Thursday 22 October 2015

Ad Astra

Suzanne Adair is my guest to discuss the matter of astronomy and her new release, Deadly Occupation!


My latest mystery, Deadly Occupation, is set in Wilmington, North Carolina, January 1781. The American Revolution there has entered its seventh grueling year of conflict between Crown forces and those residents who want independence from King George III. In chapter two, a nerdy, telescope building astronomer named Carlisle is beside himself with glee after having discovered an object in the sky that’s either a comet or a planet. My detective, Michael Stoddard, is a practical man who doesn’t share Carlisle’s enthusiasm or nocturnal hours.

The character of Carlisle is loosely inspired by astronomer William Herschel, who is credited for finding the planet Uranus. Carlisle is my nod to the state of astronomy and science in the eighteenth century. As such, Carlisle represents an element that fascinates me about this century: the abundance of scientific discoveries made in the Western world during that time. These discoveries happened during a period when certain religious institutions and governments were more permissive of intellectual freedom than they’d been in previous centuries.

Today, Westerners take that intellectual freedom for granted. However astronomers didn’t always have it so easy. Nicolaus Copernicus, who proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system, had his astronomy equipment destroyed in 1520 by the Teutonic Order. In 1615, the Roman Inquisition investigated Galileo Galilei over his support of the heliocentric system, then forced him to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

In 1781, William Herschel was living in England, with King George III his monarch. Herschel was one of several astronomers to observe Uranus. At first, he thought he’d found a comet, but meticulous observation and recording of the object’s motion soon convinced him that it was a primary planet. Like my fictitious astronomer, Herschel was a busy fellow. In addition to his discovery of Uranus, he observed and catalogued double stars, comets, nebulae, star clusters, and moons around Saturn and Uranus. He discovered infrared radiation, coined the term “asteroid,” and voiced his belief that there was life on other worlds. He came close to figuring out the effect of the eleven-year sunspot cycle on agriculture.

Of course, Herschel had the wealth to dabble and dream his way to many of these discoveries. However had he been born in the previous century, or in a place where the culture wasn’t as permissive as Georgian England, that wealth would have counted for less. His beliefs would likely have put him in hot water with the Church, as his astronomer predecessors had been. He might have had to disguise or curtail his discoveries, or study only what the state approved.

So here’s to the eighteenth century Western world’s freedom to explore the sciences!


About the Author
Award-winning novelist Suzanne Adair lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her mysteries transport readers to the Southern theater of the American Revolution, where she brings historic towns, battles, and people to life. She fuels her creativity with Revolutionary War reenacting and visits to historic sites. When she’s not writing, she enjoys cooking, dancing, hiking, and spending time with her family.

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Written content of this post copyright © Suzanne Adair, 2015.


Sarah said...

What a fascinating character Carlisle seems to be!
I expect you already know about the british archive online of newspapers, which report comets and unusual heavenly occurrences like conjunctions in with the weather reports.

Regencyresearcher said...

His discovery of Uranus-- which he named for George III and others called Herschel-- did cause more than a small ripple in religious and other communities because it and his other discoveries expanded the universe. Making the telescope's lens was a time consuming job requiring attention to detail to get the lens just right. One telescope was as big as a house. His sister had many discoveries to her credit as well.

Suzanne said...

Thanks for stopping by, Sarah. I use several resources to find out about comets and conjunctions. Then I note them on my calendar and post them on my Facebook page. However I'm not aware of the resource you cited. What's the url?

Sarah said...
it's a paid resource, I'm afraid, I take out a yearly sub as my Christmas pressy to myself! but you can pay for briefer forays into it for specific research. This is where I've got all my weather data [which I now have to recreate after the great data loss and backup fail debacle!]
Regency Reseacher, I am sorry to be flippant but I cannot resist the comment that the ripple in religious and other communities were definite perturbations in Uranus.
I've always admired Herschel's sister too.

Suzanne said...

I'd love to have been Caroline Herschel.

Suzanne said...

Thanks for the url, Sarah.

That ripple may have been perturbations all the way out to Neptune. Some religious communities are *still* fighting astronomy's ever-expanding size of the universe. But at least Herschel didn't have his equipment trashed or wind up arrested.

Sarah said...

I sometimes wonder what it is that scares some religious types so much that they want to trammel and limit God

Gigi Pandian said...

So fascinating, Suzanne -- I love scientific history like this (I came across Herschel tangentially while I was researching historical alchemists), so I've just added this to my TBR pile.

Suzanne said...

Thank you for stopping by, Gigi. Herschel is fascinating, isn't he?

Suzanne said...

I've met people whose religious organization denied that dinosaurs were real. I admit that I don't understand it, either.

Stephanie Osborn said...

Don't forget William Herschel's sister and partner in astronomical endeavors, Caroline Herschel, the first professionally-paid woman astronomer. Her independent discoveries include one of the satellite galaxies of the Andromeda Galaxy, 8 comets, and the rediscovery of Comet Encke. Her honors are quite as good as her brother's, and she is as well-known in astronomical circles as he -- and as credited.

Suzanne said...

Stephanie, thanks for your comment. Yes, Caroline Herschel was awesome! If the astronomer in my book had been female, you betcha this blog post would have been about Caroline.