Like many people, I can navigate round the main night sky constellations and pick out the brighter planets in a thoroughly amateur way. I can even manage to find obvious naked eye objects such as the Pleiades open cluster, which are breathtaking when looked at through binoculars.  But how did celestial bodies pick up their names?

The thought was at the back of my mind after a visit from Curtis Wong of Microsoft. Curtis looks after the development of WorldWide Telescope – a ridiculously brilliant website intended for desktop astronomy and science education. Peering over Curtis’s shoulder as he showed me his latest tweaks was quite a privilege, partly because Microsoft researchers have the kind of laptop you only ever see in movies. It’s the one that allows you to simultaneously command orbiting satellite weapons, change your identity and hack a Swiss bank account, rather than just order cat-food from Tesco.

Worldwide Telescope is more fun than any of these as it uses the very best stitched-together astronomical imagery to create a regressing virtual universe. If you want to coast through newly-born stars in the Orion nebula, this is the place to do it. Try it, but be warned, you may get the sad urge to yell “the engines Captain, they cannae take it!” at your computer screen.

Drawings of nebulae by John Herschel

Afterwards, we looked at the equally wonderful drawings of nebulae by Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) which have long been a collection favourite of mine. Herschel was particularly adept at capturing the most ethereal starlight in pencil, a feat which even he, an experienced observer, regarded as extremely difficult. The astronomer was occasionally critical of how lithographers translated his sketches into print, but the plates in “Observations of nebulae and clusters of stars made at Slough…” (Phil Trans 1833) are very fine. Herschel’s throwaway descriptions had genuine longevity too. Here he calls M.27 “a double-headed shot or dumb-bell” and it has been the Dumbbell Nebula ever since. The Black-eye nebula? Herschel’s father William showed a sketch of M.64 to the physician Charles Blagden who commented upon the resemblance, no doubt having seen one or two examples during his spell in the military.

Curious that the Herschels should be so successful in these off-the-cuff names and yet so terrible in the official nomenclature of astronomy. William Herschel’s new planet “Georgium Sidus” was patriotic but never likely to have much appeal in a revolutionary age.  Uranus (as it became) was named by Johann Elert Bode (1747-1846), proving once-and-for-all the superiority of the German sense of humour.

Our history of science lunchtime lecture series began on 17 September with Ian Ridpath’s sold-out talk “Pictures in the sky: the origin and history of the constellations” – follow this link to listen to a podcast of the lecture.

Look at Worldwide Telescope at http://www.worldwidetelescope.org/Home.aspx

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