Passion for poetry & stars drove 'Dante's Astronomer'

Tracy Daugherty

In 1910, an amateur astronomer sat on a hill in southern India staring at the daylight moon as she grappled with apparent mistakes in a published text.

The astronomer was Mary Ackworth Evershed. The text was Dante’s Divine Comedy.

“The Ptolemaic structure on which Dante based his universe had long been discredited, but that wasn’t the sort of error that absorbed her,” said Tracy Daugherty, Center Research Fellow and professor of English at OSU. “She wanted to know if Dante was accurate within his conception.”

Was he, as some would claim, “unintelligible”? Or was he, for a man of his time and place, as insightful as one could be about the sky?

Daugherty is working on the first biography of Evershed, who made important contributions to Dante studies as well as to the understanding of sunspots and solar flares. Evershed is the author of Dante and the Early Astronomers, “the finest book ever written on Dante’s science.”

Dante’s Astronomer will be Daugherty’s second biography. His first, Hiding Man: A Life of Donald Barthelme, was published by St. Martin’s Press in February. He also is the author of numerous novels, short stories, and essays.
In Evershed’s time, British women wishing to become pro-fessional astronomers faced several barriers. Astronomy was not taught as a stand-alonediscipline but rather as a branch of mathematics and physics. At Cambridge, women were allowed to take examinations but they could not earn degrees until 1923, and could not become full members of the university until 1948.

“Women with their head in the stars had no choice but to be amateurs. Among them, sunspots and solar flares were favorite objects of study. Elizabeth Brown, a tireless amateur, suggested that sunspot drawing was a perfect activity for ‘ladies’ because they had plenty of time to devote to it and needed only a dark glass, a pencil and paper to do the work.”
There was also the matter of women’s “delicate constitutions” and threats from the chill night air should they overdo stargazing.

As an amateur star-gazer, Mary Ackworth Orr met the young astronomer John Evershed at meetings of the British Astronomical Association, and love bloomed while they chased eclipses from Norway to Algiers. From 1906 to 1923, the married couple worked at the Kodaikanal Observatory in the Palani Hills of southern India conducting photographic observations of sunspots and flares.

Evershed’s second great interest was poetry, and the poet who thrilled her most was Dante, “Though as a long-time stargazer and wife of an observatory official, she could not look past Dante’s cosmography,” Daugherty wrote in his research proposal.

“The Comedy mentions stars fifty-five times, with numerous references to the moon and planets, the constellations, and seasonal measurements.

“As she watched the day-moon set, she recalled Dante’s little-known Latin treatise, the ‘Questo de Aqua et Terra,’ in which he appeared to make a troubling blunder. In the ‘Questo,’ Dante argues that the moon is always in precise perigee—that is, at its closest approach to earth—near the earth’s southern hemisphere.”

In fact, medieval scientists knew that the moon’s perigee shifted along the zodiac, north and south of the equator. “Dante’s assertion seemed sloppy—in which case, the Comedy’s scaffolding might very well contain loose steps.”

What is it about Dante that inclines readers to take his science seriously? In her notes, and eventually in her groundbreaking book, Evershed put her finger on the poet’s intellectual charm: “Dante’s description of ‘celestial matter,’ she wrote, is ‘one of the finest instances of his faithfulness to the teachings of astronomy as he had learned it.’ In Paradiso 2, using his ‘poetical imagination,’ he examines pearl-like, ‘polished’ ether, a substance ‘soft as cloud but hard as diamond,’ which ‘offers no more resistance to Dante as he enters into it than does water to a ray of light.’

“In passages such as this, Dante uses science and ‘material facts (as he conceived them) to present an allegory of the deepest religious mysteries.’ Time and again, if Dante’s ‘premise be granted, the conclusions are correct. As regards sun, moon, and planets,’ they are often ‘correct even from the point of view of modern knowledge.’

“Dante’s rigor and his insistence on specificity even within a dubious framework seduces readers into casting off what they know, to think in his terms. . . John and Mary Evershed’s voluminous observation records from the Kodaikanal Observatory provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of professional astronomy just before Einstein’s theories revolutionized our views of the universe. Mary’s notes provide an intriguing record of a late-Victorian mind grappling with the views of a medieval genius determined to redefine the universe for readers of his time.”

Her book, published in 1914, settled certain critical complaints about Dante’s universe.

“Further, the book helped pave the way for academic study of the history of science and advanced the notion that women could be serious participants in the rapidly-expanding fields of theoretical and observational astronomy.”