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Darwin and Herschel: The Fossil Record of a Relationship

By Richard Oram

2009 marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Ransom Center owns several copies of the first edition, the most interesting being the one sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, a famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.”

Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries” —as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.

From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beagle was in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.

We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg recently noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.

The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:

Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. [1859]

My dear Sir John Herschel

I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge

With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin

The copy of the Origin volume mentioned in this blog is on display in the Ransom Center Reading Room lobby from November 19 through January 15, 2010, during Reading Room hours.

From the Galleries: Halley's Comet

By Elana Estrin

Halley’s Comet was last spotted by the unaided human eye in 1986, and isn’t estimated to be visible again until 2026. For those who can’t wait another 17 years, the Ransom Center’s exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, offers visitors an early glimpse of Halley’s Comet, as rendered by John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.

Halley’s Comet was no novelty for Herschel; she discovered no fewer than eight comets in her lifetime. She drew these four illustrations of Halley’s Comet in her late eighties, after being awarded a gold medal and honorary membership from the Royal Astronomical Society. Also on display are pencil sketches of Halley’s Comet by Herschel’s astronomer nephew, John F. W. Herschel, and six illustrations of comets by various other astronomers.

How do you make the world go 'round?

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center’s Coronelli Celestial globe (ca. 1688) is almost five feet high and depicts several constellations labeled in Italian and Latin. To coincide with the current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, the technology and digital services department developed a virtual model of the globe for our website. Photographer Pete Smith and technology services graduate intern Ramona Broussard describe how they assembled this model:

The first challenge we encountered in creating this virtual model was moving the globe to the photography studio to capture high-quality images. The Ransom Center’s exhibition preparation department had to remove a door so that the large globe could fit inside the photography studio.

After our first test shots, we realized that the lighting would have to be polarized to clear up the glare coming off the shiny surface of the globe. The final lighting setup required five powerful flash units and numerous reflectors. For the animation to run smoothly, the globe had to be rotated the same distance for each photographed frame. After some investigation we found that the globe was marked with 72 longitudinal lines that were perfect to use as guides when we moved the globe for each frame. When photographing the globe we had to be careful not to skip a section or double up on one.

One person moved the globe and carefully stepped out of the frame so that the photograph could be taken. This process was repeated 72 times until the globe was photographed for one full rotation. When the photographing was complete, the exhibition preparation crew lifted the globe onto a type of dolly and rolled it out of the studio. They then replaced the door.

The next challenge was deciding how to stitch the photographs together and present them online in a usable and accurate way. We settled on using Flash because Flash is a widely adopted tool that most browsers support without the need for add-ons or plug-ins; the necessity of downloading add-ons often prevents people from accessing new multimedia.

We reviewed several online Flash tools and settled on one created by YoFLA because it was easy to use and provided several functions we wanted, including the ability to zoom, a customizable look, and predefined hotspots (or clickable areas.) YoFLA 3D Object Rotate is freely available for those who want to try it.

The first 3D object we created with 72 uncropped images was prohibitively large. To keep download time to a minimum, we created a smaller object with only 36 images that were cropped. Finally, we had a virtual globe that could be put online for easy viewing and close inspection.

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