Cabinet of (astronomical) curiosities

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Monday, January 14, 2008

If you’re a fan of strange tales, curious quests, and questionable observations, you’ll enjoy Richard Baum’s The Haunted Observatory (Prometheus Books, 2007). As an astronomy trivia buff, I found a lot to keep me reading.

In his first chapter, “A World Rumored Beyond,” Baum examines one of astronomy’s great mathematical detective stories: the prediction and subsequent discovery of Neptune. Baum is an accomplished writer who knows how to weave a tale. Although I’m familiar with this historical event — I’ve even written about it — the author highlights some wonderful details I wasn’t aware of.

For example, do you know who was the first American to discover an asteroid? It was Scottish-born James Ferguson. On September 1, 1854, he discovered asteroid 31 Euphrosyne (named for one of the three Graces in Greek mythology). Baum peppers such little-known facts throughout the book’s 11 chapters.

Chapter 2, “The Prescience of William Lassell,” continues the discussion of Neptune, but not of the planet itself. Rather, it presents the account of English astronomer William Lassell, who, in a reply to English astronomer Sir John Herschel dated October 11, 1846, said, “I am obliged by your note directing my attention to the possible ring and satellites of Le Verrier’s planet [Neptune].” Herschel, however, had not mentioned a ring, and therein lies the story.

Other chapters like “Is there a Satellite to the Moon?” “Enigmatic Objects,” and “The Wartmann Mystery” will introduce you to unfamiliar players in the game of astronomy. The book doesn’t end when you finish chapter 11, however. Be sure to read the 91-page “References” section. That’s right — 91 pages. I found many more little-known facts in this section that illustrates how well Baum researched this book.

If you’re a history buff, a trivia buff, or a lover of the weird, you’ll enjoy The Haunted Observatory. Save the next few cloudy nights for it.

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