Apart from Hydra the Water Snake in the eastern sky we have two other long constellations stretching across the sky in the evenings. High in the western sky Eridanus the River stretches from the bright star Rigel in Orion to Achernar. Below Eridanus is Cetus the Whale.
Eridanus and Cetus. Chart Nick Lomb
With Jupiter the only evening planet, all the planetary action in February is in the morning sky. In the mornings before dawn the red planet Mars is high in the north-west, to the right or north of the bright star Spica. Tomorrow morning we have the fine sight of the gibbous Moon appearing between Spica and Mars.
Mars, Spica and the Moon. Chart Nick Lomb
In the early evening the constellation of Hydra the Water Snake stretches across a large part of the sky from the south-east towards the north. Made up of only faint stars, it is the largest of the 88 constellations recognised by modern astronomers.
The constellation of Hydra. Chart Nick Lomb
Tonight let us look at the northern sky in the early evening. Starting from the left (west) we find the reddish star Aldebaran and then the bright stars of Orion including Rigel and Betelgeuse. Sirius is high up and due north while low down and a little to the right or east we reach Pollux and its twin, Castor.
Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus the Bull. Chart made with Stellarium
Today is the 450th birthday of the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. Galileo made his own telescope after hearing about the invention of a device to make distant objects appear closer. With it he made numerous crucial discoveries such as the existence of four moons circling Jupiter.
A replica of one of Galileo’s telescopes. Courtesy Powerhouse Museum
These are the constellations the Sun passes in front of during the year. Looking from west to east in the early evening the following zodiac constellations are visible: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo and part of Virgo.
The constellation of Gemini. Chart made with Stellarium
Let us look at the southern sky in the early evening. Starting from right (west) we find Achernar the brightest star in Eridanus the River. Then higher up and due south we reach Canopus the brightest star in Carina the Keel. Lower down and to the left or east we come to the Southern Cross.
The Southern Cross over Sydney Observatory’s time ball. Photo Nick Lomb
In the evenings the constellation of Orion the Hunter is high in the northern sky. Its two brightest stars are Rigel, which is currently highest in the sky, and reddish-coloured Betelgeuse, which is the lowest. In between them are the three stars forming Orion’s belt.
Orion with Rigel and Betelgeuse labelled. Photo Nick Lomb
A portrait of Alice and Charles Todd in about 1855. Courtesy State Library of South Australia B 12210
The Singing Line: The Story of the Man who strung the Telegraph across Australia, and the Woman who gave her Name to Alice Springs
In the second half of the nineteenth century Australian astronomy and related sciences were dominated by three men: Henry Chamberlain Russell of Sydney Observatory, Robert Ellery of Melbourne Observatory and Charles Todd of Adelaide Observatory. Todd had duties extra to those of the other two as he was also Superintendent of Telegraphs for his Colony and later Postmaster-General.
As Superintendent of Telegraphs he was in charge of one of the most important and most heroic projects in Australian history, the installation of the Overland Telegraph across the country from Port Augusta near Adelaide to Darwin. It was a daunting enterprise as up to the beginning of the Overland Telegraph project there had been only one crossing of the continent from south to north, that of John McDouall Stuart in 1862.
The Singing Line is not a new book as it was first published in 2000, however, it is a book of which I was unaware until recently and one that is a useful resource about an important early Australian astronomer. Moreover, it is a pleasure to read. I came across it when in late 2013 I gave a talk on Australian colonial observatories, with Todd featuring prominently and afterwards one member of the audience kindly told me about the book.
The Singing Line is written by Alice Thomson, who is Charles and Alice Todd’s great-great-granddaughter. She tells the story of the construction of the Overland Telegraph emphasising Todd’s role and the many difficulties that he and his men experienced. The line was divided into three sections with Todd directly responsible for the central section. A promising site with a spring for a repeating station (there were no amplifiers in those days so that a number of stations where telegraph operators retransmitted telegraphic messages had to be built) was named after Todd’s wife Alice.
With her husband Ed, Alice Thomson retraces the line built by her great-great-grandfather and their adventures and the fascinating people they come across are interwoven with the story of the construction of the line. The most difficult part of the line turned out to be the northern section because of the wet season there and Todd eventually had to take direct control of the construction of that section as well.
The book tells of Todd’s time as a young man at Greenwich Observatory where he was in charge of the ‘galvanic’ department that used telegraph lines to send signals to drop time balls. It was there that Todd acquired the expertise in telegraphy that led to his South Australian appointment. There are few other references to Todd’s astronomical work and disturbingly the word ‘astrology’ is used instead of astronomy in a number of places. With Ms Thomson’s impeccable scientific pedigree – in addition to the Todd connection, both her grandfathers were Nobel Prize winners in physics as were two of her great-grandfathers – it is somewhat disappointing.
The Todd family at Adelaide Observatory in about 1897. Alice is sitting on the left with Charles on the right. Standing second from the left is son-in-law William Bragg, professor of physics at Adelaide University and future Nobel Prize winner together with his son Lawrence (Willie) sitting in front of his grandmother. Courtesy State Library of South Australia B 28760
Readers of The Singing Line may not learn much astronomy, but they will become familiar with one of the most important projects in Australia’s history. In addition, Charles Todd the famous 19th century South Australian Government Astronomer comes across as a real person together with his wife Alice. Despite the scientific reservations, the book is thoroughly recommended to those who are as yet unfamiliar with it.
The giant planet Jupiter is currently the only planet visible in the evening sky. It is shining brightly in the northern sky in the early evening and is above the twin stars of Gemini, Pollux and Castor. Tonight the gibbous Moon is above and to the right or east of the planet.
Jupiter and the Moon. Chart Nick Lomb