Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Blue suns and hollow earths

1918 photo from Florida Memory's Koreshan Unity Collection
shows a man looking at a  hollow-earth glass globe. Members
of the Koreshan Unity faith, who established a Florida colony
 in the 1890s, believed the universe existed in a hollow sphere.
Even a history aficionada like me looks ahead when something as exciting as #PlutoFlyby is taking place. Fresh from watching the latest press conference on the NASA Channel, what else can I write about but our final frontier? Specifically, how the topic fit into the life of our 19th century predecessors.

We expect great things to be found with each incremental step of space exploration. Did they hope for the same?  Surely, some average dreamers pondered the possibilities of reaching other planets and worlds beyond. Yet I've rarely encountered the subject in any of the 19th century diaries and letters I'm so fond of reading. The night sky elicited the comments. People wrote of feeling awed or insignificant when staring at the stars. This was before light pollution dulled the brilliance of the view. And we still feel awed and insignificant when looking up.

Scientists then as now were hard at work. But there wasn't any Internet, no #askNASA hashtag, no television or radio. Word-of-mouth, print media, telegraph and, later in the century, the telephone were the means of communication. None was capable of connecting vast numbers of people simultaneously for a shared real-time experience such as #PlutoFlyby.

Pioneer Floridians were hungry for scientific knowledge, though, even if they didn't write about it in diaries. In 1898, the Ocala Evening Star reported that two public lectures by a Professor Burgess, titled "The Solar System" and "Other Stars in Space," were "largely attended." An 1895 issue of the Bradford County Telegraph reprinted a column of moon facts from Popular Science Monthly. One was that the moon was "thought to be the only member of the planetary system which is wholly devoid of the least trace of an atmosphere." NASA tells us we only found out otherwise fairly recently.

Then, like now, knowledge inched forward in fits and starts, with some wrong turns. Members of the utopian Koreshan community in Southwest Florida believed the universe existed in a hollow sphere. An 1886 article in the Palatka Daily News noted a professor's assertion that the sun was blue, and only appeared yellow because of atmospheric dirt. To inhabitants on Mars, the article's main focus, the sun would appear white unless distorted by volcano-generated lava dust. Still, it was a bit surprising to learn the sun - to our eyes - really does appear white, according to the Stanford Solar Center. No word on the view from Mars. Yet.

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