Venus on Mars

Let’s Hear It For Good Ol’ Vesto!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on September 17, 2012

Modesty Becomes Vesto

One hundred years ago today, an unassuming junior astronomer at Lowell Observatory made a discovery that forever changed our understanding of the universe – yet hardly anyone recognizes the name Vesto Melvin Slipher. Who?

“We have hired a new observer, Mr. V.M., imported from Indiana,” Miss Lulu writes in her journal.

More people moving about day and night, passing each other in the hallways, always ready to interpret the comings and goings of others as eagerly as we observe and interpret the events we see on Mars.

Miss Lulu’s first mention of V.M. Slipher is as a slight annoyance, a vexing reason she must now be more discreet in finding and spending intimate moments with her boss Percival Lowell.

But over time Miss Lulu comes to admire Slipher’s quiet work. Ultimately, her own evolving notions about the universe are  inspired by his early work with the spectrograph and his discovery of “redshift” – the color of objects moving away from each other shifting toward the red end of the color spectrum. Until then, no one had observed this kind of dramatic movement through the heavens. No one had theorized the universe was actually expanding.

Miss Lulu writes in her journal:

I have come to believe that we live in an energetic universe. As humans, in particular the busy ones, rarely sit still for any extended period of time and often travel from one place to another to get on with their lives, neither do our celestial acquaintances, who turn and fidget constantly as they proceed with their own journeys through the universe.

Both Slipher and Miss Lulu had cause to take care in how they announced their findings – any deviation from Lowell’s established talking points (life on Mars and, later in his life, the obsessive search for what eventually became Pluto) could be met by swift dismissal. But even after Lowell died and Slipher became Observatory director, he was hesitant to promote his own cause (lessons learned well during his tenure as Lowell’s assistant).

Slipher eventually did present his findings at an astronomer’s conference – that’s how Edwin Hubble found out about them. (You can read more about this in Marcia Bartusiak’s excellent book, The Day We Found the Universe.)

Hubble took Slipher’s data and ran with it, announcing soon after his “Theory of an Expanding Universe,” which eventually led us backwards to envision The Big Bang. (Unlike Slipher, Hubble knew a little about PR and was not shy about promoting himself and his ideas – it turned out well for Hubble – he got a space telescope named after him.)

Slipher Rotunda at Lowell Observatory – A Shining Legacy

At Lowell Observatory, there’s a elegant domed building named after Slipher, and the spectrograph he used is in a glass display case inside, yet most of the portraits peering down from ornate frames are of Lowell, not Slipher. The first time I visited the Observatory, there was little mention of Slipher’s work. When I returned this summer, I was thrilled to see a new sign posted on the road leading up Mars Hill: Home of the Expanding Universe.

Slipher came to Lowell Observatory as a “temp” hire, but stayed for more than 50 years and his impact is still felt among astronomers and cosmologists.

I’m glad the Slipher – I mean Lowell – Observatory is observing this centennial, and that Slipher is finally getting this long overdue recognition.

Now if someone could just discover where all those stars, planets and galaxies speeding away from us are actually headed????? The universe wants to know…


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