Half-Life of Facts: Space

By Robert Hess

In this series of artifacts of the week, we will examine the paradox that knowledge is in fact tentative in particularly consistent ways, through a number of examples right here in the house. We will trace how we come to understand particular things as ‘truth,’ and the importance of critical thought and openness to the precariousness of fact. The mission here is twofold, also acting as an example of the potential for valuable and relevant research within a historical library and archival collection; to not regard a museum as a static entity.

Exploring the globes recently and how mapping technology develops got us curious about the interpretation of space and the discovery of celestial bodies. We know that civilizations have been looking to the heavens, mapping the skies and trying to make sense of what they see. The Hillary family were no different, which we discovered by finding multiple books on the topic in the study.

The Story of the Solar System by G.F. Chambers (1902) and Science Premiers: Astronomy by J.N. Lockyer (1878), are two publications that offer a brief educational method of teaching and exploring the solar system for young pupils with the knowledge of the time. Chambers offers insight into how facts have changed and presents opportunity for different perspectives of topics to be discussed.

Half a century ago the actual state of our knowledge respecting the Sun might without difficulty be brought within the compass of a single chapter in any book on Astronomy, but so enormous has been the development of knowledge respecting the Sun of late years, that it is no longer a question of getting materials properly into one chapter […] I shall therefore endeavor to limit myself generally to what the amateur can see for himself. (Chambers 1902:22)

Just as many other publications already discussed in this series acknowledge their own limitations of knowledge, so do these books. As these limitations expand through development of nomenclature and reclassification Jupiter’s Galilean moons have been changed for example. Until 1970, the moons were referred to as I, II, III, and IV, then changed to Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. These Galilean moons were regarded as the only moons and other bodies were regarded as comets and asteroids. The Amalthea group is a more inner group of smaller moons and bodies that have been discovered since 1902, and are not referred to by Chambers. A strong example of the whole concept of “factual” knowledge changing over time is our favourite dwarf planet since 2006, Pluto. Neither of these books contain knowledge on Pluto because it was discovered in 1930 by Clyde W. Tombaugh. This was later questioned due to finding other bodies in similar size. Due to reclassification changed the identification of Pluto as a planet to dwarf planet.

On the atmosphere of the moon: “much controversy has ranged round the question whether or not the Moon has an atmosphere. Without doubt the preponderance of opinion is on the negative side […] where its presence must render discoverable by optical phenomena which it is certain cannot be detected” (Chambers 1902:102). More recent discoveries have uncovered that the moon has a small thin collision-free atmosphere that extends all the way to the ground called a surface boundary exosphere.

Visit us and see if you can find these and any other examples from the past. If you have any questions about these items in our collection, please inquire or schedule an appointment to work with our curator to find out how other “facts” have changed over time.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Chambers, George.F. (1902). The Story of the Solar System. London: George Newnes, Ltd.

Lockyer, J. Norman (1878). Science Premiers: Astronomy. New York: American Book Company.