Posts Tagged ‘Great Debate’

08/21/2020 – Ephemeris – Great moments in astronomy: The Great Debate in 1920

August 21, 2020 Comments off

This is Bob Moler with Ephemeris for Friday, August 21st. Today the Sun will be up for 13 hours and 44 minutes, setting at 8:37, and it will rise tomorrow at 6:54. The Moon, 3 days past new, will set at 10:26 this evening.

One hundred years ago there were two lectures given to the National Academy of Science by Drs. Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis. This became know as the Great Debate. Shapley believed that the Milky Way was the entire universe, and evidenced by the distribution of globular star clusters in the sky that the Sun was near the periphery of it, and that spiral nebulae were part of the Milky Way. Curtis on the other hand thought that the Sun was near the center of the Milky Way, however that the spiral nebulae were other island universes, or milky ways of their own. Over the next decade each was proved right in part and wrong in part. We are not near the center of the Milky Way, but those spiral nebulae were indeed other milky ways or galaxies.

The event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.


M51 drawing

A drawing of the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51 (NGC 5194 & 5195) by Lord Rosse with his 72 inch telescope in the mid 19th century. This is the only “spiral nebula” I have actually seen as a spiral visually in a telescope, though not as well as he saw it. Public Domain.

M51 photo

With the advent of photography many spiral nebulae were discovered. The Whirlpool Galaxy, M51. Credit Scott Anttila.

Press Release for the Great Debate

This is a copy of the Press release issued for the two presentations of Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences April 26, 1920 that have come to be known as the “Great Debate”. Credit NAS.

For more on the Great Debate follow this link.

Astronomy has advanced a long way in the last 100 years.  And what’s crazy is that I actually met Dr. Harlow Shapley at the opening of the Planetarium of the Grand Rapids Public Museum around 1960. I was in my first year at Grand Rapids Junior College at the time. I had been a member of the of the local astronomy club for several years by then. Two friends and I became planetarium rats and have wormed our way into volunteering to working with it before a formal structure was set up to operate it.