Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Historical Meme: Seven Things about Richard Carrington

Tommaso Dorigo has tagged us with one of those blog memes - in this case, a variant of the Historical Meme. The idea is to

  • link to the person who tagged you,
  • list seven random or weird things about your favourite historical figure,
  • tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs,
  • let the tagged people know by leaving a note on their site.

In backreaction's editorial office, history-related stuff ends up on my desk, so I'll try my best to keep the meme alive. Actually, I do not have a favourite historical figure - there are just way too many -, so I'll specify seven small facts about an interesting historical figure I've just been reading about, Richard Carrington (the Wikipedia entry is still quite brief...)

  • Richard Carrington was born in 1826 in Chelsea, England. He studied at Cambridge to become a cleric, but discovered his fascination for astronomy

  • His father, a wealthy brewer, agreed that he constructed his own, private observatory at Redhill, Surrey. Working there, Carrington established an accurate Catalogue of Stars of the Northern Sky, which won him the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1859.

    A series of large sunspots in March 2001 (Credit: SOHO)

  • During daytime, he didn't rest, but embarked on a long-term systematic study of sunspots. Analysing his data, he discovered the differential rotation of the Sun, implying that the Sun could not be a solid, rigid body, as current wisdom stated at that time.

    A Solar Filament Lifts Off (Credit: TRACE, NASA, via APOD, July 25, 2004)

  • While making his daily observations of sunspots, he became, on September 1, 1859, the lucky eyewitness of one of the largest solar flares in the last few hundred years. A solar flare is a huge explosion in the Sun's atmosphere, when turbulent magnetic fields slingshot large amounts of ionised gas into interstellar space. When this plasma hits the Earth's magnetic field, a few hours after the flare, the result is a "Geomagnetic Storm", which can affect power grids, electronic equipment - and causes splendid auroras. In the wake of Carrington's flare, spectacular auroras could be observed up to about ±30° latitude.

    The Aurora Borealis above Bear Lake, Alaska (Credit: Wikipedia)

  • Following the death of his father, he took care of the brewery. He tried to keep on his solar observation program, and his activities as a secretary for the Royal Astronomical Society. But to his growing frustration, he had to note that he could not manage both the brewery and his strict observational schedule at the same time. He even sold his observatory.

  • In the hope to be able to follow his fascination for astronomy full-time again, he tried to get the positions of the director of the university observatories of Cambridge and Oxford when they had job openings, but without success. Finally, he brought himself to sell the brewery, established a new private observatory and tried to tie in with his earlier work, but with not much success.

  • His wife was stabbed by a former lover, and had to take strong medication in the aftermath. She died from an overdose of sedatives. Carrington died ten days later, on November 27, 1875, officially of a brain haemorrhage.

I've learned all these things from a very readable book with a somewhat silly title, The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began, by Stuart Clark. It's not only about Carrington, but about how during the 19th century, the study of the Earth's magnetic field, the observation of sunspots, and the developments of spectroscopy and atomic theory started astrophysics and our understanding of the Sun and the stars - here is a review.

OK - Sabine was quite reluctant to propagate the meme, because it may just annoy the affected bloggers who could feel compelled to waste their time contributing something. So, I'll introduce a mutation and transmit it to five blogs only instead of seven, and allow for a crossing of the language barrier. Here are the tags: What is Einstein's Moon?, Text&Blog, Highly Allochthonous, The Greenbelt, and Theorema Egregium.

Update (March 14):
Here is a brief genealogy of the meme, as reconstructed by the links:

There is an essential mutation of the meme at Magistra et Mater, changing "word 2" from "Share seve random and/or weird things about yourself" to "about a historical figure of your choice". So, I consider that post the starting point of this meme. The minor change from "of your choice" to "favourite" happened already at Heavenfield, who also gives a partial account of the early path of the meme.

I have tagged The Greenbelt, who had in fact already been tagged before - and, as it happens, together with Chris at Highly Allochthonous - along this line:

Nevertheless, The Greenbelt had a short dead time (my tribute to Talk like a Physicist Day) and agreed to participate once more. So, until I will have figured out how trackbacks work, here are links to the meme's next generation so far:


  1. Hi Stefan,

    I must warn that I'm not familiar with this meme thing. I wouldn’t mind however writing about one of my favourite historical figures and the link thing I think I get. However it’s the tagging I’m not sure about. If you have ever looked at my blog you will notice it is not as well organized or layout refined as your own. That said, I will give it a go. I take it I have a few days to put this all together. My greatest difficulty will be whom else I can tag as except for your blog and the odd other I don’t get out much:-) I will however be happy to compose a post and do the best I can with the rest. Oh yes, tell Bee I’m actually delighted you thought of me.



  2. Hi Phil,

    Don't worry. The problem of tagging-somebody-who-hasn't-already-been-tagged is for obvious reasons a central issue of these memes. I dislike them generally, as it reminds me of these stupid chain letters I kept receiving when I was a kid (you know, the type that says if you don't pass on this thing to seven other people you will die within the next three months or something of that kind). Plus I've never been into social games. I think I might have passed on one or two memes, but it's just not for me. I find them somehow passively interesting though for reasons that they say something about the network structure, propagation and interaction in it.

    That is to say, as far as I am concerned this meme would have ended here. And just in case that somebody didn't get it: save your time, tagging me is completely useless, I am a MEME-DEAD-END.

    Either way, I am looking forward to your post!



  3. Dear Stefan,

    The guy certainly had an interesting life. I specifically like the last point, which is very inspirational. 'Was stabbed to death by a former lover on April 6th 20**' is a sentence that would sound very nice at the end of my biography. It seems to require though I get a lover, and besides being happily married, where would I take the time for that? Best,


  4. Dear Stefan, Your post was a nice remembrance for me. Once upon a time I worked for a helioseismology group, on the solar public outreach part of the group's work plus some applications programming, therefore terminology like Carrington Numbers have stuck with me ever since.

    Here is an artistic application of my old group's work, that you and Bee might enjoy.

  5. And here is something else, that might be fun for you and Bee:

    Take the Sunspot Quiz and Take the Granulation Quiz.

    I just took those old quizzes, that I made for the kids. Not only did I forget some of my old answers, I'm truly amazed that my CGI scripts still work, 11 years later.

  6. Dear Amara,

    Thanks, the quiz is lovely! I will totally send it to my mother she might want to use it for school. (The picture of a Hurricane seems to be missing). Best,


  7. Dear Phil,

    sorry, I didn't want to annoy you or so... but don't worry too much, and just ignore it altogether, if you prefer.

    Actually, this "meme" business was also new to me. But, as Bee has explained, the "chain letter" idea behind is quite old, and has always been kind of an embarrassment.

    OK, but what I find most interesting about this "chain letter 2.0" thing dubbed meme, besides the obvious analogy to mutating pathogens spreading in the population of bloggers, is to follow the path the meme has taken. This allows for a very nice and fast exploration of strange connections between very different people. It's the small-world network connectivity and the "six degrees of separation" at work...

    But don't bother not to give it on to someone else - I am actually not sure if anyone of the other four bloggers will carry on.

    Best regards, Stefan

  8. Dear Amara,

    thank you very much for your comment! This "SOL" sounds like a very interesting project. It's funny what one can do with solar data!

    Actually, is there any aspect of solar system science you have not been working on? The planets, the Sun, interplanetary dust, one always can find Amara :-)

    Cheers, Stefan

  9. Dear Bee,

    obviously, I wouldn't be happy at all with such an ending for several reasons...

    But yeah, this Richard Carrington had a very interesting, but also sad and tragic biography. What I found most striking is that there was this highly talented, extremly motivated astronomer with a great research record who couldn't land a position in the academic job market and had to quit science for good - that sounds very modern, actually. And to the romantic idea to do science in your spare time, in parallel to a day-job, his example of 150 years ago replies loud and clearly "be a realist, and forget about it"...

    Best, Stefan

  10. Hmmm... I don't know if I should thank you for tagging me or not... :)

    Hmm... Don't know if I'll have time for this... Well, let's see...


  11. Dear Stefan: Working twenty-five years in astronomy gives one an opportunity to cover some space. But, that space is big. ;-)

  12. Hi Stefan,

    I to find it interesting, not simply where all this leads from yet also may lead to. The cyber world is sort of a different place then the regular one not only as far as physical distance is concerned. People in the physical world connect in terms of locality yes. This counts for relatives, neighbours and alike. These are contacts of circumstance and proximity. Your friends on the other hand form a body that is resultant of like mind and thus is not something that merely relates to circumstance or proximity yet rather choice. The connections we make then in cyberspace are thus simply an extension of this. What I find interesting in terms of this endeavour is that it could serve to expand this opportunity a bit more. So like I said I have no problem in giving it a go and thus discover where it leads.



  13. Hi Stefan,

    Just to let you know I have completed the Historical Meme. I’m not confident of the quality of the writing and yet I am certain of the subject.



  14. The word meme, first came into popular use with the publication of Dawkin's book The Selfish Gene in 1976. Dawkins based the word on a shortening of the Greek "mimeme" (something imitated), making it sound similar to "gene". Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator.

    Stefan I like your article for the reason of Sol songs as well, but from a deeper perspective about helioseismology. A Ruthmos in nature.

    Often we say things in our own lives not aware of the context and influence our parents have on us, yet, such concepts themself are transmitted and unknowingly we become the parent of our raising.

    To change the cyclical nature of such events, and move to our own adult situations requires a deeper insight into who we are, that we might change the circumstance and reveal who it is, is talking, when acting in this role of our day to day.

    That you may not have children now is not the issue and any young person might know then that we are also our parent, as well as, the child of that experience. It is how we shall choose as an adult to address society, each other, in these ways, that we change the future.

    Ruthmos of Nature

    The Ruthmos part is what I understood with Wayne Hu's cosmological view, as well as explaining the issuances of the Chaldni plate as we learn to see science of nature in this way.

    Who would have ever known that our own make up in this psychological sense could have ever amounted to the colour of an emotive/mental/spiritual state? It is a conceptual transformation of an "synesthesia moment?" Te brain gets cross-wired then and see new ways in which aspects of that psychology nows makes one aware of the linage between thoughts and how they are reflected.

    Maybe makes for a nice fiction story right now?:)

    Also I have seen the contrast between observatories of our ancient to present day rising on the hill in full view from this Medicine wheel location.

    A mandalic interpretation and map of the designs of events in our early history?

  15. Phil,

    Just firing a neuron for you. Who would have known "the complexity of that "neuronical space" as one creates the links to an expanded version of our history?

  16. Dear Christine,

    thank you being too annoyed for being tagged with the meme :-)
    Don't feel pressed - in case you can find some time to write something, I'm looking forward to read it!

    Best regards, Stefan

  17. Hi Phil,

    oh, that's been fast - thank you very much! And that's a great text :-)

    I didn't know next to nothing about Stephen Gray so far, I remember his work on electricity is mentioned in Emilio Segre's "From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves".. Very interesting!

    Thanks, and best regards, Stefan

  18. I got tagged with this one already (I did Ahoptep I) and I thought about just linking back to that - sort of a closed loop? well, not exactly I guess - but instead, I did a new one.

    Thanks for reading me!

  19. ps - that book sounds fascinating.

  20. Hi Stefan,

    I’m happy and also somewhat relieved you found my post interesting. I’m certainly not as good at it or experienced with this as you and Bee are. Your Blog has so much to offer in terms of content, utility and theme that it lends so much to many. I've often wonder about all those that don’t leave comments on your blog and wonder if you truly are aware of how many you’re reaching. I got my first sense of this when I was frequent participant in the old CompuServe Math/Science form. The moderator used to refer to the ones I mention as the lurkers and said they out numbered the contributors many fold. I suspect the same thing applies in your case and the numbers you touch and effect are perhaps far greater then you imagine.



  21. Hi Plato,

    “Just firing a neuron for you. Who would have known "the complexity of that "neuronical space" as one creates the links to an expanded version of our history?”

    Thanks so much for the neuron for I could use and appreciate any you have to spare:-) Also let me say I also value the comment that you left along with that neuron. Perhaps the odd time when I sign in to answer or address your insights and comments I should do it as Glaucon and respond “most certainly” or “indeed so” :-) Thanks once again for the nice words and wishes.



  22. Thanks Phil.

    Oh Bee,

    I have something for you to consider in your quest for the wonderment of Tegmark's mathematical structure to the universe.

    Wigner’s Gift Horse By JULIE REHMEYER • Feb 1, 2008

    Tegmark believes in an extreme form of Platonism, the idea that mathematical objects exist in a sort of universe of their own. Imagine that, Tegmark says, “there’s this museum in this Platonic math space that has these mathematical objects that exists outside of space and time,” Tegmark says. “What I’m saying is that their existence is exactly the same as a physical existence, and our universe is one of these guys in the museum.”

    I knew it had to connect with your Vitruvian Woman :) Historical meme's aren't so bad are they?

  23. Hi The Ridger -

    thanks for doing it again :-)

    Best, Stefan

  24. Hi Stefan,

    With all the frenzy to complete my post so that Backreaction might also have a forward one, I forgot to tell you how much I liked your post. I opened up many of the links and then links to the links. I even found out about the Sporer’s Law. Strange thing about this law it is totally resultant of observation with apparently no explanation. I’m always uncomfortable with science that is totally based on induction which is of course only as good as the data observed. This might allow us to predict and yet one can’t say that it lends much understanding. The thing though that’s important is that it was a great post that had me come away a little wiser and also more to wonder about. What took me in initially was astronomy and beer, how then could I resist :-)



    P.S. I see also you’re tracking it all down. Very interesting, I too am curious as to where it all leads.

  25. Hi Stefan,

    Here is my historical meme:


    I apologize for the delay and I for having largely cut and paste from wikipedia. In any case, I hope you find it is interesting.

    Best wishes,

  26. Dear Christine,

    oh, thank you very much! That's a very interesting text about a Brazilian physicist I hadn't heard of before! Exactly the kind of text I had in mind :-)

    Best regards,


  27. Thanks for the link to the Nature paper!



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