Sunday 22 March 2020

Astronomy in Yorkshire #1 March 22nd 1868 Alfred Fowler born at Wilsden

This is the first of a series of astronomical articles that involve Yorkshire. It could be looking at famous astronomers born in Yorkshire, astronomical discoveries made in Yorkshire, astronomical events seen around the world either by Yorkshire people or by astronomers using equipment made in Yorkshire and of course events seen in the sky over Yorkshire.

It will not all be all historical because I will keep people up to date with all the latest news of what can be seen in the night sky.

Alfred Fowler was born on March 22nd 1868 at Wilsden on the outskirts of Bradford and would become one of the most important astronomers of the first half of the 20th century. His work in the field of spectroscopy would lay the basis of modern physical astronomy.

Alfred Fowler 1868-1940

He was educated at the Keighley Trade and Grammar School and at the age of 14 he obtained a scholarship to the Old Normal School of Science, now known as Imperial College, South Kensington in London. Being of a sturdy Yorkshire character Fowler was not to be ruffled by all that would happen around him.

In 1888 at the age of 20 he was working as a demonstrator in astronomical physics, among the people he worked with was a Mr H G Wells, and although Wells was not able to pass all his exams his career took another course in writing, his astronomical knowledge was useful in the ‘War of the Worlds’

Fowler soon found himself working under Professor Norman Lockyer one of the most important astronomers studying the Sun in the later part of the 19th century. When Lockyer retired in 1901 he took most of the astronomical equipment with him so although Alfred Fowler was appointed Assistant Professor of Physics he had very little equipment to work with. This did not cause Fowler too many problems he started working with spectroscopes which can split white light into the colours of the spectrum.

He developed a great interest in eclipses of the Sun, the eclipses of 1896 and 1905 were affected by bad weather but those at West Africa in 1893 and India in 1898 were more successful and he was able to examine the spectrum of the Sun during the eclipse. The eclipse of 1914 in Russia could not be reached due the start of World War 1.

Eclipse of the Sun India 1898
By his services to science not only in the field of research but also teaching he received many awards including in 1915 the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, in 1918 the Medal of the Royal Society, the Henry Draper Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, and in 1935 he was awarded a CBE.

In 1919 he would become the first General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) an association of professional astronomers active in research and teaching. The IAU still todaythe body that represents professional astronomers.

Alfred Fowler died on June 24th 1940 in Ealing, London, He was a most remarkable man from Wilsden, of whom little is known, this is partly due to his modest kindly demeanour and the quiet way in which he would speak of his most important discoveries.

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