Of Comets, Ferrets, and Nebulae: Charles Messier, his Discoveries and his World

Of Comets, Ferrets, and Nebulae: Charles Messier, his Discoveries and his World

In the 18th century the nature of comets and their orbits fascinated astronomers, and no one more than Charles Messier, who discovered 13 of them.  So famous was his comet-hunting that his King, Louis XV, nicknamed Messier the ‘Ferret’ of comets. Yet he was so frustrated by the nebulous blobs which he sometimes mistook for comets that he compiled a list of these ‘nuisances’.  This ‘Messier Catalogue’ would immortalise him, and would go on to become the bedrock of deep-space astronomy.  France had a very dynamic scientific community in Messier’s time, and we will see him in the context of the great French astronomical achievements of the age. Surviving the French Revolution, Messier died in 1817, aged 87.

 

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About Allan Chapman

Allan Chapman is a historian of science at Oxford University, with a special interest in the history of astronomy.  He is the author of 14 books and over 150 journal articles, and has made several television programmes.  He has been awarded honorary doctorates for his work in the history of astronomy by the University of Central Lancashire (2004) and Salford University (2010), and in 2014 received an ‘Outstanding Alumnus’ award from Lancaster University.  In 2015 he was presented with the Jackson-Gwilt Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society – the first time it has been awarded to a historian.  His latest books are Stargazers: Copernicus, Galileo, the Telescope, and the Church. The Astronomical Renaissance, 1500-1700 (2014), and Physicians, Plagues, and Progress: A History of Western Medicine from Antiquity to Antibiotics (2016), both published by Lion Hudson, Oxford.