More about Mary Evershed and Dante

I’m still reading Mary Evershed’s own book about Dante and the early astronomers. She begins with a useful set of chapters explaining various theories and discussing Ptolemy. Part II is then her discussion of Dante. I’m not there yet.

However, I did finish the biography that George sent me by Tracy Daugherty. Besides being interested in Mary Orr Evershed, Daugherty organizes his thoughts by discussing three moments about three centuries apart. The first is the moment Dante finishes Paradiso in Ravenna in 1321, the second is the moment that Galileo replaces Ptolemy’s universe (which Daugherty describes as Dante’s universe also) in about 1615. The third is the moment in 1915 when Einstein introduces General Relativity at the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

There are people who compare Dante’s vision of Paradise with Einstein’s view of the cosmos and Daugherty likes this comparison. He also likes the order involved in events that are each three hundred years apart so he doesn’t want to clutter the landscape with Copernicus who is the actual author of the break with Ptolemy, published in 1543. Copernicus is mentioned, in the context of Mary wondering if Shakespeare was familiar with him. It’s left ambiguous in the book. But here’s a passage from The Taming of the Shrew that is quite clear.

 “He that is giddy thinks the world turns round”—
 I pray you tell me what you meant by that.
 Your husband being troubled with a shrew
Measures my husband’s sorrow by his woe.
 And now you know my meaning

The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare, Act V scene ii

For the sake of honesty I’ll explain that the reason that I’m familiar with this passage is that my daughter, Rachel, played the part of the Widow once and had this stage fight. So I knew that Shakespeare thought about a turning earth. It’s odd that Daugherty doesn’t know, though perhaps he is quoting Mary. He doesn’t indicate that. In fact through the whole book he discusses Mary’s thoughts without exactly explaining where he got his ideas.

{Daugherty also accepts the idea that Christians adopted a Roman holiday as the birth of Christ, an idea that has been debunked more than once. He claims that Einstein is responsible for the idea that light is both wave and particle. This is semi-true but Louis De Broglie got the Nobel Prize (1929) for showing theoretically that it was possible. Einstein had described different actions but couldn’t reconcile them. Daugherty doesn’t seem to understand that gravity is responsible for the reactions in the sun’s core and that matter there is not gas but a fourth form called plasma.}

At any rate, Mary Evershed in India worked with her husband on the science of the observatory which is still remarkable for a continuous series of observations of the sun, by now for over 100 years. She co-wrote some of his papers, and the observatory was involved in efforts to prove or disprove Einstein’s ideas of General Relativity.

General Relativity says, that the sun can bend light rays, so that you should see an apparent shift in the position of a star if its light was observed from beyond the sun. This is usually attempted during eclipses, since otherwise the sun’s light is so blinding that such changes would not be observable.

The urls explain that the s-curve and odd shapes in the picture are believed to be galaxies, whose light has been distorted through gravitational lensing.


Daugherty describes Mary Evershed is described as curious while she was in India, looking into all the differences between where she came from and where she was. When she and John return to England and continue amateur work, hard work rather than happiness is the theme. Mary wrote another book in the 1930’s, Who’s Who on the Moon, about the naming of the features on the moon. The Second World War was not easy on them. And in the end of the book when her husband makes friends with a woman who is forty years younger, whom he marries as soon as Mary dies, it is clear that something was amiss, but this book does not explain it. As I said above, the author is intrigued by his subject, but his writing about her is somewhat opaque.

I found her obituary, and it is very restrained and very English. It says she was happy in India and by implication, not so happy elsewhere. Written by her nephew, David Thackeray, who was also an astronomer and basically contemporary with Father, it describes her as gentle and meek, with a core of firmness and determination in the face of difficulties. It suggests that post World War II there were hardships, and indeed, she died of cancer in 1949. (*

I will have more to say when I finish her own book.

*Those obituaries are a lovely rabbit hole…

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