The astronomers and Dante

George sent me a book called Dante and the Early Astronomer. It was published in 2019 and written by Tracy Daugherty, an English professor at Oregon State University. The book is about a woman named Mary Ackworth Orr Evershed. She, herself, wrote a book called Dante and the Early Astronomers. That ‘s‘ is important to keep these things straight!

Daugherty is fascinated with Mary Evershed and traces her connections with quite a lot of different aspects of life in the late 19th and early 20th century. She was an amateur astronomer, by which we can understand that no-one paid her to work, and initially organizations would not admit her to membership nor allow her to contribute (at least under her own name). At some meeting someone else did read a paper she had written, and it was acclaimed as quite a bit less boring than would be expected from a man. (Kinda rude…)

She spent time at an observatory in Australia, and wrote a book about the southern constellations. She met John Evershed on a disappointing eclipse hunt in really far north Norway. Over her lifetime she traveled to as many eclipses as she could, occasionally with quite disappointing results. That reminded me of Father traveling to China for an eclipse in 1948 and then the weather being cloudy. A Common Experience!

John Evershed proposed to Mary Orr (age 39) when he had been offered the assistant directorship of the Kodaikanal Observatory, in Tamil Nadu in India. At more or less the same time she had been offered an unpaid job as a “computer” in Ireland working with Edmund Whittaker (who converted to Catholicism at a later date). Whittaker* was going to Ireland to work at Dunsink Observatory and Trinity College in Dublin. He was married to a cousin of hers and knew about her years of ‘amateur’ astronomy.

She was not being offered a job as a machine. She was being offered the chance to spend all day long with photographic plates, measuring … things … brightness of stars, comparisons of brightness over time … Daugherty does not explain this very well. However, he does admit that it was boring back-breaking labor that had to be done by well-educated people. Mary chose the marriage and went to India with John.

She came from a large family and had traveled with her mother and sisters to Florence, Ravenna, and Venice, in the 1890’s. There she had fallen in love with Dante’s writings. Daugherty does give lovely descriptions about things she might have seen in Ravenna, including mosaics of stars and birds. His idea is that this inspired Dante and she realized it. Anyway she brought her love of Dante with her to India, and while there she thought and wrote a lot about his astronomy.

Daugherty begins the book proper (that is, skipping the preface) with a quote from T. S. Eliot, claiming that Dante’s astronomy is nearly unintelligible. He followed this with a story about Mary Evershed grappling with the question of whether Dante had made a mistake in his writings on some astronomical point.

I must say that this is a mistaken way to have written this book. On page one it is Not a good idea to produce people who are saying that Dante is unintelligible. Either I already believe that so why continue reading, or it is not true, so why have you started that way. It took quite a while for me to get past this initial annoyance with the book. And sadly, though I imagine that the author was trying to create questions that wanted answers, as a way to draw us into the book, he answers right away that yes, there was a mistake. Why read any more? Worse, the book that Mary Evershed was reading (Quaestio de Aqua et Terra — Questions about Water and Land) has a lot of questions about its authenticity anyway, which were not mentioned.

However, I did continue reading, because I had done a bit of checking around and knew that Mary Evershed’s book, which she published under the name M. A. Orr, had been used by Dorothy Sayers. An edition from the 1950’s came out under the auspices of Barbara Reynolds, who was chosen to complete Dorothy Sayers’ translation of Dante when Sayers died with the last 13 cantos unfinished. Reynolds has credibility, so I pressed on and the story got better although it has some odd mistakes.

I also did some prospecting, and Project Gutenberg Australia has M. A. Orr’s book so I started reading it on the side.

*Within six years Whittaker moved on to Edinburg and where he spent more than 30 years as Professor of Mathematics. He was an amazing scientist and historian of science, and also very social. His books are still required reading for some kinds of mathematical study.

To be continued …

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