Falling Stars

meteor‘Meteor seen over Hewit Common near York’ 
by Nathaniel Pigott  (1725–1804)


The Great Fireball of 1783

In the summer of 1783 the Montgolfier brothers flew the first successful hot-air balloon at Annonay in France, creating a craze for ballooning which swept Parisian society, and Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestley continued their independent experiments on ‘inflammable air’ [hydrogen] and the chemical composition of water.

Sir Joseph Banks,  President of the Royal Society for over 41 years, was summering in Lincolnshire while Charles Blagden kept him apprised of scientific goings-on, opened Banks’s mail for him, and marshalled  the traffic at Banks’s house at 32 Soho Square – a continual back-and-forth flow of books, drawings, journals, newspapers, plant specimens and people

That same summer a large meteor was seen over England on the night of August 18th, passing rapidly over Scotland and travelling down the east coast of England – it was seen at Lincolnshire, where it appeared to break up, but the core continued, still blazing, more or less on its former trajectory– and at Ramsgate.  It was also seen from Brussels and France; and there was an unconfirmed sighting as far south as Rome. Blagden and Banks between them gathered reports of the event from across Britain and the Continent to attempt to estimate the meteor’s size, altitude, and speed; it was visible for a little under a minute, its altitude was estimated variously between 50 and 60 miles, it appeared about as large as the Moon’s disc (Blagden reckoned its diameter at roughly half a mile) and its speed was calculated at 20 miles per second.

These calculations of the meteor’s altitude and speed are remarkably plausible – and if Blagden’s estimate of its size is even marginally accurate then humanity can breathe a two-hundred-year’s delayed sigh of relief at its close shave.  Blagden didn’t see it like that, because he didn’t think meteors were physical bodies but electrical phenomena in the upper atmosphere.

When he heard that the Astronomer Royal, Nevill Maskelyne, was sending out queries of his own for an investigation of the comet, he wrote scoffingly to Banks:

‘I hear many years ago Professor [John] Winthrop, of Cambridge [Harvard] in new England, sent a paper to the R.S. containing a circumstantial theory of meteors as bodies revolving in very excentric elipses round our earth, & producing light by their effect upon our atmosphere.  This paper it was not thought proper to print; but most likely [Sir John] Pringle took his ideas from it, which Maskelyne is now going to hash up warm.  If every falling star be such a body, and it seems impossible to draw a line of distinction between them & the larger meteors, we are in high luck indeed that some of them, out of such an immense number, do not now & then miss their way, or get entangled in our atmosphere, and give us a smack.  That this good world may be preserved from such misfortunes is the hearty wish of

Your affectionate


Blagden argued in his published paper that it was precisely because meteors were seen so frequently, yet never felt actually to hit, that they weren’t orbiting bodies like comets.  His crowd-sourced data was remarkably reliable; and from his description of the meteor you would swear he imagined it as a solid body, but he’s forced away from that conclusion because he can’t find any evidence for the logical endpoint of that line of thought: namely, the meteor’s impact.

Crowd-sourcing observations in this way was an important tool, continues to be important to modern science, and is crucial to the history of science.

Blagden’s dismissive mention of John Winthrop, Hollis Professor of natural philosophy and Astronomy at Harvard is intriguing, in this context.  Winthrop’s theory that meteors were of extra-terrestrial origin was substantially correct, and his paper, which the Society hadn’t seen fit to publish at the time, is still in the archives; but he was also responsible for one of the first attempts to treat earthquakes as geological phenomena.
Like meteors and comets, these had largely been regarded prior to the scientific revolution as manifestations of divine wrath or providential omens; Winthrop’s study of the effects of the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which had also been felt in New England, attempted to measure the damage it caused and to quantify the forces involved, and he published the resulting lecture in Boston as well as sending an account to the Royal Society.


Famous contributing authors to Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which was established in 1665, include Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and Charles Darwin.

Sir Joseph Banks took part in the Voyage of HMS Endeavour, exploration of Botany Bay with Captain James Cooke.



Theory of Colors

GoetheFarbkreisWhen the eye sees a colour it is immediately excited and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original colour, comprehends the whole chromatic scale. — Goethe

Philosophers have come to understand the distinction between the optical spectrum, as observed by Newton, and the phenomenon of human colour perception as presented by Goethe.

Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness; Blue is a darkness weakened by light.

Scarlet he thought the most beautiful of all colours

francois-ii-roi-de-franceFrançois II roi de France
Francois Clouet (1510 – 1572)



Observations made by a young Gentleman, who was born blind, or lost his Sight, so early, that he had no Remembrance of ever having seen, and was couched between 13 and 14 Years of Age. By Mr. William Chesselden, F.R.S. Surgeon to Her Majesty, and to St. Thomas’s Hospital  January 1, 1753

Though we say of the gentleman that he was blind, as we do of all people who have ripe cataracts, yet they are never so blind from that cause, but that they can discern day from night; and for the most part in a strong light, distinguish black, white, and scarlet; but they cannot perceive the shape of any thing; for the light by which these perceptions are made, being let in obliquely through the aqueous humour, or the anterior surface of the crystalline, by which the rays cannot be brought into a focus upon the retina, they can discern in no other manner, than a sound eye can through a glass of broken jelly, where a great variety of surfaces so differently refract the light, that the several distinct pencils of rays cannot be collected by the eye into their proper foci; therefore the shape of an object in such a case, cannot be at all discerned, though the colour may. And thus it was with this young gentleman, who, though he knew these colours asunder in a good light, yet when he saw them after he was couched, the faint ideas he had of them before, were not sufficient for him to know them by afterwards; and therefore he did not think them the same, which he had before known by those names. Now scarlet he thought the most beautiful of all colours, and of others the most gay were the most pleasing; whereas the first time he saw black, it gave him great uneasiness, yet after a little time he was reconciled to it ….

When he first saw, he was so far from making any judgment about distances, that he thought all objects whatever touched his eyes, as he expressed it, as what he felt, did his skin; and thought no objects so agreeable as those which were smooth and regular, though he could form no judgment of their shape, or guess what it was in any object that was pleasing to him. He knew not the shape of any thing, nor any one thing from another, however different in shape, or magnitude; but on being told what things were, whose form he before knew from feeling, he would carefully observe, that he might know them again; but having too many objects to learn at once, he forgot many of them; and, as he said, at first he learned to know, and again forgot a thousand things in a day. One particular only, though it may appear trifling, Mr. C. relates: having often forgot which was the cat, and which the dog, he was ashamed to ask; but catching the cat, which he knew by feeling, he was observed to look at her stedfastly, and then setting her down, said, so puss! I shall know you another time. He was very much surprised, that those things which he had liked best, did not appear most agreeable to his eyes, expecting those persons would appear most beautiful that he loved most, and such things to be most agreeable to his sight that were so to his taste. They thought he soon knew what pictures represented, which were showed to him, but they found afterwards they were mistaken: for about 2 months after he was couched, he discovered at once, they represented solid bodies; when to that time he considered them only as party-coloured planes, or surfaces diversified with variety of paint; but even then he was no less surprised, expecting the pictures would feel like the things they represented, and was amazed when he found those parts, which by their light and shadow appeared now round and uneven, felt only flat like the rest; and asked which was the lying sense, feeling, or seeing?

Being shown his father’s picture in a locket at his mother’s watch, and told what it was, he acknowledged a likeness, but was vastly surprised; asking, how it could be, that a large face could be expressed in so little room, saying, it should have seemed as impossible to him, as to put a bushel of any thing into a pint.

At first, he could bear but very little sight, and the things he saw, he thought extremely large; but on seeing things larger, those first seen he conceived less, never being able to imagine any lines beyond the bounds he saw; the room he was in he said, he knew to be but part of the house, yet he could not conceive that the whole house could look larger. Before he was couched, he expected little advantage from seeing, worth undergoing an operation for, except reading and writing; for he said, he thought he could have no more pleasure in walking abroad than he had in the garden which he could do safely and readily. And even blindness he observed, had this advantage, that he could go any where in the dark much better than those who can see; and after he had seen, he did not soon lose this quality, nor desire a light to go about the house in the night. He said, every new object was a new delight, and the pleasure was so great, that he wanted ways to express it; but his gratitude to his operator he could not conceal, never seeing him for some time without tears of joy in his eyes, and other marks of affection: and if he did not happen to come at any time when he was expected, he would be so grieved, that he could not forbear crying at his disappointment. A year after first seeing, being carried upon Epsom Downs, and observing a large prospect, he was exceedingly delighted with it, and called it a new kind of seeing. And now being lately couched of his other eye, he says, that objects at first appeared large to this eye, but not so large as they did at first to the other; and looking on the same object with both eyes, he thought it looked about twice as large as with the first couched eye only, but not double, that they could any ways discover.

Goethe defined color as “the deeds and sufferings of light”

River Shells

Die Geschichte der Flussconchylien : mit vorzüglicher Rücksicht auf diejenigen welche in den thüringischen Wassern leben
(The history of Flussconchylien: excellent with regard
to those who live in the waters of Thuringia.
google trans.)

Johann Samuel Schröter (1735-1808)