Category Archives: Astronomy

Astronomy Science

Of shooting or falling stars

These fragments come from A goodly gallerye with a most pleasaunt prospect, in to the garden of naturall contemplation, to behold the naturall causes of all kynde of meteors, as wel fyery and ayery, as watry and earthly, of whiche sort be blasing sterres, shooting starres, flames in the ayre &c. tho[n]der, lightning, earthquakes, &c. rayne dewe, snowe, cloudes, springes &c. stones, metalles, earthes &c. to the glory of God, and the profit of his creaturs, by William Fulke (1563). This book, which attempts an explanation of the workings of the heavens gives us an insight into the development of early modern astronomy. Because it is such an early work, I have modernised spellings.

Of the general cause of all Meteors and first of the material cause:

The matter whereof the moste part of Meteors doth consiste is either water or earth, for out of the water proceed vapours, and out of the earth come exhalations. Vapor as the Philosopher sayeth, is a certain watery thing, and yet is not water, so exhalation hath a certain earthly nature in it, but yet it is not earth. For the better understanding of vapours, understand that they be as it were fumes or smokes, warme & moist, whiche will easily be resolved into water, much like to the breath that proceedeth out of a mans mouth, or out of a pot of water standing on the fire. These vapours are drawn up from the waters and watery places, by the heat of the Sunne, even unto the middle region of the air, and there after diverse manner of meeting with coldness, many kinde of moist Meteors are generated, as sometime clouds and rain, sometime snow and hail, and that such vapours are so drawn up by the Sun.

In Autumn  & Spring, are oftener Meteores seen, than in Summer and Winter, except it be in such places, where the Summer and Winter are of the temper of Spring and Autumn.

The places in which Meteors are caused, be either the air or the earth, in the air be generated rain, hail, snow, dew, blazing stars, thunder, lightning &c.  In the earth be wells, springs, earthquakes, metals, minerals, &c. made, and as it were in their mothers belly begotten & fashioned. But for the better understanding hereof, such as have not tasted the principles of Philosophie, must consider there be elements, Earth, water, Air, & Fire, one co-passing another round about.

The highest is the sphere of the fire, which toucheth the hollowness of the Moon’s heaven, the next is the air, which is in the hollowness of the fire, the air within this hollowness, comprehendeth the water and the earth, which both make but one Sphere or Globe, or as the commen sort may understande it one Ball. So each element is within another as the scales of a pearl, are on above another, or (to use a gross similitude) as the peeles of an onion, are one within another, after the same sort from the highest heaven to the earth.

But for this present purpose it is to be known, that the air is divided into three regions, the highest, the middle, and the lowest. The highest, because it is next to the region of the fire, is exceeding hot, the lowest being next the earth and the waters, is temperate, and by repercussion or striking back of the sun beames waxeth hot, and by absence of them is made colde, being subiect to Winter and Summer. The middle region of the air, is always exceeding cold, partly because the sun beames can not be cast back so high, and partly because the cold that is there, between the heat above and the heat beneath it, is so kept in that it can not get out, so that it must needs be excessively cold. For the water and the earth being both cold elements, after the sun setting in the night season do cool the air, even to the middle region.  But in the morning the sun rising warmeth the air, so far as his beames which are beaten back from the earth & the water, can extend and reach, whiche is not so high as the middle region, and by heat on both sides, is enclosed and kept, saving that a little thereof falleth downe in the night, which the next day with much more is driven back again. Wherefore this region being so colde, is darke and cloudy, in so much that some doting Divines have imagined purgatory to be there in the middle region of the air.



In the highest region, be generated Comets or blazing stars, and suche like of diverse sorts.  In the middle region clouds, rain, storms, winds &c. In the lowest region, dew, frost, horefrost, mists, bright rods, candles burning about graves, & gallows, where there is store of clammy fatty or oily substance, also lights and flaming fires, seene in fields, &c.

A Fiery impression, is an exhalation set on fire, in the highest or lowest region of the air, or else appearing as though it were set on fire and burning.

They are therefore divided into flames and apparitions. Flames are they, which burn in dead and are kindled with fire. These are discerned by divers ways, by the fashion of them, by their place, by the abundance of their matter, & by the want of their matter. Their placing is after the abundance & scarcity of the matter whereof they consist, for if it be great, heavy and gross, it cannot be carried so far as the middle region of the air, and therefore is set on fire in the lowest region, if it be not so great, light, and full of heat, it passeth the middle region & ascendeth to the highest, where it is easily kindled & set on fire. According to their diverse fashions, they have diverse names, for they are called, burning stoble, torches, dancing or leaping Goats, shooting or falling stars, or candles, burning beames, round pillars, spears shieldes, globes or bowles, firebrandes, flying dragons or firedrakes, pointed pillars or broched steeples, or blazing stars, called Comets. The time when these impressions doth most appear, is the night season, for if they were caused in the day time, their cold not be seen, no more then the stars be seen, because the light of the sun which is much greater, dimmeth the brightness of these being lesser.



Of shooting and falling Stars:

A Flying, shooting, or falling Star is when the exhalation being gathered as it were on a round heap, and yet not throughly compacted in the highest part of the lowest region of the air, being kindled, by the sudden cold of the middle region is beaten back, and so appeareth as though a Star  should fall, or slide from place to place. Sometime it is generated after another sort, for there is an exhalation  long and narrow, which being kindled at one end burneth swiftly, the fire running from end to end, as when a silk thread is set on fire at the one end.  Some say it is not so much set on fire, as that it is direct under some Star in the firmament, and so receiving light of that star, seemeth to our eyes to be a star. Indeed some times it may be so, but that is not so always, nor yet most commonly, as it may be easely demonstrated. The Epicurians as they are very gross in determining the chief goodness so they are very fond in assigning the cause of this Meteor. For they say, that the stars fall out of the firmament, and that by the fall of them, both thunder and lightning are caused: for the lightning (say they) is nothing else but the shining of that star that falleth, which falling into a watery cloud, and being quenched in it, causeth that great thunder, even as when  iron maketh a noise if it be cast into cold water. But it is evident that the stars of the firmament can not fall, for God hath set them fast for ever, he hath given them a commandement which they shall not pass.  And though they should fall into the cloud, yet could they not rest there, but with their weight being driven down, would cover the whole earth.’

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Astronomy Crime Insanity

Lunacy & Astronomy

This entertaining snippet comes from records of 18th Century court proceedings. Not content to have been acquitted on a technicality, Dr Elliott attempts to demonstrate his insanity via scientific hypothesis.

On the 9th of July 1787, a Dr Elliott, described in the journals of the day as ‘one of the literati’, fired two pistols, apparently, at a lady and gentleman, while walking in Prince’s Street, London. Neither, however, was injured, though both were very much frightened, and the lady’s dress was singed by the closeness of the explosion. Elliott was arrested, committed to Newgate, and, a few days after, tried for an attempted murder, but acquitted on the technical point, that there was no proof of the pistols having been loaded with ball. Unforeseeing this decision, Elliott’s friends had set up a plea of insanity, and among other witnesses in support thereof, Dr Simmons, of St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, was examined.  This gentleman, whose long and extensive experience in cases of insanity, gave great weight to his evidence, testified that he had been intimately acquainted with Dr Elliott for more than ten years, and fully believed him to be insane.

On being further pressed by the recorder to adduce any particular instance of Elliott’s insanity, the witness stated that he had lately received a letter from the prisoner on the light of the celestial bodies, which indisputably proved his aberration of mind. The letter, which had been intended by the prisoner to have been laid before the Royal Society, was then produced and read in court. The part more particularly depended upon by the witness as a proof of the insanity of the writer, was an assertion that the sun is not a body of fire, as alleged by astronomers, ‘but its light proceeds from a dense and universal aurora, which may afford ample light to the inhabitants of the surface (of the sun) beneath, and yet be at such a distance aloft as not to annoy them.’ The recorder objected to this being proof of insanity, saying that if an extravagant hypothesis were to be considered a proof of lunacy, many learned and perfectly sane astronomers might be stigmatised as madmen.

Though the defence of insanity was not received, Elliott, as already observed, was acquitted on a legal point, but the unfortunate man died in prison, of self-inflicted starvation, on the 22d of July, having resolutely refused to take any food during the thirteen days which intervened between his arrest and death.

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