The 315-Year-Old Science Experiment – Issue 22: Slow

The most arrogant astronomer in Switzerland in the mid-20th century was a solar physicist named Max Waldmeier. Colleagues were so relieved when he retired in 1980 that they nearly retired the initiative he led as director of the Zurich Observatory. Waldmeier was in charge of a practice that dated back to Galileo and remains one of the longest continuous scientific practice in history: counting sunspots.

The Zurich Observatory was the world capital for tallying sunspots: cool dark areas on the sun’s surface where the circulation of internal heat is dampened by magnetic fields. Since the 19th century, astronomers had correlated sunspots with solar outbursts that could disrupt life on Earth. Today scientists know the spots mark areas in the sun that generate colossal electromagnetic fields that can interfere with everything from the Global Positioning System to electricity grids to the chemical makeup of our atmosphere.

What alienated Waldmeier’s potential Swiss successors was his hostility toward methods other than his own. In the space age, he insisted on counting sunspots by eye, using a Fraunhofer refracting telescope, named after its 18th-century inventor, installed by the first Zurich Observatory director, Rudolf Wolf, in 1849. (With Waldmeier’s legacy uncertain, his assistant walked off…

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