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British Astronomy - The Astronomical Communities

Three communities of astronomers had established themselves in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries: amateurs, Government astronomers and university astronomers. They were supported by a coterie of instrument scientists, whose status was very high, much higher than that of craftsmen, many having been elected as fellows of the Royal Society.  All these social groupings persist to the present day. 

The amateurs included the independently wealthy, for example the landowner Lord Rosse (1800-1867). They included business- and professional men, for example William Lassell (1799-1880), a Liverpool brewer, and James Nasmyth (1808-1890), a mechanical engineer. All these men built telescopes of substantial sizes at their homes in Britain.  Lord Rosse built at Birr Castle in Desmene in Ireland the then-largest telescope in the world, the 6-ft (1.8-m) aperture ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’, recently restored to working order.  Lassell’s last and largest telescope was, however, erected under the clear skies of Malta, and foreshadowed the overseas observatories of modern times. The amateurs also included pensioners such as retired servicemen (e.g. Admiral W. H. Smyth (1788-1865)). The amateurs concentrated on visual observations of planets, nebulae and double stars but also used talent, time and their own resources to construct large, ingenious or novel instrumentation (such as Sir William Huggins’ (1824-1910) application of spectroscopy and Ainslee Common’s (1841-1903) application of photography to astronomy).

The university astronomers, at first at the two oldest universities in Britain at Oxford and Cambridge, and later in London, Durham, Manchester, etc, concentrated on the high intellectual content areas of astronomy, typically theoretical mathematical astronomy (at first celestial mechanics, later the nature of celestial bodies, or astrophysics).  

The Government astronomers were principally at Greenwich (for example Sir George Airy (1801-1892)) and later also at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and at the Solar Physics Observatory established at South Kensington, London, and directed by Sir Norman Lockyer (1836-1920) until its move to Cambridge University.  Most of their work could be characterized as systematic observations by teams of astronomers and human ‘computers’ in programmes principally of positional astronomy. They carried on a tradition started in the 18th century by Edmund Halley (1656-1742) and James Cook (1728-1779) of overseas travel to observe astronomical phenomena not visible from Britain, such as hidden constellations, transits and eclipses.  They founded the Royal Observatory at Cape Town in South Africa in 1825, now subsumed into the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).   Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) of Edinburgh site-tested the mountain of El Teide on Tenerife in the Canary Islands; he established by measurement the superiority of the observing conditions at altitude and set the scene, not only for the establishment a hundred years later of the observatory at the same altitude on the nearby island of La Palma but also for the establishment within decades of mountain top observatories in the USA. 

In 1820 the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) was founded as the Astronomical Society of London by Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) and 13 other well-known astronomers and scientists, who met as a gentleman’s dining club to discuss the latest developments. The Society received the grant of a Royal Charter from King William IV in 1831. Its headquarters were built for it at Burlington House, in Piccadilly, London.  The RAS represents professional astronomy in Britain. As geophysics developed as a branch of mathematical physics, in particular associated with the name of Sir George Darwin (1845-1912) of Cambridge University, its practitioners found no natural home in the established geological societies, so the RAS came also to encompass those scientists who study the solid Earth, as a planet.   With the development of the geosciences, the geophysics community self-organises into the British Geophysical Association (BGA), now cosponsored by the RAS and the Geological Society.

Originally the RAS performed many functions that have now transferred to individual university departments.  The main functions of the RAS remain to publish the results of astronomical and geophysical research and to hold meetings, in London and elsewhere, at which astronomical and geophysical matters can be discussed. The RAS library contains material for research in astronomy and geophysics as well as the histories of these sciences and of associated fields such as navigation. Other important astronomical libraries and archives of important historical books and papers are located in Edinburgh (the Crawford Collection of the Royal Observatory) and Cambridge (at the Institute of Astronomy and the Cambridge University Library). 

The RAS is the UK’s national member of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a role recently transferred from the Royal Society of London as part of a Government initiative to focus membership of international bodies into the national organisations that can be expected to participate effectively in their affairs.  

The RAS meets monthly (except during the summer) in open session with formal programmes of presentations (reports of the meetings are published by the independently edited and delightfully eccentric Observatory magazine).  In seven of the months there are three meetings that last all day, two of them in parallel on specialist topics, typically one on astrophysics and one on geophysics, solar physics or planetary science, followed by one on general topics.   Once a year, near Easter, the RAS holds a ‘National Astronomy Meeting’ for a week in venues around the country, and indeed in neighbouring ones (Ireland, the Netherlands).  The NAM is formatted in a mixture of invited reviews held in plenary sessions and parallel sessions on more specialist topics.  There is a large number of posters, and a special effort is made to provide a forum for post-graduate PhD students to present their work, either orally or in posters.  Several astronomy groups around the country make it almost compulsory for their students to attend the NAM, both to present work and to be educated in the wide range of contemporary astronomy.

Originally the RAS meetings were announced and summarized, with news of comets, asteroids and variable stars, in the Society’s Monthly Notices. This journal retains the historical name, although it is now neither monthly nor collections of notices, but a publication of primary research papers in astronomy. MNRAS continues as the principal means of publication of professional astronomical research in Britain, but, reflecting the globalisation of astronomy, more than half its content is from overseas; it is among the trio of the world’s most important astronomical journals, growing in size in recent years at 10% per year, as a result of an unrelenting emphasis on scientific quality and a business model that does not make page charges, but seeks payment from readers as the ultimate judges of whether they want what it publishes. The RAS publishes review articles in its magazine, Astronomy & Geophysics.   Geophysical papers have moved from MN into their own journal, which became associated with the Deutschen Geophysikalischen Gesellschaft as the Geophysical Journal International.   

Reflecting its 19th century origins, the Royal Astronomical Society remains a society of both professional and a significant number of advanced amateur astronomers, numbering about 3000 altogether, but there are additional mainly amateur astronomy societies such as the British Astronomical Association.   Some local amateur astronomical societies predate the BAA, which was formed in 1890 from members of the Royal Astronomical Society who wished to participate in coordinated observing programmes, nowadays of the planets, variable stars, comets, meteors etc. but the BAA became the national society for amateurs.  It too has 3000 members, mostly amateur astronomers, and its headquarters are also in Burlington House in London under an arrangement with the RAS.  It holds monthly meetings and publishes a journal of both review material and scientific papers, typically either observational papers that bring together members’ observations or practical papers on instrumentation of amateur relevance.  The Society for Popular Astronomy is a third national amateur astronomy society, also with 3000 members, catering for amateur astronomers who want fun. 

British astronomical history is represented in museums, universities and observatories throughout Britain, including the Science Museum in London, the Whipple Museum in Cambridge, the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and the Herschel Museum in Bath, and others, where there are important scientific collections and sites.  The University of Leicester’s Archaeology department has the only archaoastronomy research group in a British university.  The Society for the History of Astronomy (SHA) promotes academic, educational and popular interest in the history of the science of astronomy.  The Journal of the History of Astronomy (JHA) is independently published from Cambridge.  The British Sundial Society (BSS) aims to advance the art and science of gnomonics, to catalogue and restore sundials in Britain and to research their history.