“At the dead hour of the night, when the world is hushed in sleep and all is still; when there is not a sound to be heard save the dead beat escapement of the clock, counting with hollow voice the footsteps of time in ceaseless round, I turn to the Ephemeris and find there, by calculations made years ago, that when that clock tells a certain hour, a star which I never saw will be in the field of the telescope for a moment, flit through and then disappear. The instrument is set; the moment approaches and is intently awaited—I look—the star mute with eloquence that gathers sublimity from the silence of the night, comes smiling and dancing into the field, and at the instant predicted even to the fraction of a second, it makes its transit and is gone. With emotions too deep for the organs of speech, the heart swells out with unutterable anthems; we then see that there is harmony in the heavens above; and though we cannot hear, we feel the ‘music of the spheres.’” — Matthew Fontaine Maury, in an 1849 presentation to the Virginia Historical Society. Maury was superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Read more about Maury and other retro scientists in Caren Cooper's guest posts at the Scientific American blogs.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.