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Public Policy

Why Mass Media Keep Running Horoscopes, and How That Shows You Who Not to Heed

Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 21, no. 4, October-December 2004, p6.

For many years – decades, now – I've criticized mass media for continuing to publish horoscopes. Scientists and skeptics have demonstrated repeatedly, scientifically, logically, persuasively, that those published horoscopes are junk. They're not valid. They mislead readers. They even influence some readers to act in ways that they otherwise wouldn't, and to that degree they harm their audience.

I've worked in several mass-communications media, including a daily newspaper in a big chain, a web-based general news outlet, an authoritative independent scientific magazine, and now an independent science humor magazine. Colleagues in other radio, television, and assorted media tell me what those are like. Outside of specifically-scientific media, neither scientific literacy nor scientific mindset prevail. The vast majority of media owners and employees don't know science, and don't care much about it. Neither science literacy, nor gullibility for pseudoscience, seems relevant for hiring or promotion. Anywhere that science is concerned, they literally don't know what they are doing.

Profit-Driven Corporate Media

Corporate owners are notorious for being driven by the near-term bottom line. They aren't far-sighted enough for the long run (by contrast, some family-owned newspapers count by generations, not quarters).

Some owners make it clear that their principal purpose is to make money. Rupert Murdoch obviously puts profit foremost throughout his empire, so his Fox outlets, for example, may place journalistic standards second (or lower), and scientific validity third (or lower), along their way to lowering cultural standards generally. When Murdoch retires, I hope his successors will prioritize for greater public responsibility.

It's almost as bad outside Murdoch's empire. Most local newspapers are parts of large chains, which achieve economies of scale by operating non-local factors by corporate dictum. The corporation picks the cartoons and non-news features to run, including the horoscope column. The local news staff gets to fill the "news hole" on each page, but has zero influence on anything else. They funnel their attention to what they can do something about. Most newspapers don't have a science writer, and simply copy Associated Press reports, though AP is depressingly careless. I know a science writer who professed to not know whether her newspaper even ran a horoscope because she never looked at the non-news pages ... in which their horoscope runs every day. Most readers don't distinguish the different sources of what that newspaper prints on different parts of different pages.

Editing from Ignorance

I don't know any science writers or science editors who favor running horoscopes. But none rise high enough to make grand corporate decisions. Most stay within their subject. They report to general-journalism veterans, who are usually knowledgeable about public affairs, but emphatically ignorant about nature. The general-news media I worked for published horoscopes, and I carped about that, but gently enough not to threaten my employment.

Those senior editors impose templates of ignorance on the science coverage. I once had to put all my science coverage through a senior editor who was utterly ignorant, who kept failing to understand anything significant, and kept directing me to irrelevancies.

Another senior editor declared that "all stories are people stories", thus crippling coverage of, for example, a comet hitting a planet. That's how reporting about that comet and that planet gets shunted aside for personality-pieces about whoever happened to discover things.

Science coverage is likely to remain poor in corporate mass media. The bean counters don't understand science. The moguls don't understand science. The journalists in general don't understand science. They'll probably remain disgustingly ignorant for disgusting decades to come. So the presence of a horoscope will keep indicating a medium's scientific invalidity: media that publish horoscopes pander and profiteer; they don't understand science, and don't respect the reader enough to report reality.

Less-Filtered Voices

Now, however, little voices have a far better opportunity to be heard. I run an independent magazine, and I can print anything that won't alienate my subscribers. My contributors are often delighted to find an outlet where science, validity, and humor dominate decision-making. Horoscope-free specialty newsletters and magazines abound – seek them at your newsstand and library.

But the biggest influence by far is the World Wide Web. Small media have a far louder voice when you read what they say. For a horoscope-free, non-corporate take, follow links from these among your explorations: disinfo.com; projectcensored.org; transparency.org; eurekalert.org; quackwatch.org; debunker.com; csicop.org; utne.com. I don't agree with all their views, but I don't think any of them features a horoscope.

Because media like those – and of course your own favorite alternate viewpoints – can no longer be stifled, corporate influence is actually limited. If corporate media don't serve your needs, stop buying them, and find your own horoscope-free inputs instead.

Expelling Cheaters

Norman Sperling, in Teaching&, Sonoma State University, April 1989, p3.

I used to be plagued by cheaters in my large Astronomy 100 sections, and have evolved mechanisms to minimize it.

The California State University system has a policy on cheating. The part of Title 5 of the State Code that is reprinted in every student's catalog specifies that the penalty for cheating is expulsion from the CSU system! That constitutes abundant warning to students, as well as full definition of sanctions.

Hardly any professors file such charges. Virtually all handle cheating at a much lower level – making cheaters re-do the offending test or paper, or giving an F for that paper. A few give an F for the course. But so few file campus-level charges that, when I did so a few years ago, administrators had to look up the procedure.

From the cheater's viewpoint, course-level sanctions are trivial. Cheaters typically feel that they're going to do poorly on that paper anyway, so they have nothing to lose. At worst, if caught, they do indeed flunk it. Even if the penalty is an F in the course, the Transcript just shows failure, not cause. Thus, faculty might very well have caught your cheaters before. How could you tell? Those professors' policies taught the students that they can keep cheating with near-impunity.

Notice the explicit warning from my syllabus:
"Regardless of anything you may have gotten away with elsewhere, ANY cheating or plagiarism in my class will be prosecuted to the FULL extent permissible. Cheating and plagiarism are offenses against the CSU system, punishable by expulsion from the CSU system. Most of my students work hard for their grades, and I vigorously defend the value of their earned credit. In recent terms I have detected several different types of cheating, and will absolutely not tolerate it. As far as I know, no student I've caught is in the CSU system any more."

I read this out loud on the first day, in a tone leaving no doubt. Thus, all students who are tempted to cheat know that I will buck for expulsion when I catch them. When I catch a cheater, I do indeed file the strongest case I can with the administration, invariable arguing for expulsion. While administrators are very reluctant to expel, they frequently agree to suspend. I can tell a class that I intend to do this, with a perfectly straight face, that I indeed do this, with no sympathy extended after the infraction. This, and only this, practice teaches students that we mean what we say, and that there is an unacceptable penalty for cheating, making the gamble undesirable.

Incidents of cheating have dropped precipitously in my classes. When I first started including that paragraph, they dropped to about a case a year. And since I began reading it aloud, with feeling, in the first session, I have had just one case – a student who hadn't been there the first day. From this, I conclude that following state law, and saying so clearly, virtually eliminates cheating. Lesser practices merely school cheaters in becoming the next generation of embezzlers and the like.

I therefore urge all instructors to absolutely renounce all sympathy for cheaters, to prosecute every case and buck for expulsion, and to sincerely promise this to every class, unmistakably, both in writing and orally. It will tell the vast majority of our students that we defend hard-earned credit, that we mean what we say, and that college is for people who want to learn. And it will reduce cheating to very low levels.

Songs With Good Chemistry

Parodies and Commentaries, by David Kritchevsky. AOCS Press, Champaign, Illinois, 2003. ISBN 1-893997-46-4. 46 pages. $5.00. Order through www.aocs.org/catalog/product.asp?ID=wdk&dept=90

reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v49 #6, November 2005, p28.

Tucked away under a host of worthy technical volumes like Healthful Lipids and The Biodiesel Handbook, The American Oil Chemists' Society also publishes this songbook by a major scholar at Philadelphia's Wistar Institute.

Unlearning, Degrees of Belief, and Feng Shui

Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 17, no. 6, March 1999, p3-4.

Most people know the detailed "ifs, ands, and buts" of their own specialties. To learn them often requires un-learning the simplifications of "common knowledge" and "conventional wisdom". Outside their specialties, however, most people don't know any better than to accept oversimplifications. So do most leaders, confronted by problems they are not expert in, and so do most mass media. And so do skeptics, though we often feel worse when we learn better.

The oversimplifications we learn abound with boundaries, but reality turns out to be much more muddled. This is true for countries, for languages, and for "mystical beliefs".

National Boundaries

Maps often portray national boundaries as a sharp change from one solid color to a contrasting one. That gives the false impression that the area all in one solid color is all one uniform place, changing abruptly at the boundary to a contrasting uniform place. Before the Soviet Union broke up, most Westerners considered "Russian" and "Soviet" to be synonyms, and many were surprised when the flow of events featured the national identities of Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, and others.

I learned another dimension from Dr. A. Florsch, who gave me a grand tour of Strasbourg Observatory. As we gazed toward the nearby Rhine River, he told me "I am a Frenchman. My father was a German. His father was a Frenchman, and his father was a German. And we have never moved!"

Languages and Dialects

Language, too, is much more varied than generally appreciated. I was taught that "in Germany, they speak German". That gave me the false impressions that "Germany" is one uniform place and "German" is one uniform language. I later learned that there are not only different accents and regional preferences, but also local dialects which are unintelligible to speakers of the nationwide version. In Newsweek I read a linguist's comment that "a language is a dialect with an army." Most often, the dialect of the capital becomes the "national language", especially through radio and television.

The same certainly applies in China. My ex grew up speaking Yantai dialect. It's a version of Mandarin which is not intelligible to people who only know Beijing dialect. Cantonese, in 2 southern provinces where many Chinese in America originated, is also not intelligible to Beijing or Yantai or dozens of other Chinese dialects. Most Mainland Chinese can now understand Beijing Mandarin, though they continue to speak their local tongue.

Feng Shui

Before I married a Chinese woman, visited plain people in China (in contrast to just tourist sites), and talked so often with Chinese people in America, I would have bought the tone of some skeptics' rants against "feng shui" (pronounced "fung shway"). That is reported as the mystical belief that buildings and their furnishings must be arranged in certain ways for good luck, and certain other arrangements must be avoided to fend off bad luck. This gives the false impression that "feng shui" is a uniform belief, and that all Chinese swallow it whole. Reality is much more varied.

Yes, there are highly-respected people "proficient" in feng shui. And, yes, there are some users who "believe" their dictates. But the vast majority of practitioners and users operate much more casually. Hardly anyone concentrates on feng shui. For most, it is little more than "that chair will look good over there".

It's hardly different from the interior design practice of one of our neighbors. When she says "that chair will look good over there", clients take her advice. They don't call her mystical, but they can't explain her skill, either.

It is the varying degrees that most media, politicians, and skeptics miss. From my visits and conversations I have learned that China is a country with enormous variety in food, language, and scenery, and also enormous variety in beliefs, intensities of beliefs, and local leadership. I've learned that, since the central government relaxed its grip, when you hear "China cracked down on X", it really means that "One Chinese politician cracked down on X, but outside his influence, people generally went about their business as usual." And when you hear some skeptics say that "Chinese believe Y", interpret that as "Some Chinese believe Y, and many less so, and others not at all, and some contrariwise."

How Much Pull?

Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 21, no. 4, October-December 2004, p10.

Every few years, somebody makes up a claim that the arrangement of celestial bodies caused, or will cause, something big to happen. This stirs the ignorant among the public and the media, sells tons of books and tabloids, and fills airwaves with blather, all without benefit of actual factual content.

Half a century ago, the Austrian psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky published Worlds in Collision. This book said Venus erupted out of Jupiter, flew close to Earth, and then settled into its present orbit.
This demonstrates utter ignorance of the physical nature of Jupiter – which is so massive that the power needed for such an eruption would demand causes and effects unlike anything witnessed in nature.
It contradicts what we understand about chemistry – how could the oxidizing atmosphere of Venus arise from the reducing atmosphere of Jupiter?
It demonstrates utter ignorance of gravitational interaction – how could a close approach of Venus part the Red Sea without causing many other massive tidal disruptions?
It demonstrates utter ignorance of celestial mechanics – changing to Venus's present orbit requires transferring huge amounts of energy to a very nearby object which, however, does not exist.
It claims Venus and Mars collided a few thousand years ago, which is absolutely contradicted by spacecraft observations of their surfaces, which show every sign that those surfaces are hundreds of millions of years old.

Worlds in Collision went through many printings, making a lot of money for its author. It inspired supporters who still claim that it is merely scientists, not Nature itself, who are against Velikovsky. Velikovsky's tale could only appeal to people who have very little knowledge of how those aspects of Nature really work, especially of the amounts of energy involved.

In 1974, John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann published The Jupiter Effect, claiming that an alignment of planets in 1982 would cause gravitational havoc, triggering, among other things, massive earthquakes in California. Though Gribbin earned a PhD in astronomy, he showed greater interest in earning money from a public who knew less than he did. Again, the amounts don't work out. The alignment was weak. The gravitational difference was trivial. Such alignments have occurred repeatedly in the past, and didn't trigger massive earthquakes or any other noticeable effect.

Real scientists debunked the claims immediately. Planetaria produced shows explaining why the book was bunk. Amateur astronomers held star parties around alignment time to show the planets to the public. As scientists predicted, contrary to Gribbin and Plagemann, none of the Jupiter Effects actually occurred. However, Gribbin and Plagemann earned quite a lot of money from book sales, media appearances, and so on.

Richard Noone pulled a similar stunt in his 1982 book 5/5/2000. Yet again, he claimed that planet alignments would gang up to pull on Earth, this time triggering rampant glaciation. Yet again, book buyers were fleeced (by the poor writing quality as well as the contents). Yet again, the public was deceived by gullible media, especially websites. Yet again, the date came and went and nothing they predicted happened.

In 1987, Jose Arguelles concocted a tale of "Harmonic Convergence" and published it as The Mayan Factor. Arguelles made up a "Mayan" calendar cycle that doesn't come from any archaeological record. He claimed that in 2012 a "galactic wave" would culminate in a new age, allowing Earth to join the Galactic Federation and its Council. This was a total fabrication from science fiction and New Age themes, not anything real.

Adherents claim earth's resonant frequency is changing from "8 Hertz per second" (a garbled term) to 13; I know of no geophysical measurement supporting this. They claim that this energy boost (is it?) accompanies the decrease of Earth's magnetic field to zero. That's also a mixture of garble and garbage.

The "Harmonic Convergence" played on the same ignorance of the same public – who don't know the Earth's structure, let alone the Galaxy's. It, too, enjoyed big, profitable sales. It, too, resulted in no geophysical effects. The public was deceived again, fleeced of its money and attention. Again, the media – ignorant of the realities of nature, and more eager to share circulation gains from spreading claims than to verify them with experts – fostered the public ignorance, thereby compounding it.

It's been a few years. Someone is going to concoct another fiction, and sell it.

But there's also another trend at work. The earlier books made much more stir than the later ones. They went through more printings, and probably made more money, than the later ones. While the media certainly still aren't science-literate, they've shown progressively less gullibility in this sequence; the 5/5/2000 event created only a minor stir, largely in the uncontrolled claims rampant on the WWW.

One contributing factor is the rising percentage of the public that has passed college science survey courses. A quarter of a million US college students take intro-astro courses every year. Throughout the developed world, education is providing the public with a better basis to judge claims with. Science hasn't won yet, but we're blunting the bunk a bit.
Astronomy Pseudoscience Public Policy Human Behavior

The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams: A Case Study in Astronomical Internationalism

Norman Sperling
© and reproduced by permission from Griffith Observer magazine, June 1991, pp 2-17.

Astronomical news travels fast. Within hours, first details of a comet or nova get to astronomers all around the world. Of course, all sorts of news travels fast these days, which is often cited as a wonder of modern technology. It may be a surprise to learn, therefore, that long before the global media culture arose, before television, and even before radio, astronomers set up their own system to spread scientific alerts. Astronomers recognized that national hostilities inhibited their research, and so, long before the United Nations or the League of Nations, astronomers designed procedures to evade such hostilities.

For more than a century, when the internationalist needs of astronomical communications have collided with nationalist politics, astronomy has consistently won far out of proportion to its political strength. Astronomy's successful internationalism is epitomized by the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams, founded in 1882. When the International Astronomical Union was founded in 1919, its Commission 6 assumed responsibility for the Bureau. The Bureau has overcome every administrative, economic, and military obstruction the world has thrown at it. It even kept functioning without interruption through World Wars I and II, disseminating news of transient phenomena to all subscribers regardless of nationality.

How Cosmic Events Impose Internationalism on Astronomers

Several important categories of celestial phenomena occur unpredictably in time and in sky location. Comet and asteroid discoveries, nova outbursts, supernova explosions, and unexpected behavior or previously-known objects (such as sudden storms on Mars or Jupiter) are all phenomena which astronomers feel urgency in studying. Astronomers must observe them quickly, with virtually any available instrument.

"Among such discoveries are those of planets and comets, or of bodies which are generally so faint as not to be seen, except through the telescope, and which being in motion, their place in the heavens must be made known to the distant observer, before they so far change their position as not to be readily found. For this purpose the ordinary mail conveyance, requiring at least ten days, is too slow, since in that time the body will have so far changed its position as not to be found, except with great difficulty; and this change will become the greater if the body is a very faint one, for in that case it could only be discovered on a night free from moonlight, which of necessity in ten or twelve days must be followed by nights on which the sky is illuminated by the Moon, and all attempts to discover the object would have to be postponed until the recurrence of a dark night. Indeed, even then the search often proves in vain; and it is not, in some cases, until after a set of approximate elements are calculated and transmitted, that the astronomers on the two sides of the Atlantic are able fully to cooperate with each other." (Joseph Henry, quoted in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1874, p. 185)

The explanation continues:

"Although the discovery of [minor] planets and comets will probably be the principal subject of the cable telegrams, yet it is not intended to restrict the transmission of intelligence solely to that class of observation. Any remarkable solar phenomenon presenting itself suddenly in Europe, observations of which may be practicable in America several hours after the Sun has set to the European observer; the sudden outburst of some variable star similar to that which appeared in Corona Borealis in 1866; unexpected showers of shooting-stars, &c., would be proper subjects." (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1874, pp. 185-186)

Comets and Asteroids

Comets can be found in any part of the sky, at any brightness, and moving at any rate in any direction. When a comet is discovered, the discoverer immediately tells the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams its position, brightness, and (if determined) its apparent direction and rate of motion. Comets are frequently found under conditions in which the discoverer cannot track them long enough to establish their rate and direction of motion against the background of fixed stars - they may be near the horizon and setting, they may be found just before dawn glares them out, they may be spotted in a sky that quickly clouded over, or personal circumstances may preclude further observing. Comets must be recovered before they move too far from the discovery position, so that their orbits can be determined, and from those orbits, the ephemerides for future sightings. Given two days from first sighting, a comet can move several degrees away from the first position, and fade by two magnitudes. The differences in position and brightness grow so great that a discovery unobserved for three or four days is in grave danger of becoming utterly lost. It is extremely important that astronomers elsewhere be alerted so they can find the unexpected interloper and pin down its positional and visual characteristics. So the Central Bureau immediately cables professional observatories and reliable amateur observers west of the first reporting station, in longitudes where it is still nighttime, hoping that at least one will at that moment have clear skies and staff and equipment they can shunt to hunt the comet. As the hours tick by, observatories farther and farther west around the Earth join the hunt, until sufficient observations are confirmed to make the comet unlikely to be lost. Usually, by the time the comet is next observable from the discovery location, confirming observations are in hand, and the first reporting observer learns whose names will be attached to that interplanetary iceberg. It is invariable in the discoverer's interest to alert the whole world absolutely as soon as possible.

There are also minor planets (asteroids) swarming around the inner solar system by the thousands. A few of these orbit strikingly close to Earth. At such approaches, they brighten dramatically, making a rock barely a kilometer across visible to amateur telescopes. Simultaneously, they sprint across the sky, making it hard to take a time-exposure (they move too fast) and hard to make an accurate positional fix (requiring a trained team with cross-hairs and setting circles), just when it is most important. Such asteroids can actually collide with our planet, with results presently popularized regarding the Cretaceous/Tertiary extinction.

Stellar Outbursts

Eruptive variable stars ― novae and supernovae ― are very important, fast-changing stages late in stellar evolution. Unfortunately, they occur so unpredictably that observations of the brief, insufficiently-understood brightening phase(s?) are very rare. Therefore, it is important to obtain both brightness measurements and spectra of all such outbursts absolutely as early as feasible.

Novae and supernovae do not move against the background of stars, and so a single positional fix suffices to locate them. Their brightness and spectral behavior, however, change radically, and as rapidly as anyone has yet measured ― brightness flickerings of tenths-of-seconds are known for at least a few novae. Therefore, brightness requires continual monitoring. The spectrum also changes enormously as assorted layers of the erupting star lunge through wildly different temperatures, pressures, and densities. This gives some of our best information about the insides of stars, and so it is again critically important to obtain spectra very frequently, especially when the eruption is fresh.

Again, observatories around the globe must be alerted because longitude and weather patterns will only allow observations at some of them, and other circumstances of equipment and personnel further reduce the number at which the critical observations can be made. (For example, sensing hardware at the tail-end of the telescope, such as a photometer or a spectrograph, is fitted to a major telescope in a many-hours-long daylight operation, and usually remains attached for an observing run lasting several consecutive nights. If the telescopes at a well-located, well-equipped, well-staffed, and cooperative observatory are outfitted for other research and incapable of the type of measurements needed for the fresh nova, that observatory can make no contribution, however eager it might be to help.) So again, the alert must go out as rapidly and broadly as technology and funding permit.

All astronomers know these factors. They are inherent in the astronomical objects being studied and utterly independent of astronomers of planet Earth. It is up to astronomers to accommodate their research methods to their objects of study.

Premature concepts in International Information Flow

Communications technology, not politics, has been the limiting factor in dissemination of astronomical news. Though it has always been obvious to astronomers that instant bulletins would be of great value, they have also appreciated the impossibility of achieving that till quite recently. In Tycho's era, centuries before the Universal Postal Union regularized international mail, a central location would have served best.

"Tycho Brahe ... keenly felt the importance of closer intercourse between fellow astronomers .... he tells that before King Frederik II of Denmark offered him the island Hven as site for an observatory he had had plans for settling in Basel, one of the reasons for this choice being that Basel is located so to speak at the point where the three biggest countries in Europe, Italy, France, and Germany meet, so that it would be possible by correspondence to form friendships with distinguished and learned men in different places. In this way it would be possible to make my inventions more widely known so that they might become more generally useful.' Into these remarks may be read a desire for a centre, from which useful astronomical news could be distributed. Such a centre, however, took its time to materialize." (Vinter Hansen, 1955, p. 17)

In the early 1800s, printing and postal improvements began to make a newsletter practical, and Astronomische Nachrichten, the first international astronomical newsletter, was born. Its founder, Heinrich C. Schumacher, an expert celestial mechanic, established it in 1823 at his observatory in Altona, Holstein, then the second-largest city in Denmark (Beekman, 1983, pp. 488-489). Altona was immediately northwest of Hamburg, Hanover, across the Danish boundary set in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna. (Altona is now well within Hamburg city limits.) During the Prusso-Danish War of 1848,

"the existence of his observatory at Altona was in doubt. The astronomers throughout the world rallied for the protection of Schumacher, and almost every civilised country made through its representatives urgent appeals to the Danish Court that the observatory and its respected director should be spared and protected. Lord Palmerston, pressed to action by the Council of [the Royal Astronomical] Society, obtained assurances from the Danish Government that neither the Professor nor his establishment should be affected." (Stratton, 1934, p. 363)

Schleswig and Holstein were incorporated into what became Germany, and upon Schumacher's death in 1850, Astronomische Nachrichten was transferred to C. N. Adalbert Kruger, celestial mechanic at the Kiel Observatory, on the north edge of Holstein.

Telegraphy was improving markedly during this period. The first astronomical telegram center was established by the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna in 1869, limited to comet discoveries but with a gold medal for incentive. (Gingerich, 1968, p. 37; Vinter Hansen, 1955, p. 18)

The Atlantic Cable

The need for a broader service was apparent to "some of the principal astronomers in Europe and America," however, and so C. H. F. Peters, the prominent director of Hamilton College Observatory in Clinton, New York, laid the need before the Committee of the Smithsonian Institution. They "immediately applied to the Directors of the Associated [Trans-Atlantic Cable] Companies, who at once granted the free use of all their lines for the object in question, both from Europe and America, for a limited number of telegrams during each year." (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1874, p. 185)

"A very important concession has been made to the Smithsonian Institution by the Directors of the Associated Trans-Atlantic Cable Companies, who have agreed to transmit gratuitously between Europe and the United States, a limited number of short messages on astronomical subjects. Under this arrangements two telegrams have already been received from the United States by the Astronomer Royal, who on his part has undertaken, at the request of Dr. Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, to forward from Europe any message announcing an important astronomical discovery. The Directors of the Associated Companies have consented that ten messages, of ten words each, may be sent free over the cables annually. This liberal concession on the part of the Directors cannot be too highly appreciated by astronomers generally, and especially by the fellows of this Society.

"In conformity with this agreement the Astronomer Royal will be prepared to forward any important astronomical message, limited to ten words, which may be sent to him for this purpose from the principal European astronomers. Royal Observatory, Greenwich, April 8, 1873." (Airy, 1873)

The matter was further elaborated on 10 months later:

"The great value of this concession on the part of the Atlantic Telegraph and other companies cannot be too highly prized, and our science must certainly be the gainer by this disinterested act of liberality. Already [minor] planets discovered in America have been observed in Europe on the evening following the receipt of the telegram, or within two or three days of their discovery. The Council are glad to be able to announce that the Director of the Imperial Russian Telegraph has also given permission for the free transmission of messages relating to new astronomical discoveries within the boundaries of the Russian Empire." (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1874, p. 186)

The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams

While this was a major advance, things were not quite perfect. There were technical difficulties with transmission errors, particularly in numbers for coordinates (causing observers to look in the wrong place), and "national vanities had showed up." (Vinter Hansen, 1955, p. 18, referring to Wilhelm Forster, 1879, p. 345)

So Forster proposed establishing a central news bureau, whose creation was spurred by general agreement that bulletins on the great September comet of 1882 were "thoroughly inadequate." (Vinter Hansen, 1955, pp. 18-19; Forster 1881, Forster 1882, and Kruger 1883) Forster nominated a committee of eight to set up the Centralstelle in 1882 in Kiel with Kruger as director. (Stratton, 1934, p. 363) The director would decide which items required expensive telegrams and which could be relegated to the established ― and far more economical ― columns of Astronomische Nachrichten. By this time the journal was no longer the personal property of its editor; in 1881 a share of control was assumed by the Astronomische Gesellschaft, which had been founded at Heidelberg in 1863.

"Though primarily German, this body has always been alive to the value of international co-operation in astronomy. Its statutes specifically stated that its membership was not bounded by nationality, and the list of those attending its first meeting includes members present from ten countries." (Stratton, 1934, p. 363)

From the 1880s to the beginning of World War I, the Centralstelle operated smoothly at Kiel, under Kruger and his successor, H. Kobold.

But by no means was it astronomy's only international cooperative venture. In 1887, Observatoire de Paris hosted the International Astrophotographic Congress at which the monumental Carte du Ciel project was begun (Winterhalter, 1889). The project required meetings every few years to monitor progress, and gradually these meetings (usually in Paris) came to include extra sessions on astronomical topics unrelated to the Carte du Ciel itself. Other international astronomical meetings were also held, for example at the opening of Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, in 1898, and at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904.

The guns of August, 1914, however, severed telegraphic and postal links between the belligerents. It became impossible to communicate directly between, say, the Royal Greenwich or Paris observatories and Kiel.

Prof. Kobold therefore ceded the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams on 3 November 1914 to another celestial mechanic, Prof. Elis Stromgren, director of Copenhagen Observatory, in adjacent but neutral Denmark, for the duration of the hostilities. Kobold and Stromgren knew each other well ― Stromgren had earlier been an assistant at Kiel and knew how the Central Bureau worked. (Vinter Hansen, 1955, pp. 19-20) In the early months of World War I most people thought the war would be brief, but it dragged on almost until the end of 1918.

"It was possible for [Stromgren] all through the war to keep up astronomical intercourse and satisfactory news service between astronomers all over the world." (Vinter Hansen, 1955, p. 20)

Losing the Peace

The problems with national antipathies were thus overcome during World War I. However, it proved very difficult to keep a lid on after the Armistice was signed. During the war, astronomers could travel little and many were occupied with war-related problems. When peace finally came, astronomers could once more travel, but residual jingoism and bitterness prevented many in the Allied countries from wanting anything to do with anyone in the Central Powers. Thus, in 1919 when the International Astronomical Union was formed as part of the International Research Council, only entente powers were invited to adhere at first, followed shortly by neutral countries.

"Now each of the pre-war organizations for international cooperation was concerned with its own particular branch of astronomy; for they had come into being one at a time, as the necessity for them had been felt. It was clear, however, that it would be much more convenient for every one concerned if they could be brought together into a single body. And so, when these various organizations died a natural [sic] death as a result of the war, it was decided to revive them, not in their original form, but as branches of an all-embracing International Astronomical Union. This was accomplished at a meeting in Brussels in 1919 of the leading scientists of the allied countries; and in 1922 the first meeting of the International Astronomical Union was held in Rome .... At first the I.A.U. consisted of thirty-two separate 'commissions,' fourteen of which could be regarded as the direct descendents of pre-war organizations." (Waterfield, 1938)

Losing countries were not welcome to adhere for many years ― though "Astronomers from countries not adhering can attend meetings as visitors and take part in the discussions without voting." (Waterfield, 1938)

The national antipathies resulted in some astronomers refusing to deal with Copenhagen, feeling it too closely connected with Kiel, which was German and therefore tarred with atrocities. The popular director of Observatoire de Paris, Benjamin Baillaud, served briefly as intermediary between such people and Copenhagen. Then the brand-new International Astronomical Union, under provisional leadership, set up its own Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams ― neither at Kiel nor Copenhagen, but seeking a more neutral location (Gingerich, 1968, p. 38), at Uccle, the Belgian royal observatory in Brussels, under Prof. G. Lecointe, starting 1 January 1920. Copenhagen served as intermediary between the new Uccle and the old Kiel bureaus until the IAU held its first full meeting, in 1922. The IAU thereupon transferred its Central Bureau from Uccle back to Copenhagen as of October, 1922. From then until his death, Elis Stromgren directed the IAU Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams from Copenhagen Observatory and maintained friendly relations with Kiel. (Hoffleit, 1947, p.6)

World War II

Denmark was unable to keep out of World War II. Germany invaded in April, 1940, and occupied Denmark for the rest of the war. Elis Stromgren succeeded in keeping the Bureau communicating world-wide, however. "He even obtained permit to send code telegrams, via the Lund Observatory, [in neutral] Sweden, to subscribers in allied countries, and the IAU circulars, although often late in arriving, generally did reach their wide-spread destinations." (Vinter Hansen, 1955, p. 20) The routes were often circuitous: IAU Circular 901, for example, arrived at Harvard Observatory in 1942 bearing an Brazilian stamp (Overbye, 1980, p. 93); it doesn't say how the data got from Sweden to Brazil. In the few times when Stromgren could not even get messages out through Sweden, he made connections through Zurich, Switzerland, also a neutral for relaying telegrams worldwide. Connections could always be made either through Sweden or Switzerland. (IAU Transactions, Vol. VII, p. 86)

There was, however, a distinct decline in traffic in 1943-44, at the worst period of the German occupation of Denmark. (IAU Transactions, Vol. VII, p. 87) The decline probably reflects the diversion of skywatchers into the war effort, thereby reducing the number of sky events noticed, as well as the difficulty of telling Copenhagen about them.

After World War II, communications links became less troublesome, and more astronomers again looked skyward and reported discoveries. The effort the Central Bureau once spent routing messages was now devoted to processing the increased data.

Elis Stromgren died in 1947 and was succeeded by his assistant, Julie Vinter Hansen. She had assisted at Copenhagen for many years, though she spent World War II at Lick Observatory in California. She returned to Denmark when the war ended and resumed her assistantship under Stromgren, succeeding to his work upon his death. (Ashbrook, 1960, p. 328) She remained director until her own death, in 1960. By 1964, the ongoing duties of the Bureau were overwhelming her assistant and successor, K. A. Thernoe, and so Fred Whipple offered to transfer the Bureau to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which cohabits with Harvard Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Whipple was director of both Smithsonian and Harvard observatories. Owen Gingerich directed the Bureau when it moved to Massachusetts.

The Central Bureau at the Hub of the Universe

"Thanks to B. G. Marsden, Director of the Bureau, and to the continued support of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, astronomers have at their disposal an efficient and relatively inexpensive mechanism for prompt cooperation that must be the envy of scientists working in other fields." )P. Simon, President of Commission 6, in IAU Transactions, Vol. XVI A1, 1976, p. 195)

As early as 1883, Harvard College Observatory served as North American telegram relay center ― receiving all telegrams from the Centralstelle and relaying them to American subscribers. Several similar branch offices around the world have sprung up and died off sporadically over the last century, but Harvard has the longest and steadiest record. Beginning in 1926, the "Harvard Announcement Cards" constituted this continent's equivalent of the IAU Circulars. (Gingerich, 1968, pp. 37-38) During Harlow Shapley's reign as Observatory Director, they were all signed "Harlow Shapley," but while he oversaw most of the operation, many of the orbital elements and ephemerides they contained were actually composed by others ― by Leland Cunningham during his assistantship there, 1935-42. The Shapley signature proved very useful toward acquiring donations; Shapley was able to point to important work done despite a pathetically small endowment. (Cunningham, 1985)

The bulk of the labor consisted of the tedium of decoding Copenhagen telegrams, re-coding them for American distribution since until World War II Copenhagen and Harvard used different telegraphic codes, and conveying them to the telegraph office. Initially the Harvard cards were simple relays of Copenhagen data, but they grew to include other ephemera of American interest, as well as data on their way to Copenhagen. (Cunningham, 1985) When the Bureau was transferred, the Harvard Announcement cards terminated with card 1676, and were succeeded by IAU Circular 1884; Circular numbers reached 5152 by the end of 1990.

The main part of the operation is carried on today in the office of Brian Marsden with active VAX and IBM computer terminals as well as Telex and assorted other electronic links through the Smithsonian's telecommunications center until 1978, and managing its own since then. Subscribers with personal computers could access the very latest listings by modem[, and since the mid-1990s, on the World Wide Web]. Marsden has an assistant, Daniel Green, and immediate access to the entire Center for Astrophysics staff and library ― one of the largest concentrations of astronomical expertise on this planet. Routine celestial mechanics still makes up the bulk of the work, with special attention to keeping new-found objects from getting lost.

The main consideration is to pin down the ephemeral events in the heavens, but where earthly circumstances allow options, lesser criteria do enter. The judgement of a thinking, feeling, experienced human is vital when an incoming message has to be interpreted. How likely is the source to be mistaken, or trying to pull a fast one for quick glory? Which observatories should be dunned for confirmatory monitoring ― who are the assigned observers this evening, who sounded eager last time, who felt it a burden, who could use a little favorable notice, who should get no more than necessary?

Commission 6

Commission 6 is largely concerned with the administrivia of keeping the Central Bureau operating. It decides on formats, amendments to the standard transmission code, subscription billing intervals, and the like. Commission business meetings at Congresses are brief, cut and dried. Reports of the Director and President are distributed in advance, consensus always reigns on major issues, and discussion achieves consensus on minor ones. Membership has largely been intended to represent the message relay centers, wherever in the world they may be, plus a few comet and orbit experts. The vast bulk of the work is done not by the commission but by the Central Bureau. (Cunningham, 1985)

Even within the IAU, Commission 6 has striven for the broadest possible base:

"[Marsden] noted that all Commission members present at the Meeting were, without exception, also members of Commission 20 [Positions and Motions of Comets, Minor Planets, and Satellites], which might give the impression that Commission 6 was mainly a sub-section of Commission 20. This was by no means the case, and to stress this fact a special effort had been made some years previously to include representatives from other Commissions. However, these had taken little or no part in Commission 6 activities. The reason might be that rapid dissemination of astronomical data still remained, as in the past, mainly of interest to observers of minor planets, comets and related objects, while it was evident that workers in other fields were entirely satisfied with the operation of the Bureau." (IAU Transactions. Vol. XVIII B, 1982, p. 79)

Tokens of Appreciation

The Bureau's funding has varied markedly over the years. Typically the host institution underwrites either staff salaries or overhead, sometimes both. In Copenhagen, until October, 1929, an unnamed "outside source" provided financial assistance. (IAU Transactions, Vol. III, 1928, p. 276) Since 1929, the IAU has paid yearly subsidies toward the Bureau's work, but these have grown far slower than expenses. While in Copenhagen, very liberal donations were made by the Danish Rask-Orsted Foundations. Additional donations come from other Danish foundations. These were both contributions toward operating expenses and advances against subscription income uncollected due to World War II, when most recipients of telegrams were prevented from paying for the service. (IAU Transactions, Vol. VII, 1948, p. 276) Those loans were eventually paid back, though the last of them lingered years after the guns fell silent. The foundations' motives probably reflected local pride about being the world center of something.

Since the 1950s, subscriptions of various categories have covered the vast majority of the Bureau's operating funds. Originally these only paid for outgoing messages, but they have been increased deliberately since the 1965 move to Harvard to cover as much of the infrastructure (computing time, processing incoming messages, and part of the staff salaries and building overhead). From the time of the move, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory paid for the director's salary, while 1965 and 1966 subscriptions totaled $7,328 – and the IAU subsidy was $666/year. This "pays for very little of the actual operation of the Bureau, but it provides considerable moral support and gives the operation a desirable flexibility that it would not otherwise have." (Gingerich in IAU Transactions, Vol. XII A, 1967, p. lxxxii) Certain low-priority types of message now also trigger a line-charge, analogous to the page-charges of professional journals, generating further income. IAU's cash contribution, though increased to 10,000 Swiss francs per triennium, is now less than 5 percent of the Bureau's actual running costs. It remains, however, "tangible proof of the high regard in which the Bureau is held by the Executive Committee, and a letter to this effect received from the General Secretary was noted with appreciation." (Commission President Jan Mers in IAU Transactions, Vol. XVIII B, 1982, p. 79) It is "used partly to ensure that Circulars are supplied to important observatories in regions of the world whence it is difficult or impossible for us to receive payment." (Marsden in IAU Transactions, Vol. XV A, 1973, p. 17)

Conclusions: Strident Internationalism Victorious

The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams has achieved its goals for more than a century. It receives information from all around this planet about transient events all around the universe. It disseminates the data to all observers it can identify as needing such service. The Bureau's administration has changed only once, from an independent commission to an International Astronomical Union commission. At that same time, more than a dozen other international astronomical programs became IAU commissions; almost half of the new IAU's commissions traced their heritages to previous arrangements. The Bureau moved from Kiel to Copenhagen, briefly to Brussels, and eventually to Cambridge, Massachusetts, always to take advantage of the best site to and from which to relay messages, consistent with the availability of a first-class celestial mechanic. Citizens of many countries participate in Commission 6. The Bureau's avowed purpose has authorized methods of data transmission that evade obstructions imposed by wars and any other causes. It has succeeded in this at all times, employing relays at observatories wherever they may be handy. Thus the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams demonstrates astronomy's long-term, ongoing, strident internationalism.


[probably by] Airy, George Biddell. "Transmission of Free Messages on Astronomical Subjects over the Transatlantic Cables." Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 33, No., 6, April 9, 1873, pp. 369-370.

anonymous. "Telegraphic Announcements of Astronomical Discoveries." Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 34, No. 4, February 1874, pp. 185-186.

[probably by] Ashbrook, Joseph. "Julie Vinter Hansen." Sky & Telescope, Vol. 20, No. 6, December 1960, p. 328.

Beekman, G. W. E. "The Long Thread of Danish Astronomy." Sky & Telescope, Vol. 65, No. 6, June 1983, pp. 487-491.

Bok, B[art] J[an], and V. Kourganoff. "The Committee for the Distribution of Astronomical Literature and the Astronomical News Letters." Vistas in Astronomy, Vol. 1, 1955, pp. 22-25.

Cunningham, Leland E. Personal communication, December 5, 1985.

Forster, Wilhelm. Report of comments in: Vierteljahrsschrift der Astronomischen Gesellschaft, Leipzig, Vol. 14, 1879, pp. 345-346, of third session, Monday, September 8, 1879.

Forster, Wilhelm. "Ueber eine bessere Organisation der telegraphischen Nachrichten." Astronomische Nachrichten, Bd. 100, Nr. 2386, August 6, 1881, columns 145-150.

Forster, Wilhelm. "Die Errichtung einer Centralstelle fur astronomische Telegramme in Kiel." Astronomische Nachrichten, Bd. 103, Nr. 2472, November 29, 1882, columns 369-374.

Gingerich, Owen J. "The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams." Physics Today, Vol. 21, No. 12, December 1968, pp. 36-40.

Hoffleit, Dorrit. "Elis Stromgren Dies." Sky & Telescope, Vol. 6, No. 12, October 1947, p. 6.

International Astronomical Union Transactions. Reports regarding Commission 6 are found on the following pages of these volumes:
volume for pages
I 1922 12, 24, 159, 197, 207, 225, 234
II 1925 130-131, 179-180, 229, 258, 272
III 1928 180-181, 225-226, 276, 301, 325, 331
IV 1932 24-26, 223-224, 263, 282, 303, 310
V 1935 36-38, 289, 371, 391-396, 406
VI 1938 28-30, 337, 366, 477-488, 492
VII 1948 62, 86-89, 506-510, 520
VIII 1952 69, 106-110, 858
IX 1955 67, 97-101, 770
X 1958 73, 104-108, 736
XI B 1961 73-74, 170, 486
XII A & DR 1964 xxxvii-xxxviii, lvi
XII B 1964 78-79, 109
XII C 1964 17, 32-38, 149
XIII A 1967 lxxxi-lxxxiii
XIII B 1967 24, 57, 235-236, 240
XIV A 1970 15-17
XIV B 1970 90, 289
XV A 1973 15-17
XV B 1973 75-76, 225
XVI A1 1976 195-196
XVI B 1976 75
XVII A1 1979 13-14
XVII B 1979 93-94
XVIII A 1982 19-20
XVIII B 1982 79-80, 431
XIX A 1985 13-14

Kruger, A. "Angelegenheiten der Centralstelle fur Astronomische Telegramme." Astronomische Nachrichten, Bd. 104, Nr. 2481, January 5, 1883, columns 133-136.

Marsden, Brian G. "The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams." Astronomical Society of the Pacific Leaflet, Vol. 10, No. 493, July 1970, pp. 1-8.

[mostly by] Marsden, Brian G. Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams Circulars 2511-4936, 1973-1989.

Marsden, Brian G. Telephone conversation, October 24, 1985.

Minnaert, M[arcel] G[illes] J[ozef]. "International Co-operation in Astronomy." Vistas in Astronomy, Vol. 1, 1955, pp. 5-11.

Oosterhoff, P. Th. "The International Astronomical Union." Vistas in Astronomy, Vol. 1, 1955, pp. 11-16.

Overbye, Dennis. "An Interview with Brian Marsden: Life in the Hot Seat." Sky & Telescope, Vol. 60, No. 2, August 1980, pp. 92-96.

Stratton, F. J. M. "International Co-operation in Astronomy: A Chapter of Astronomical History." Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 94, No. 4, February 1934, pp. 361-372.

Vinter Hansen, Julie. "The International Astronomical News Service." Vistas in Astronomy, Vol. 1, 1955, pp. 16-21.

Waterfield, Reginald L. A Hundred Years of Astronomy. Macmillan, New York, 1938, pp. 486-489.

Winterhalter, Albert G. The International Astrophotographic Congress and a Visit to Certain European Observatories and Other Institutions: Report to the Superintendent. Appendix I to the Washington Observations for 1885. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1889, pp. 38, 42-46, 68-71.

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