Thursday, 17 September 2020

John Goodricke 1764-1786

 

John Goodricke 1764-1786

This is the story of one of the most unusual astronomers of all time. His name was John Goodricke and he was deaf and unable to speak. He would have a tragically short life but his contribution to astronomy would be immense.

He was born in Groningen in Holland on September 17th 1764 to Henry and Levina Goodricke. The Goodricke family were a typical English aristocratic family with their ancestral home being at Ribston Hall near Knaresborough in North Yorkshire.

His grandfather Sir John Goodricke was the powerhouse of the family and achieved some importance within political circles. When he heard of the birth of his grandson he was most pleased, but turned to dismay when shortly afterwards it was realised that the infant was deaf. There was a very strong stigma imposed on disabilities within the aristocracy at that time.

In the early 1770s the Goodricke’s returned to England to York, the young John Goodricke was sent to Edinburgh to a school run by Thomas Braidwood for deaf children. We have little information of this part of his life, it is possible he learnt to lip read, sign language had not yet been devised. In 1778 he was sent to the Warrington Academy which had no special provisions for children with special needs.

It was here that he developed a great interest in mathematics, science and in particular astronomy. He left the Warrington academy in 1781 and returned to York to live in the Treasurers House near York Minster. It was here that his astronomical career would begin. He began his astronomical journal on the 16th November 1781.

A year earlier a distant cousin who was also an astronomer would also move to York, this was Edward Pigott. Edward Pigott lived with his father Nathaniel yet another astronomer at what is now No. 33 Bootham in York, the house still survives today is where William Arthur Evelyn (1860-1935) a pioneer of conservation in York lived.

Together John Goodricke and Edward Pigott they would forge an astronomical partnership that would push back the frontiers of astronomy. They would not only make discoveries but like true scientists they would try to explain them.

They were an odd couple, Goodricke a deaf youth of just 17, with his older cousin Pigott who had spent much of his life living in France and like to dress up French style. This was much more flowery than the more conservative English style. Today Pigott would have been described as a ‘dandy’

The only reason that the Pigotts were in York was that Nathaniel Pigott who was a distant cousin of Lady Anne Fairfax of Gilling Castle in North Yorkshire was trying to swindle her out of her inheritance! Edward played no part in this.

The two astronomers come together in 1781 just a few months after William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus from his home in the city of Bath. The scientific community was abuzz with all things astronomical.

They quickly began observing the sky, the Pigotts observatory has been described as the 3rd best private observatory in England while Goodricke used a small telescope at the Treasurers House.

They knew of a star in the constellation of Perseus that was called Algol, its official title is Beta Perseus, as far back as 1669 astronomers had noticed that it changed in brightness. It is what astronomers refer to today as a variable star because it varies in brightness. The world Algol means ‘The Winking Demon’ as this star marks the eye of the medusa from Greek mythology.



Goodricke observed the star and recorded that it remained at its brightest for 2 day, 20 hours, 48 minutes and 56 seconds, then it fades away for about 10 hours then recovers to it normal brightness. We know that today Goodricke’s observations are within a few seconds of modern estimates. This was of course using just his eye and a clock.

Interestingly because Goodricke was deaf a servant used his finger to mark out the beat of the clock to accurately work out the time. Even now we can see how the mind of Goodricke was working because although he knew that Pigott was making observations of Algol from his observatory in Bootham Goodricke knew that if Pigott was using the chimes of the bells in York Minster to check the time it would take an extra half a second for the sound to reach Pigott.

Goodricke in particular and Pigott both assumed there was another body orbiting Algol and blocking the light, and they were of course correct. They believed that it could be a planet, we know today that it was another star. However the idea that a planet can change the amount of light we see from another star is one of the ways that astronomers use to discover planets around other stars. They were over 200 years ahead of their time in thinking.

John Goodricke was only 19 in 1783 when he wrote to the Royal Society about his observations and thoughts on Algol. He was unknown was deaf unknown outside of York, but Edward Pigott was good at networking and he knew anybody of importance in astronomy. He contacted his friend Nevil Maskelyne the astronomer royal explained what was happening and Goodricke’s work was published.

The effect on the astronomical community was electrifying, all over the country people were observing Algol, Goodricke was awarded the Copley medal by the Royal Society the highest award they could give.

If Goodricke and Pigott had stopped here they still would have made a remarkable contribution to astronomy, this was just the start they were not going to stop now.

The 10th September 1784 would become a night to remember in York, with not just one but two new variable stars being discovered, they were by Goodricke Beta Lyra in the constellation of Lyra (the Lyre) and from Pigott eta Aquila in the constellation of Aquila (the Eagle).

The indefatigable Goodricke would discover another variable star on October 24th this was delta Cepheus in the constellation of Cepheus (the King). This star is of immense importance today it is used a distance marker because it allows astronomers when locating these so called Cepheid variables to determine how far away distant galaxies are. Goodricke could of course never know of the importance of this star.


These discoveries were due to their complete knowledge of the locations of stars in the sky by continuously observing the night sky.

More reports were sent to London, the astronomers there must have wondered what on earth was going on in York!

Although Goodricke he did not know it his short life was nearly over, he died on the 20th April 1786 probably from pneumonia caught while observing the night sky. During the 1780s the river Ouse in York regularly froze over for up to 6 week each year giving an indication of how cold it was. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society a most prestigious honour for someone so young. Sadly he died two weeks before that letter arrived so he never knew of that honour.



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