Friday, 10 June 2016

Grahamstown Gazette: the Matariki edition

Every month I write a local heritage-themed column, on behalf of The Treasury, for the Grahamstown Gazette. Here's my piece for the June edition.

From the Treasury: 

The night sky seems like an odd place to catch a glimpse our local history; few astronomical objects can claim to have a Thames connection. However, if you’re lucky, you might see the comet first glimpsed by one of Thames’ pioneers. For Mr John Grigg of the Thames Observatory, discovering new comets was only one of many astronomical discoveries he made around the turn of last century.

Mr Grigg was a prominent figure in the Thames township right from its inception. In 1868, he moved to Thames from Auckland, following the death of his first wife. Setting up a music shop and upholstery business on the gold fields, he was heavily involved in establishing both the Thames Choral Society and the Thames Baptist Church. He was a keen composer, and the author of the popular unofficial New Zealand anthem ‘My Own New Zealand Home’ – the song hundreds of Thames children sang to Governor George Grey in 1879, to mark the beginning of work on the Grahamstown Railway.
 
His true passion, however, was astronomy. He’d spent time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich as a teenager, and after bad weather made him miss the Transit of Venus in 1874, he bought his own telescope and set up a small observatory in his back yard to prepare for the next transit in 1882.
Mr Grigg’s scientific pursuits caused quite a stir, both locally and nationally. The Thames Advertiser published a lengthy description of his observatory in 1885, describing in detail his upmarket telescope and revolving roof; presumably to the delight of his nosy neighbours and shop customers. In 1892, the New Zealand Herald came to visit, writing a similarly long piece on their guided tour of the night sky. ‘A chill came over us!’ wrote the Herald. ‘Where are we now? On the boundary of the visible universe! Chaos around us, chaos within us!’
By 1894, he’d quit his day job to build a bigger observatory and pursue his hobby full time. Mr Grigg became a popular newspaper columnist and guest speaker across the country, lecturing regularly on ‘Practical Astronomy’ and helping to popularise astronomy as a hobby. His lectures often included photos of moons, sunspots and comets taken with his own home-made equipment. A photo he took of a passing comet in 1901 was later found to be the only image of this particular comet in existence, and was used as part of the Royal Astronomical Society’s official records.

Mr Grigg’s greatest triumphs, however, were discovering two new comets of his own. He started systematically searching of the night skies for comets in 1887, but it wasn’t until 1902 he discovered his first new comet.  This was quickly followed by a second in 1903. He received two Donohoe medals from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific to honour his discoveries, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1906.

Mr Grigg passed away in 1920. His first discovery, Comet 1902 II P/Grigg–Skjellerup, should next be visible our night skies in 2018.

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