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A Harvard Natural Philosophy Education: Henry David Thoreau and the Psychology of Comets

Mr. Richard Schmidt, Time Service Department (ret.) US Naval Observatory, Washington, DC
When Dec 14, 2017
from 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM
Where USNO, Building 56, Large Conference Room
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Canst thou tear-lesse gaze
Ev’n night by night on that prodigious blaze,
That hairy Comet, that long-streaming Star,
Which threatens earth with Famine, Plague and War?

-Joshua Sylvester

As a member of the Harvard College class of 1837, Henry David Thoreau was tutored in mathematics and physics by the dryly theoretical Benjamin Peirce.  Thoreau would have cared little for the rigors of classwork and generally managed to avoid study: "Suffice it to say, that though bodily I have been a member of Harvard University, heart and soul I have been far away among the scenes of my boyhood.  Those hours that should have been devoted to study, have been spent in scouring the woods, and exploring the lakes and streams of my native village."

At this time natural philosophy (astronomy) was taught by the lively and charismatic Joseph Lovering.  Lovering, just four years older than Thoreau, delighted in lecturing at the telescope, where the mysteries of the night sky were unveiled as real experiences.  Thoreau agreed with Ralph Waldo Emerson that stargazing with a telescope was "worth all the astronomical lectures".

Yet Thoreau attended Harvard a full decade before it would have a real observatory.  When the esteemed chronometer maker William Cranch Bond was appointed as "Astronomical Observer to the University" in 1839, he was invited to bring his own instruments.  Harvard lacked even the funds to pay him a salary.

All this began to change when "the Great March Comet of 1843" blazed across the heavens.  The spell-binding nightly display ignited the imagination of Bostonians – and terrified the superstitious.  Peirce saw the comet as a gift from above; in a public lecture at the Odeon Theater attended by a thousand patrons, he lamented the inadequate state of Harvard’s instruments, especially compared to the superior Philadelphia High School Observatory.  Before long, public pledges secured $25,000 to provide Harvard with the finest telescope in the world.  The psychology of comets – the public’s fascination with them and the race with European astronomers to discover more of them – would establish Harvard College Observatory as the pre-eminent American astronomical institution.

Brief Bio:  Forty-two years ago Richard Schmidt was hired by the Nautical Almanac Office, US Naval Observatory up on Massachusetts Avenue to compute positions of celestial objects for the Nautical Almanac Office.  Though he retired from Federal service five years ago, he has just this week signed on for five more years as a part-time contractor.  This illustrates the adage that “old astronomers never retire, they just contract away.”  In his career at the Naval Observatory, Schmidt has forgotten most of the time spent, but he does recall computing times of sunrise/set for accident attorneys, producing printed pages of tables of star and planet positions for the various almanacs, being selected to speak about Comets on Ted Koppel’s Nightline, helping test the prototype CCD cameras for the Hubble Space Telescope, creating a Zodiacal Catalogue of precise star positions for lunar occultation observers, creating the full-scale plans for the big star map at the Albert Einstein Memorial.  In 1980 Schmidt saved from the scrap heap the historic 12-inch Clark telescope, which was reinstalled in the dome of the Main Bldg. and which is featured on night observing tours.  For 14 years he taught the ever-popular “Stargazing at the Naval Observatory” for the Smithsonian Resident Associates.  From 1989 to the present day Schmidt has provided computer operations support for the Time Service Dept. at the Naval Observatory, which manages the DoD Master Atomic Clocks, where he established the first DoD network time servers ”tick and tock” (1994) and the first web server in the Navy (1995).  Today these are the longest continuously-running internet services in the Navy.  Schmidt received a graduation certificate (and spelling bee award) from Blessed Sacrament School, St. Mary Magdalen and St. Michael’s School, McBride High School, and the University of Virginia.  He resides with his wife Margaret under a rooftop computerized observatory, and is currently working on a biography of the Harvard astronomer H. P. Tuttle.

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