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HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

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Charles Messier (1730 - 1817)

Charles Messier was born in Badonviller, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Lorraine, France. His father was a sheriff's officer who chased up people who owed money. The family was not very well off, not surprising considering his mother gave birth to twelve children, Charles being the tenth. Six of Messier's siblings died in infancy and his father died when Messier was only eleven years old. It must have been hard for Messier to continue his education, yet alone find the time to develop his interest in astronomy.

Messier was fourteen when, in 1744, he saw the "Great Comet" in the skies above Lorraine and then four years later, in 1748, he saw the annular solar eclipse. It could well have been these events that first inspired him in his quest to discover comets later in life. Messier moved to Paris in 1751, aged 21,  and his good handwriting secured him a job working with the Navy Astronomer, Joseph Delisle. Delisle, Messier and Delisle's secretary, Libour, all had rooms in the Hotel de Cluny that also housed an observatory. It was Delisle and Libour who taught Messier how to keep accurate records of astronomical observations. The first known record made by Messier was the transit of Mercury across the Sun in 1753.

Searching for comets was the "in" thing to do for astronomers in the mid-eighteenth century. Discovering a comet could make an astronomer famous overnight. In 1757 the big search was on for the comet that Halley had predicted would return during that year. Messier was not the first to see Halley's Comet that became visible in December 1757 but he did find it a few months later. Messier realised that there were other "objects" in the sky that could easily be mistaken for comets but, in fact, were in fixed positions. He started to catalogue these objects so that he would not be fooled by them and waste time in his hunt for comets.

 

Charles Messier

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The first entry, in 1758, in what was to become his catalogue of these "objects" was what we now know to be the Crab Nebula. He assigned this "object" the identification M1. His second entry, M2, was a globular cluster found in the constellation of Aquarius. While Messier was compiling his catalogue of non-comets, he was also searching for the real thing. In 1763 he discovered Comet 1763 Messier and, in 1764, Comet 1764 Messier.

Messier was deeply disappointed not to be admitted as a member to the Académie Royale des Sciences after his discoveries. He was, however, appreciated by other countries. Britain, Russia, Germany and Sweden selected him for membership of their equivalent royal societies and these were only a few of the honours awarded to him internationally. Messier's catalogue was first published in 1771 when it contained forty five references, M1 to M45. It was reprinted, with supplements, in 1780 and 1781. The last "object" catalogued by Messier was to M110.

Messier classified each of his objects into one of eight categories:

  1. bright (nebulae)

  2. faint (nebulae)

  3. very faint (nebulae)

  4. planetary (nebulae) (the name is still used; Messier described these nebulae as "planetary" because they looked more like a planet through the telescope)

  5. very large (nebulae)

  6. very compressed and rich (star clusters)

  7. clusters of small and large stars, faint and bright

  8. loosely scattered clusters of stars

 

Although astronomers now use a new catalogue, the New General Catalogue, Messier's catalogue numbers are still very much in general use. The Andromeda Galaxy NGC 206 is just as often referred to as M31.

In 1770 Messier was at last admitted as a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences and, in 1771, he was appointed as the Naval Astronomer (Delisle had died five years before). Messier certainly achieved what he had sent out to do! He discovered twenty comets, easily half of those that had been visible in the skies during his lifetime. In 1806 he was presented the Cross of the Legion of Honor by Napoleon Bonaparte. However, Messier was growing old and he had suffered the loss of his income and pension during the French revolution. His eyesight was failing and, in 1815, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed. Eighteen months later, Messier died in his sleep, aged 86, and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery. He is acknowledged for his work today by having a Moon crater and an asteroid named after him.

 

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