Sunday, October 01, 2006

Shakespeare in the Stars

Shakespeare in the Stars

1. When I was an undergraduate in astrophysics i used to spend hours in the CfA library poring over their star atlases. Millions of stars and galaxies, entire worlds, each identified only by a series of arbitrary letters and digits. You could gaze at a little clump of galaxies and realize that you may have been the first person to ever give them much attention. The largest atlas occupied about ten volumes each volume covering some portion of the sky.

Unfortunately these atlases - a collection of thousands of individual photographic plates - are only accessible to research institutions. The best a layman can do is possibly the Millennium Star Atlas which contains approximately one million stars and thousands of galaxies. But even the Millennium has been out of range for most budgets - the cost of the hardback collection approaching $1,000. This February a softcover edition was finally released for considerably less. And, I've just ordered it!

In the extract from the catalog above, the only star that might be faintly visible to the naked eye would be the one on the lower left. The lines emerging from a few stars are indicators of its motion, ending at where the star will be when it is viewed in 1,000 years. A reminder that the night sky is dynamic.

2. In the first Act of Hamlet, Bernardo says:

Last night of all,
When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,--

But what star is he talking about? This question was pursued by Owen Gingerich (who was at the CfA at the same time as I was) and others. The conclusion is that Bernardo is referring to Supernova 1572A, so named because 1572 is the year in which it was observed.

The Supernova SN1572A is better known as Tycho's Supernova. The astronomer Tycho Brahe provided detailed observations of this new bright light in the nightsky. Since Hamlet was written around 1600, Shakespeare would have been familiar with this recent star as well and, accordingly, would have been a small boy when it first appeared.

There is another curious relation between Brahe and Shakespeare. In one portrait of Brahe, he is surrounded by the Coat-of-Arms of his ancestors. One of them is Rosencrans and another is Gyldenstern. It remains unclear as to whether this was a coincidence or something more.

A certain Eric Altschuler has used much of the above information to argue, in a physics paper titled Searching for Shakespeare in the Stars that Shakespeare must have lived earlier than thought since he references this astronomical event of 1572 but not equally important ones in 1609 and 1610. So this leans the evidence toward Shakespeare being Edward de Vere, he argues, who lived from 1550-1604.

Perhaps. Eric is familiar to me too. Not only was he a student at the same time I was...he was my study partner. Sometimes I'd see him in the CfA library too, like myself, paging through star atlases.

1 comment:

T Paine said...

Interesting angle. You might be interested in this -- -- a prequel to Hamlet which speculates that he was exposed to Copernicus' theory circa 1517, a psychic shock to his worldview augmented by the subsequent death of his father.