Monday 8 September 2014

Little Gnome Astronomical fact # 11

A Night to Remember in York Sept 10th 1784

John Goodricke and Edward Pigott were two astronomers who lived in York during the late 18th century and for a brief moment in time they made York one of the astronomical centres of the world. It was on September 10th 1784 that a fantastic night in the history of astronomy occurred with not one but two variable stars being discovered from York. They are the “Fathers of Variable Star Astronomy”

The city of York has been described as a snapshot of English history but the astronomical part of York`s story if often overlooked.

They started their observing careers by explaining the light variations of the star Algol in the constellation of Perseus. Algol which marks the eye of the Medusa in the sky is called ‘the winking demon’ and was known by astronomers to change in brightness but they did not know why. Goodricke and Pigott correctly guessed that the changes are due to the fat that there are two stars passing in front of or eclipsing each other causing the light to change.

However on the 10th September 1784 Edward Pigott discovered that the star eta Aquila was changing in brightness he rushed over to Goodricke to tell him the exciting news only for Goodricke to show him that the Beta Lyra was also varying.  Until 1784 only four variable stars were known to astronomers.

 John Goodricke and Edward Pigott both came to York in 1781 they were distant cousins, Goodricke was only 17 a deaf youth and Pigott at 28 much older and having lived in France had a very flamboyant dress style compared to Goodricke’s English conservative  aristocratic style.

Pigott observed from his father`s house in Bootham, York,  it was described as the 3rd best private observatory in England, while Goodricke observed with a small telescope from the Treasurers House near York Minster.

They not only discovered that some stars change in brightness, they then as true scientists, they tried to explain what was causing those changes. In fact some of their ideas such as their conclusions regarding Algol are similar to those used today by astronomers looking for planets around other stars. Their thinking was over 200 years ahead of their time.

Goodricke would discover another variable star, delta Cepheus which is used by astronomers today to work out the distances to galaxies. Pigott also discovered a comet while in York.

 Their partnership would only last for 4 years Goodricke died in 1786 aged 21 probably from pneumonia he had been made a fellow of the Royal Society for his work but sadly died before the letter reached him. Pigott moved to city of Bath where he carried on his astronomical work.

There is another anniversary concerning shortly, this will be the 250th anniversary of the birth of John Goodricke on September 17th 1764.

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