrait of Barnard. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The nebulas discovered with his astrophotographs were compiled in the Barnard Catalogue of Dark Markings in the Sky (“Barnard Catalogue” for short); the first edition, from 1919, contained one hundred and eighty-two; the posthumous one, edited in 1927, three hundred and sixty-nine. Most were dark nebulas; but there were also bright and gaseous ones, like the Rho Ophiuchi cloud (a giant molecular cloud illuminated by the star Antares).

For fifteen years, between 1900 and 1915, he also applied colorimetry (a chemical method to measure the wavelength in which a specific color can be perceived by the human eye) to images of stars in star clusters, which allowed him to discover that M13 (Messier 13, the globular cluster in the constellation of Hercules) had two types of stars: red giants and white dwarfs. Similarly, he was able to find variable stars in globular clusters and measure the period of some of them.

In 1916, the same techniques helped him find, in the constellation of Ophiuchus and a little larger than Jupiter, a red dwarf star of spectral type that exhibits a high annual proper motion and a brightness too faint to be seen with the naked eye. It is the fifth closest to Earth (behind the Sun and the three that form the Alpha Centauri system) and one of the oldest in our galaxy, now known as Barnard’s Star (or V2500 Ophiuchi, in terms of variability), with scientific controversy over whether it has any planets orbiting around it.

Edward Emerson Barnard, who had been admitted to the American Philosophical Society in 1905, received more distinctions, including the Prix Jules Janssen from the Société Astronomique de France (in 1906) and the prestigious Bruce Medal from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (in 1917). He died in 1923 in Williams Bay, where he had traveled again to use the Yerkes Observatory telescope at the invitation of its new director since 1905, Edwin Brant Frost. He was buried in his native Nashville, his posthumous work being the aforementioned Catalogue, in whose edition his niece Mary R. Calvert (who was an astrophotographer and had been helping him since 1905) and the aforementioned Frost collaborated.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 19, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Edward Emerson Barnard, el astrónomo con mejor vista de la historia


William Sheehan, The immortal fire within. The life and work of Edward Emerson Barnard | Timothy Ferris, Seeing in the dark. How amateur astronomers are discovering the wonder | Dean Miller, Astronomers and cosmologists | Florence M. Kelleher, Edward Emerson Barnard 1857-1923 | Wikipedia

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