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In Search of Better Skies:Harvard in Peru, II

J. Donald Fernie

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William Pickering had formerly been a physics instructor at MIT, but had joined the Harvard Observatory in 1887 at the invitation of his brother Edward, specifically to help run the new department that involved the field-station projects. In that regard it wasn't surprising that he should be sent to Peru; what was surprising was that Edward failed to foresee the ensuing uproar. It was not long in coming. William had been told that initially he was not to spend more than $500 leasing accommodations for the new station, in case the site was not as good as expected. But the first communiqué Edward had from William was a four-word cable stating simply "Send four thousand more." In reply to Edward's demand for explanation William announced that he had bought a considerable tract of land outright, was preparing to build a substantial house for himself, his wife, two children, mother-in-law, nurse and several assistants, for which he would need another $7,000, plus $2,000 more for running expenses. Edward must have come close to a heart attack. The Boyden Fund, which was paying for all this, could not possibly sustain such a rate of expenditure. He was on the verge of closing the entire project and demanding William's return, but after Edward had consulted with Harvard's president, William's expenditures were reluctantly met. A severe admonishment against wild expenditures was sent, along with Edward's expressed hope that scientific results would soon be forthcoming.

Edward had laid out a detailed plan for photographic sky surveys and was most anxious for results to justify the excessive expenditures. "I would give up everything to keep the telescopes running all night, the plates developed, and sent on promptly," he told William. But nine months later not one plate had arrived in Cambridge. A curt cable ordering William to "photograph with thirteen inch [telescope]" produced no results.

The fact was that William was happily engaged on something entirely different. Some years earlier, in 1877, an Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, had noted markings on Mars which he called "canali," meaning "channels." Mistranslated as "canals," the word started a popular theory of alien beings that lasted far into the future. William was now busy with his eye to the telescope to see what he could do with Mars. He saw no reason to restrict his announcement of results to the scientific literature, let alone Edward, and instead cabled them to the New York Herald. So it was that Edward's first intimation of what his brother was actually doing was a major newspaper report that William had discovered great mountain ranges on Mars, that the polar icecaps of Mars were melting to form rivers flowing toward the Martian equator, and that he had seen at least 40 lakes ranging up to 100 miles in size.

The astronomers of the Lick Observatory in California were reported to have received this intelligence "with a kind of amazement." Working under equally good conditions with a telescope three times the size of William's, they were quite unable to see any of these things.

The long-suffering Edward again chastised his brother. "The telegram to the N.Y. Herald has given you a colossal newspaper reputation. A flood of cuttings have appeared, forty-nine coming this morning.... You would have rendered yourself less liable to criticism if you had stated your interpretations were probable instead of ... certain." William was undaunted. Jupiter was next on his list, and soon Edward was reading in the Herald that his brother had determined that "the first satellite [of Jupiter] is egg-shaped and revolves end over end.... Its period is twelve hours and fifty-five minutes." The Lick astronomers hardly knew how to express their views politely. "Very likely the telegrams are wrong?" their director enquired hopefully of Edward, but of course they were not.

Finally (one might say at long last) Edward took action. William must return to Cambridge, and Bailey replace him in Arequipa. William, of course, was outraged and became truculent. "I've accomplished a pretty big thing ... and have got the [Harvard] authorities a great deal for their money" he wrote; "... this is my Observatory ... and it is not Bailey's Observatory nor anybody else's...." etc., etc. But Edward was implacable. William tried pleading, promising to get the photographic work done. Edward was unmoved.

On February 25, 1893, Solon with his wife and son arrived back in Arequipa, and after what must have been an extraordinarily unpleasant month of overlap with William, set to work cleaning up and starting the set program of observing.

A revolution in Peru was looming, however, and the Baileys would find themselves embroiled. We'll see what happened in a concluding episode to come.

© J. Donald Fernie

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