Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Beautiful Shadows Of History

Earlier today I was flipping around the internet looking up some astronomy things and I accidently saw this picture of a famous (among astronomers!) old map of the Moon:

It’s a pretty cool old map, from around 1679. I saw it today at a site about Galileo.

There’s an interesting story to the history of this map. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the story anywhere on the net to provide a link. But I do have a real-world reference I’ll leave at the end of this post. Normally I don’t like to post about something without a good link, but this is a cool story I want to mention because it touches on some topics I frequently post about. And I think about this story a lot so it’s only right that the story appears here on the blog somewhere.

Today’s that somewhere.

Okay, so, the guy that supervised the drawing and engraving of that map was an amazing Italian astronomer, Giovanni Cassini. He spent much of his career in France working directly for the King. He accomplished so much that scientists today name big budget spacecraft after him.

One of Cassini’s jobs in France was to create a very good map of the Moon. It wasn’t just for the love of astronomy. The French Navy, and French shipping lines, of course, had doings all around the globe and there is an obscure technique to determine longitude based on observing the lunar terminator moving over known craters on the Moon. But it only works if you have a very good map of the Moon. So, that became one of Cassini’s jobs.

Anyway, when Cassini was doing science in France, he fell in love with a French woman who was an aristocrat, named Genevieve de Laistre. Apparently in France in those days marriage between a French woman aristocrat and a guy who wasn’t even a French citizen was one of those things that Just Was Not Done.

But Cassini became so well-known as a “French” astronomer that eventually he asked the King to make him a French citizen and the King consented. So Cassini became a French citizen and Genevieve de Laistre married him and they had three children and—for all we know—they lived happily ever after.

Just like a fairy tale.

So far as we know. French historians love this kind of thing and if Cassini’s wife had left behind a diary I suspect it would be public record by now. So nobody knows for sure if the marriage was a good one, but, by the same token, there is no evidence that it was a bad one. [History is like shadows! Is There A Shadow On My Bedroom Wall?]

That last paragraph is not exactly the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

There is a little bit of indirect evidence that supports the notion that their love was pretty intense and that they may have been happy together.

On the Moon there is an area on the edge of a large crater that looks a little odd. Random geologic changes have caused chunks of mountain to fall away in some places and remain standing in other places. It’s so large that it’s easy to see even in amateur telescopes. It’s a rock promontory jutting into a lunar mare, and it has a name: Promontorium Heraclides.

In modern terms, it’s near Mare Imbrium, close to Sinus Iridum. In real life it is, sort of, “up and to the left” on the Moon. On Cassini’s map it is oriented down and to the right.

On the map Cassini created—he closely supervised a couple of artists doing the drawing and another artist to do the engraving—the Promontorium Heraclides is depicted like this:

Pretty beautiful, isn’t it?

In real life it’s just a vague outcropping of rocks.

One of the most famous astronomers in history instructed his staff artists to depict the promontory as the profile of a particularly beautiful woman.

Nobody knows for sure who was the model for the woman’s profile. Christina of Sweden was a friend of Cassini, but most people believe Cassini never would have dared to offend the French Queen. And most people believe it would have been too bold of Cassini to have modeled the French Queen herself.

It’s generally believed that the model for the beautiful so-called Moon Maiden was Cassini’s wife herself, Genevieve de Laistre. Her contemporaries wrote of her as a great beauty. And people who have seen the one known drawing of Genevieve de Laistre say her profile does appear similar to the engraving on the map.

What a tribute to your love. Leaving a woman’s image on one of the most famous scientific documents in existence.

I always wonder: Does this stuff still happen today? Anywhere in the world?

A long time ago I posted about how the astronomer who discovered Pluto’s first moon named it after his wife. But scientific conventions forced him to do it in a very roundabout way.

Nowadays it seems this kind of personalized, very human content has been completely removed from the science world.

Doesn’t seem like a good thing to me. And I wonder: Why has it happened? I mean, what or who does it hurt to have human touches become part of the world of science?

I really like stuff like this. And I think about it all the time.

We—I mean, the current generations—will leave to the future endless images of celebrities of various kinds. But almost all the celebrities of the current world are characters who have generated a lot of money for one or another corporation. Or characters who have shaped public thinking for one or another powerful political bloc.

The “simple” notion that a person could become a historical figure, or even an image, “just” because they are or were passionately loved by someone seems to be lost. Almost even inconceivable now.

Seems to me to be one of the good things that got lost in all the revolutions and progress that have shaped the modern world.

I’d bring it back. If I could.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

There is an overview of this story
written by Francoise Launay and William Sheehan
in the
September 2010 issue
Sky & Telescope magazine


Sense Of Place

Reduction Of The Muse

The Muse Ship

Jeanne H├ębuterne — Art As A Grail

Thinking About Arranging “Layla”

The Question Clarisse Asks Montag

Wednesday Addendum:

In my post Sense Of Place I included
a simple photo of the Moon taken
with my little point-and-shoot camera.
Even on such a low-res view (something
like 10x binoculars), you can see
the general area containing

Promontorium Heraclides. Here is
the pic, with an arrow:

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