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  • Writer's pictureKGB

The Unfortunate Pastor Fabricius.

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

No new images again this week because of the power rain and immortal clouds. 4 weeks and counting now. This week's blog is an astronomical story that I can guarantee you have never heard before. So, let's get started..

David Fabricius was born on the 9th of March 1564 in Germany. He eventually became a clerical pastor who made two major discoveries in the early days of telescopic astronomy, jointly with his eldest son Johannes Fabricius.

On the 3rd of August 1596, David first observed the variable star Mira in the constellation of Cetus (The Whale). There is some evidence in star lore that Mira might have been observed by earlier Chinese astronomers but it was Fabricius’ observation that eventually led to Mira being recognised as the first variable star.

Fabricius, whose real name would have probably been Schmidt, serves as a model for hundreds of similar clerics throughout Europe who in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries contributed significantly to the development of natural history as devoted amateurs who invested their spare time in the study of nature. He made his first appearance on the European astronomy scene in 1592 when he wrote to Jost Bürgi, mathematicus and instrument maker at the court of Wilhelm IV of Hessen-Kassel, then the second most important centre for astronomy in Europe, requesting assistance in the construction of astronomical instruments.

When he first observed Mira in 1596 he thought it was a nova, so he wrote a letter describing his discovery, to Tycho Brahe in Hven the leading centre for astronomical research in Europe. Brahe was very impressed by the work of the Frisian (German) cleric and an important scientific correspondence developed between the two men that lasted until Brahe’s death in 1601. On several occasions Brahe tried to convince Fabricius to come and work with him but the pastor preferred to remain in East Frisian. However, in 1601 Fabricius did visit Tycho in Prague and during his stay he met Simon Marius with whom he also conducted an astronomical correspondence.

Mira. Taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. (Courtesy of NASA).

He did not therefore meet Brahe’s newest assistant, Johannes Kepler, who was in Austria dealing with family business during Fabricius’ visit. Later, however, a lively correspondence developed between the Frisian Pastor and the Imperial Mathematicus which lasted more than eight years with some of the letters running to 40 or 50 pages. This correspondence is very important for the history of astronomy because it is in these letters that Kepler outlines his path towards his first two planetary laws. Fabricius proved a worthy partner in this endeavour criticising and pointing out the weak points in Kepler’s arguments. Criticism that Kepler was more than willing to accept from the man whom he regarded as the best observational astronomer in Europe after the death of Tycho. Unfortunately, Fabricius never accepted Kepler’s elliptical heliocentric orbits, remaining a loyal Tychonicer, a fact that may have led to Kepler breaking off the correspondence somewhat abruptly in 1609. This was David's first unfortunate occurence.

In 1611 Fabricius’ son Johannes brought home a telescope from the University of Leiden where he was studying medicine. With this instrument the father and son, with the son this time in the leading role, discovered the sunspots. Although they were not the first European astronomers to make this discovery, (this honour goes to Thomas Harriot), Johannes Fabricius was the first to publish it in his De Maculis in Sole in 1611. Unfortunately, his publication went largely unnoticed and is not mentioned at all by Galileo and Christoph Scheiner who were having a monumental argument as to who first discovered sunspots! This was the second unfortunate occurence as this discovery by the Fabricius's is largely forgotten as is the book they published, which was completely overshadowed by Galileo & Scheiner's arguing!

The third unfortunate occurence of this unlucky soul would prove to take his life. The trustworthy pastor and astronomer held a sermon in which he claimed to know the identity of a chicken and goose thief but he did not reveal the name of the worthless robber. However, the farmer Frerik Hoyer who attended the congregation that day, thought that it was he who had been denounced from the pulpit. And so, on the 7th of May 1617, he hid and waited for the luckless pastor to pass him and then from behind he hit the pastor over the head with a shovel and beat him to death with the said implement. What a horrible way for this man's life to end..

Because of these unfortunate occurences the Fabriciis, both father and son, remain largely unknown to the world at large but a monument (see image above) to them both was erected in the churchyard in Osteel, where David had been village pastor in 1895. The legacies left are copies of a map that David made of Frisia in 1589. He is also name-checked in Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon as someone who claimed to have seen lunar inhabitants through his telescope, though that particular fact is merely part of Verne's fiction. The large (79-kilometer) crater Fabricius in the Moon's southern hemisphere is named after David Fabricius.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog even though it does have a sad and unusual ending. As usual, any comments good or bad are welcome, so go to it. As the story above proves, always keep your eyes open, because, well you never know... See you next time.

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