AAS 201st Meeting, January, 2003
Session 29. HAD II: History of IDEAS on Extraterrestrial Life
Special, Monday, January 6, 2003, 10:00-11:30am, 612

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[29.01] America's First Carl Sagan: Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, Pre-Civil War Astronomer and Lecturer on the Cosmos

D. E. Osterbrock (UCO/Lick Obs./UCSC)

In the years before television, videos, radio. movies, or even loudspeakers, Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel (1809-1862) was the best-known popularizer of astronomy and the scientific study of the universe in nineteenth-century America. Each winter he traveled the country by railroad, steamer, and stagecoach, speaking to large paying crowds in principal cities from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia through Cincinnati to New Orleans on the cosmos and our place in it, with special attention to possible inhabitants of planers orbiting other stars. Mitchel had much the same attraction as Sagan did in our time, and awakened many people's interest in astronomy through the human angle, as Carl did. His argument was simple, and according to Frank Triplett goes back thousands of years: other stars are suns, our sun has planets with people on one of them, why should not other stars also have populated planets? But first Mitchel, like Sagan, always explained clearly the discoveries of astronomy that fleshed out this argument with facts. He emphasized the ``clockwork universe", governed by gravity, that Newton, Herschel, and Laplace had investigated and found to be stable. There were many other similarities between these two great popularizers.

Mitchel's base was the Cincinnati Observatory, which he had founded, raising the funds for it himself in small contributions from hundreds of ``members", which he publicised as far more democratic than support from European kings and lords. He went abroad to get a telescope, and finally found his ``Great [12-inch] Refractor" in Munich, with help from John Quincy Adams, Astronomer Royal George Biddle Airy, and Paris Observatory Director Fracois Arago, in spite of a rebuff by President John Tyler. These episodes have similarities in Sagan's lobbying NASA for close-up images of Mars.

Views of other American professional astronomers on life on other worlds will also be described briefly, from Denison Olmsted, Elias Loomis, Charles A. Young (who injected physics into the discussion), and Simon Newcomb (who had an early, two-factor form of the ``Drake equation", and who thought planets had been discovered in extra-solar systems), to W. W. Campbell and H. D. Curtis (who published a quantitative estimate of the minimum-mass planet that could be detected with their radial-velocity spectrograph).

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