The Immortal Fire Within: The Life and Work of Edward Emerson Barnard
Published by Cambridge University Press, 1995, 2007 Click to Buy this Book!
This 429-page biography of Edward Emerson Barnard (1857–1923), an astronomer who is best known for his discovery of Jupiter’s fifth satellite, now named Amalthea, and “Barnard’s Star,” was published in its paperback edition in 2007 and, with its new preface, the same wealth of photographs, and 27 chapters that present the biography in precise chronological order, it will prove a treasure for amateur astronomers and serious readers alike. However, even in the paperback version this is a very costly book, although it can continuously serve as a course in astronomy, particularly as the science developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Especially helpful is the fact that the footnotes are included at the end of each chapter, instead of at the end of the book. Reading slowly, a chapter at a time, will nearly guarantee thoughtful visualizations of starry night skies, and summon many familiar questions regarding the mysteries of the universe. It will also be discovered that author William Sheehan (an amateur astronomer and a psychiatrist by profession) touches upon the meaning of the words The Immortal Fire Within only very lightly and in few places, yet somehow the deeply significant meaning of these words pervades the entire book, as though throughout the long process of studying and writing this biography Sheehan had put this question to E.E. Barnard himself and awaited the answer. What is a biography of this devotion and profundity but repeated meetings of two souls, however separated in time, space, and spiritual dimension? In the end, each reader will have to draw his or her own conclusion as to the meaning of The Immortal Fire Within. Clues are apparent, such as the author’s wariness of the term “sixth sense,” and his touching upon the fact of “immortal fame” as merely in regard to a new astronomical discovery. Certainly the inclusion of this poetic phrase in the title does seem affirmative. “As above, so below,” recalls the anthroposophist, and thoughts of the “Macrocosm and Microcosm” enter anew into the sphere of consciousness.
The first chapter, titled Through rugged ways, describes the boyhood of Edward Barnard, who was born in Nashville, Tennessee, a place of culture and cultivation that became ravaged by the Civil War. His father died before he was born and his mother, also raising Edward’s older brother, decided to move to Nashville in hopes of finding work. Edward was born with a caul, and his mother gave him the middle name of Emerson after the New England writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The dreadful privations that fell upon the South during and just following the war only intensified the misery of the impoverished Barnard family. Barnard recalled many years later that his early youth was ‘so sad and bitter that even now I cannot look back to it without a shudder.’” When Barnard was nine years old his mother obtained employment for him in the photography gallery of John H. Van Stavoren, and the boy was soon put to work running errands and guiding the immense solar camera that Van Stavoren had mounted on his studio roof. The camera was named, significantly, Jupiter. William Sheehan quotes from an autobiographical sketch by Barnard: “Through summer’s heat and winter’s cold [the boy] stood upon the roof of that house and kept the great instrument directed to the sun. It was sleepy work and required great patience and endurance for one so young, and at this distant day he realizes that this training doubtless developed those qualities — patience, care and endurance — so necessary to an astronomer’s success.” Continuing his employment at the photography studio through youth and early manhood, though the studio changed ownership, Barnard, perhaps recalling the comforting sight of the stars above when a hungry and lonely boy, developed an intense interest in the night skies, acquired a barely adequate telescope and began his observations on every clear or partially clear night, observations that in good conditions took all night, and this in addition to his full-time employment in the photography studio. He developed the lifelong habit of managing on two to four hours of sleep per day. “The career of the greatest astronomical observer since William Herschel had begun,” notes Sheehan.
The author offers a rare observation about immortality at the beginning of the fourth chapter, titled A seeker of comets. As [Barnard’s] mother’s mind began to fail, “she became as unavailable to him, emotionally, as if she were dead. As with Lincoln, Barnard’s desire to compensate for his loss seems to have become associated with the need to achieve restitution through some immortal work, and in the nineteenth century, when there was still strong notions of the ‘eternal heavens above,’ what more immortal work could there be than to add knowledge to the stars? Thus in part the secret behind Barnard’s enormous drive, which made him, in a phrase Herndon used to describe Lincoln, ‘a little engine that never knew rest.’” Yet quotations from Barnard reveal, not compensations for loss, but certainty in a Creator, and strengths for life, soul and spirit, through his meaningful and worthy work. With an advance in wages from his employer, he was able to purchase a 5-inch refracting telescope and “… wondered at the beautiful contrasts of colors in some of the binary systems and the myriads of stars revealed in the clusters that I had but dimly seen before with the small telescope. But from these lesser lights my telescope constantly swung back to the Milky Way, again to gaze on the ‘broad and ample road where dust is stars.’ So enraptured was I with these glimpses of the Creator’s works that I heeded not the cold nor the loneliness of the night. And when the approaching dawn began to whiten the eastern skies, I sought out the great planet Jupiter, then only just emerging from the solar rays, and beheld with rapture his four bright moons and vast belt system. But when the dawn had paled each stellar fire, the coldness of the night forcibly impressed itself upon me and I retired from the field of glory …” And from the fifth chapter of the book, Vanderbilt astronomer, comes an awesome observation of “spider-threads floating across the sky, drifting with the wind, and brilliantly illuminated by the Sun … By hiding the Sun with the dome, we could see great numbers of spider-webs floating across the sky to the south-east and shining very brilliantly in the Sun as they twisted in the wind. It was a very interesting sight. I do not recall that any spiders were seen on these floating threads, although I have heard that they sometimes so transport themselves.”
In 1876, Barnard, a Christian, became a member of the local Baptist church at the behest of his friend Peter R. Calvert, who was the brother of Rhoda Calvert, whom Barnard married in 1881. By this time he had begun searching for comets in earnest and was regularly publishing the results of his observations in astronomy journals. In September of 1881 he discovered his first new comet and received $200 in prize money from a local entrepreneur and patron of astronomy, H. H. Warner. Becoming well-known and admired for his continuing and steadfast work as an observer, his chosen profession seemed assured when he accepted an offer to be a fellow of astronomy — with small salary and housing — at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “By the end of 1885, Barnard had been awarded the Warner prize for the fifth time — more than anyone else … ‘Patience, care and endurance’ had been the qualities that had set Barnard off from the other small boys who had tried to guide Van Stavoren’s solar camera. Because of these qualities, he had succeeded where all the others had failed, and the same qualities now made him a successful seeker of comets.”
As the Vanderbilt fellowship neared its completion, Barnard actively pursued a position on the staff of the Lick Observatory, “then fast abuilding on Mt. Hamilton, a 4200 foot peak near San Jose, California. When completed the observatory would boast a 36-inch refractor, the largest in the world.” Barnard began “courting the observatory’s director-to-be, Edward Singleton Holden.” After Barnard received an offer from Holden to become an observer at Lick, and after he and his wife, Rhoda, had endured hardships when the “recklessly overeager” astronomer showed up for work eight months before the observatory was completed — salary no object — Barnard settled into his new position (after working as a clerk to support himself and Rhoda during the eight-month wait), only to endure years of not being able to get along with the arrogant Holden, an ex-military officer, and fighting tooth and nail for any time on the 36-inch refractor, often denied him by Holden even during times when the refractor was not in use. The ongoing arguments between Holden and most of his staff are detailed in the twelfth chapter, I am tired here, but in the thirteenth chapter, Immortality, the author describes Barnard’s September 1892 discovery of the fifth satellite of Jupiter.
The photograph on the cover of the book is a self-portrait, taken by Barnard shortly after the discovery of Jupiter V. Thirty-five years old, he is standing next to the Lick Observatory’s 36-inch refractor.
The “immortal” discovery began a time of great turning points in E.E. Barnard’s life, and he eventually moved into the life of what would today be called a “world-class” astronomer. This included traveling throughout the United States and to Europe on a six-month leave with pay, visiting famous observatories, receiving prestigious awards, contributing to the development of photographic telescopes, joining expeditions to observe solar eclipses, and eventually accepting a position as professor of astronomy with the University of Chicago in 1895 (although loathe to leave California), with use of the Yerkes Observatory by Lake Geneva with its 40-inch refractor. What is now called “Barnard’s Star” or “Barnard’s Runaway Star,” a red dwarf which “has the distinction of having the greatest apparent motion (proper motion) of any star known,” was his second great discovery, and occurred in 1916.
Barnard’s wife died in 1921 of a stroke, and he never fully recovered from her loss. He died in 1923 at the age of 65, after a long struggle with diabetes mellitus.
In the Preface to the Paperback Edition, published in 2007, the author has had time to think further about the meaning of The Immortal Fire Within, and offers the following: “At Nashville, among the sweet and spicy fragrance of the magnolias, at Lick Observatory, where the straw-colored hills roll away from Mt. Hamilton and recall his view in the Great Lick Refractor of the “seas” of Mars, above all at Yerkes, where the geese still gather in the autumn in Lake Geneva before setting south for the winter as he must often have wished to do, the astronomically-minded person still finds his spirit everywhere. Even more so is this true of the skies, where he is memorialized in Barnard’s Star, Bernard’s Loop, and Bernard’s dark nebulae. If you seek his monument, look around you.” – Review by Martha Keltz
Another book by William Sheehan, co-authored with Richard Baum and published in 1997 by Plenum Publishing Corporation, titled In Search of Planet Vulcan: The Ghost in Newton’s Clockwork Universe, has also been reviewed on this site.
Recommended: Third Scientific Lecture-Course: Astronomy. The Relation of the Diverse Branches of Natural Science to Astronomy, by Rudolf Steiner, 1921.