Edward Walter Maunder And The Unreliable

In 1873 a young man called Edward Walter Maunder (1851-1928) left his job at a London bank and started work at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to the east of London. He had no formal qualification as an astronomer, but his new post was as a photographic and spectroscopic assistant. The Royal Observatory was a state institution, and its staff belonged to the civil service, admission to which was by public examination. Maunder passed the examination, so he was accepted into the service and posted to Greenwich.

He was given the task of photographing sunspots, then using the photographs to measure their sizes and plot their positions. Maunder was a keen observer and very meticulous. He calculated that the sunspots must be very large and that distant objects, although visible, must contain much fine detail that is invisible from Earth. He used this insight to suggest that the "canals" that many astronomers claimed to have seen on Mars were an optical illusion—a view that was unpopular at the time, but turned out to be correct. Maunder also suggested that the ancient Assyrian and Egyptian depictions of a winged god of the Sun in fact showed the outermost part of the solar atmosphere, known as the corona.

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