Two Weeks on Mars
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Barnard and Mars

E. E. Barnard at the Lick 36-inch

In the 1890s, the great American astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard used the 36-inch refractor at California's Lick Observatory to make a classic series of observations of Mars. William K.Hartmann, in A Traveler's Guide to Mars, has written (p. 65):

"In the 1890s, the American observer Edward E. Barnard used the 36-inch-wide telescope at California's Lick Observatory to make visual studies of Mars, and he reported 'a vast amount of detail,' including various spots and patches, 'irregular and broken up.' In retrospect, Barnard has been recognized as one of the best Mars observers of all time, with one of the best telescopes ever used for extended visual observations of the red planet."

By way of background, at the previous perihelic opposition, in 1877, a number of important landmarks occurred in the study of Mars. Asaph Hall discovered the two moons, Phobos and Deimos, at the U.S. Naval Observatory (then located above the swampy lowland called "Foggy Bottom," on the Potomac). An English portrait painter, Nathaniel Green, produced an exquisite series of drawings of Mars from the island of Madeira, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Morocco.

By far the most important study, however, was that carried out by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, using the 8.6-inch Merz refractor of the Brera Observatory in Milan. Today - and one suspects even in Schiaparelli's day - the 18th century Brera palace is a somewhat musty and dilapidated building, but for Mars lovers it is a sublime temple, a wonderfully evocative place. It is located in downtown Milan, not far from the Cathedral and the Sforza palace, and chiefly used as studios for art students. It still contains 19th century plaster casts of famous Greek and Roman statues and even - as a legacy from Napoleon -- a small art gallery with its own Raphaels, Caravaggios, and Titians.

When he decided to commence a serious study of Mars, Schiaparelli had already achieved world-renown and a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for his work showing that meteor showers are formed of cast-off debris from certain periodic comets. He was an extraordinarily meticulous worker; even in his student days at Pulkova and Berlin, he had kept carefully transcribed and blot-free notebooks of lectures by such eminent astronomers as Wilhelm Struve and Johann Franz Encke, which are still preserved in the Brera Observatory archives and reveal his incredibly perfectionistic standards. These notebooks are in a condition that would be described by a publisher as "camera-ready." In 1875, the observatory had acquired its Merz refractor. Only in the last few years, after a detour to the Science Museum of Milan where thieves stole all its brass knobs and moveable parts, has it been restored once again to the dome of the roof of the Brera palace. Now it can once more be approached in awe via the same winding staircase Schiaparelli once climbed to reach it.

Giovanni Schiaparelli

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