Friday, March 24, 2017

Staring at the Sun

An oval portrait photograph of Charles A. Young, arms crossed, with a full beard and mustache. He looks to be in his mid-40s.
Yet another snowy day in late March on campus has us casting our eyes in desperation to the sky in the vain hope of seeing a warm and welcoming sun. It also brings to mind another sun-worshipper who got his start gazing heavenward in Hanover. Charles Augustus Young, the best and brightest of Dartmouth's class of 1853, was a world-renowned astronomer and a native son of the Upper Valley. After initially teaching Latin and Greek at Phillips Andover Academy, he went on to be the chair of mathematics, natural philosophy, and astronomy at Western Reserve College (now Case Western Reserve University). After a lengthy tenure as a professor of astronomy at Dartmouth, he moved to Princeton for the conclusion of his long and prestigious academic career. Young's expertise was in solar physics, a field in which he discovered a layer of the sun's chromosphere and invented the automatic spectroscope.

Charles A. Young's passport issued by the United States Consulate in Tien-Tsin on Sept. 11, 1874. It reads "The undersigned, United States Consul for Tien-tsin, requests the Civil and Military Authorities of the Emperor of China in conformity with the ninth article of the British Treaty of Tien-tsin to allow Charles A. Young, Esquire, a Citizen of the United States to travel freely and without hindrance or molestation in the Chinese Empire and to give him protection and aid in case of necessity. Mr. Young being a person of known respectability is desirous of proceeding to Peking & the Great Wall and this passport is given him on condition of his not visiting the cities or towns occupied by the Insurgents." The passport is authorized by the signature of Eli Sheppard and states that it will remain in force for a year from the date of issuance.While at Dartmouth, Young's reputation was such that in May of 1874 he received a telegram from another major luminary in the field astronomy, James C. Watson. Watson was an astronomical prodigy who was, among other accomplishments, a recipient of the prestigious Lalande Prize in 1867 and the director of the Ann Arbor Observatory. Upon his death, a bequest from his estate established the James Craig Watson Medal, an honor that is still awarded today by the United States National Academy of Sciences for contributions to the field of astronomy. In the 1860s and 1870s, Watson was involved in some of the most important astronomical observations commissioned by the U. S. Government, and his message to Young was an invitation to join him on a trip to Peking, China, to witness the rare occurrence of the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun. After securing his passport, Young embarked upon a long journey across the Pacific to China as a member of one of eight separate observation groups sent out by the U. S. to observe the transit.

A stereoscopic photograph card that contains two side-by-side images of what appears to be the primary telescope in the Peking Observatory from 1874.
In addition to bringing back stereoscope cards of Peking and his observations on the transit, Young also returned with numerous fascinating Chinese books and other souvenirs from his visit abroad. To explore the rest of the Charles A. Young papers, which contain photographs, scientific data, and correspondence, come to Rauner and ask to see ML-49. Young's passport is MS 874511, and his alumni file is filled with articles and photographs from different stages of his life and career.

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