May 19 – Owed To A Star

Today’s Factismal: Edgar Allen Poe wrote Al Aaraaf in honor of Tycho’s discovery of a new star.

In the 1500s, we thought that the heavens were fixed and unchangeable. And then Galileo happened. That trouble-maker developed a new instrument that was called a “far see-er” or telescope. Using the telescope, we discovered that the heavens were anything but immutable. The Moon had blotches, the planets had moons, and (worst of all) stars came and went.

Tycho's Supernova as seen by the Spitzer X-Ray telescope (Image courtesy NASA)

Tycho’s Supernova as seen by the Spitzer X-Ray telescope
(Image courtesy NASA)

The most notable of these was Tycho’s Star. In November of 1572, Tycho saw a star blossom in the night where none had ever been before; because it was new, he named it “Nova”. He didn’t realize it, but his was the first supernova seen through a telescope. The nova stayed visible to the naked eye for a few months and then faded away, which was almost as scandalous as its appearance. The discovery of the new star put the re-examination of the heavens into high gear.

And 257 years later, Tycho’s discovery would inspire Edgar Allen Poe as he wrote his first published poem, Al Aaraaf. His poem first saw the light of day in copies of the May 19, 1829, Boston Gazette, where it puzzled the heck out of a fair few readers. Thick with allusions, illusions, and confusions, it tells the story of two star-crossed lovers who spend all of eternity on the star that Tycho discovered.

If poetry isn’t your bag, then maybe looking through pictures of the Milky Way is. If so, then head over to the Milky Way project, where you can sort bubbles and clouds and help us understand how stars like Tycho’s form!

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