Saturday, October 10, 2009

Look! Up in the Sky...

A NASA news item caught my eye this week. On Oct. 12th, NASA’s Cassini-Huygens probe will fly by Saturn’s moon, Titan. Titan has been described as similar to a “frozen Earth” prior to the arrival of life forms. The Huygens probe is actually on Titan’s surface and on Monday, the Cassini orbiter will pass by to take new readings.

The word moon reminded me of a story I did here a while back. While working on my family tree, I discovered a famous cousin; Sir William Huggins. Sir William was an English astronomer credited with the discovery of Spectrum analysis. Later that same year, he developed a new technique allowing for longer exposures of light, which enabled him to photograph celestial objects previously invisible to the naked eye. Sir William’s techniques and research revolutionized observational astronomy. Two craters, one on the Moon, the other on Mars, as well as an asteroid referred to as “Minor Planet #2635” were named after him. I’ve even looked at them, courtesy of Google Earth.

So what does that have to do with the Saturn’s moon, Titan?

Think! my brain prodded. There’s a clue there. Look again. Closer.

What originally caught my eye about the NASA story was the name of the probe for this mission: Cassini-Huygens. Christiaan Huygens was a Dutch mathematician born in 1629, who one day became interested in building a better telescope lens. In 1655, less than two years after working on improving the telescope lens, Huygens detected the first moon of Saturn. Titan. The following year he discovered the true shape of the planet’s rings. Since working in astronomy required accurate timekeeping, by 1656 Huygens had patented the first pendulum clock. In 1663 he became a member the Royal Society in London and by 1689 had moved to England permanently. Huygens even has a crater named for him on Mars. In his final years, Huygens wrote one of the earliest discussions of extraterrestrial life, which was published after his death in 1698.

Hmmm. A Dutch Scientist, eyes searching skyward, who’d moved to England and had a crater named after him.

The light bulb over my head lit up.

During my family tree research I’d found a book written by the son of my 4xs great uncle. One passage discussed a letter to that uncle from Sir William concerning the origins of the family name. According to Sir William, Huggins had originally been…


The name was Dutch. The Huygens had fled their homeland for England to avoid religious persecution. The spelling would one day change, but the cycle would repeat when the clan fled England for America… for the same reason.

Have I been able to connect the two men, genealogically speaking? No. Not yet. Of course my curiosity will continue to make me dig. So far I’ve discovered both men were members of the Royal Society in England. Sir William even served as President of the Society from 1900-06. Who knows what else they may have in common?

Is it coincidence that I stumbled upon this news story? After all, there were many stories in the paper that day. Is it mere coincidence that two scientists, eyes trained on the sky, share a name with a common history, a love of the stars and the curiosity to want to see things more clearly? What are the odds that BOTH would have a crater named after them on Mars?

Have I mentioned I don’t believe in coincidences?

They looked up, so I’m going to go look up more about their life stories. While I’ll never live up to that caliber of scientific importance, I’d like to think we still share that same sense of wonder. That need to know WHY? What IS the rest of the story?

From now on, if anyone ever says I’m a little spacey, I believe I’ll take that as a compliment.


Susan at Stony River said...

Oh Hope you're so spacey ROFL
Yes it IS a compliment -- Sir William's a fascinating cousin to have, and wow, if you could connect with Huygens, how cool would that be?

Wouldn't hurt that application to Starfleet Academy either.

Titus said...

No way! Yes way!
I love this space stuff, and I love the way you share the things you find out.
I so want a telescope. One of those really big ones whose roof opens. In the Andes.

On a slightly less scientific note, Titan was where Judge Dredd sent very bad criminals to in his weekly story in "2000AD" (a British Comic, though I believe Mr Stallone got the role when they made a film).

Keep on searching, and good luck.
And spacey? In the best possible way.

Anonymous said...

What a great story! And what a great name - Sir William Huggins. How quintessentially English - but Dutch!

the broken down barman said...

sorry. got in from work and had a bit of a kings of leon binge. started to read yer blog, but aint got any attention span at all!! will be back!!

the broken down barman said...

dont even know why i left a comment!!

Jimmy Bastard said...

I was slightly lost in space myself until you entertained me with this rather interesting piece.

Thank's for that.

Bill ~ {The Old Fart} said...

I wouldn't call you Spacey, you are far above that.

Good luck on your Adventures in Space

hope said...

Susan, would you believe I FOUND a copy of Huygens paper on ETs? Can't wait to get a chance to read it. As for Starfleet, all I can hear is Dr. McCoy looking at me and saying, "You're too short. Damn it woman, I'm not a miracle worker!" :)

Titus...the adventure continues. :)

Matthew, I do worry that my sense of curiosity might get the better of me one day but hey, least it's nice to know SOMEONE in my family contributed to society....other than paying taxes. :)

Barman, I know. Lots of info. Take a nap first.

Jimmy! Glad to see you back in cyberspace....maybe they'll name a crater on Mars for you as well for your stellar blog. ;)

Thanks Bill. You know I will continue to bore you people with what I find. :)

mapstew said...

I'm told my Grandfather (on my Ma's side) is from the actual moon!
Though many think he was a more distant relative!

Peggy said...

Spacey are my favorite type of people. More like takes one to know one.
,,,and two craters and an asteroid named after your cousin. Huygens just sounds smart..I think this is great and fascinating to pursue.
Now whenever I look up to wish upon a star i'll think of those craters and asteroids.

Dr.John said...

I certainly learned a lot.

hope said...

Ah Map, I think we all have a relative like that. Glad you chose to stay on this planet. ;)

Peggy, my husband came in to see what I was muttering about at the computer the day I found the Huggins crater on Google Earth. It was close to the last place our astronauts walked on the moon. That day, he would've declared me spacey in a nutty way. :)

Dr. John, I'm glad. You're a man who has an appreciation for knowledge, so I take that as a compliment.