Here’s the inspiring story of Edward Emerson Barnard, an American astronomer who overcame a hopeless life of abject poverty to become the most prolific and skilled observational astronomer of the past two centuries. His early photographs revealed the true nature of “dark clouds” that knot the Milky Way.
• Born in Nashville in 1857, Barnard endured grinding poverty as a child. His father died before Barnard’s birth, and his mother took to selling wax flowers to earn a meager living.
• To “soften the sadness” of his life, Barnard often lay on a wagon bed at night and gazed up alone at the night sky. But he had no way to learn about what he saw.
• At the age of nine, Barnard was put to work at a photography studio, where he turned a set of wheels all day to keep a camera aimed at the sun to make photographic prints. He remained at the studio for 17 years, gaining knowledge of optics and photography. He even assembled a small spyglass out of spare parts.
• By chance, he got hold of a book about astronomy and finally learned the names of the stars and planet he had seen since childhood.
• In time, Barnard acquired a 5-inch telescope. He made a name for himself in Nashville by discovering nearly a dozen comets. A group of wealthy citizens raised money to send Barnard to Vanderbilt University, where he obtained a degree at the age of 30 and earned a teaching post at the observatory.
A Deeper Look
• In 1888, Barnard quit his teaching post and traveled to Lick Observatory in California. Amid the physical and psychological hardships on Mount Hamilton, Barnard applied his unique expertise to systematically photograph the Milky Way. Astronomical photography was a new art in those days, and Barnard’s time exposures revealed details in the Milky Way never seen before.
• His photos of our galaxy revealed many dark clouds, which some thought were deep holes in space where no stars were found. In time, these clouds were revealed to be dark clouds of gas and dust that blocked out background stars and nebulae.
• Barnard also discovered-visually- a fifth moon of Jupiter, Almathea. And he discovered the second closest star to Earth, now called Barnard’s star.
• After seven years at Lick, Barnard moved to the newly built Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin and remained there until he died in 1923.
Good To Know
As an amateur, Barnard heard of a contest that awarded $200 to anyone who discovered a new comet. Barnard discovered eight, and used the money to build a house for himself and his wife. Residents of Nashville called it the “Comet House”.
Is it possible to get everything you want in life? I don’t know. But Barnard’s story shows how skill, good fortune, hard work, and a deep love of what you do can take you much farther than you ever imagined.