February 21 in Russian history. Amateur astronomy.


In the evening, a 16 year old schoolboy from Kiev, Andrey Borisyak, was going home from school with his friend, A.Baranovsky. The weather was fine and the stars were bright. Andrey was an amateur astronomer and all these stars were familiar for him. No, not all of them. He stopped and stared at the non-familiarly looking constellation of Perseus. It's two-legged shape with Mirfak in the center and Algol and Atik in the "legs" was distorted by a new bright star. Had it happened today, he could think it was a flying saucer, but those were the better days ;). The two friends ran to the telegraph and sent a message to professor Glazenap. It was a very bright Nova star that reached the magnitude of 0.

Andrey Borisyak

Some time later it was established by the timestamps on the telegram that Andrey Borisyak noticed the Nova some hours earlier than the professional astronomers. His discovery was confirmed officially and he even became a member of the Russian Astronomy Society. Not that it was an achievement impossible for a mere mortal, but quite close. It was not a strictly professional society, but an amateur astronomer had to obtain five recommendations from members of the society. Emperor Nikolay II himself presented a Zeiss telescope to Andrey. Of course, Andrey decided to become a professional astronomer and entered the astronomy faculty of the university. But the twentieth century had already begun and the astronomy was already turning into what it is now: 99% of mathematics and 1% of observation. The talents of the young astronomer turned out to be insufficient to cope with the math and he left the university. I love astronomy, too, and sometimes I wish I became an astronomer. Alas, unlike Andrey, I didn't even try to. My math skills were enough to become an IT engineer, but not for the real science. Andrey Borisyak also found an alternative to astronomy. When he left the university, he entered the St.Petersburg conservatory. He became a known celloist, studied in Paris where the famous Pablo Casals was his teacher. Once again the astronomy reminded him of his hobby when none other than Camille Flammarion gave him a recommendation to the French Astronomy Society of which Andrey became a member. Borisyak became a music teacher and wrote the book "Cello school".

It's difficult to determine who was the first amateur astronomer in Russia. In the XII century a Kievan monk Kirik the Novgorodian wrote a chronicle where he scrupulously marked various astronomical events. He also developed a calendar. It will be better, though, to begin with the archbishop Athanasius (Alexey Artemyevich Lyubimov, 1641-1702), who lived in Kholmogory, near Arkhangelsk. By the way, Kholmogory is also the place where Mikhail Lomonosov, the father of the Russian science, was born. Archbishop Athanasius was a brilliantly educated man, who spoke 24 languages. In 1692 he founded a home observatory, where he designed and built the first Russian telescopes. Peter the Great was also an amateur astronomer. Being a royal one, among other things he founded the Academy of Sciences and invited many European scientists to Russia (Leonard Euler was one of the best known ones).

A merchant from Tver, Terentiy Ivanovich Voloskov (1729-?), a hobbyist clock maker, loved astronomy, too. He built telescopes good enough to discern mountains on the Moon. His widow told later that he once attempted to watch at the Sun and lost one eye. I.Yertov (1777-1828) was not familiar with the works of Kant and Laplace and developed his own theory of the formation of the Solar system. He wrote that the celestial bodies were formed when the protoplanets attracted comets. A teacher of singing from a small town, Ye.Bykhanov (1828-1915), on the contrary, criticized the theory of Laplace. Decembrist Nikolay Bestuzhev (1791-1855) who was exiled to Siberia researched the meteorites found near lake Baikal and even built a simple observatory in Selenginsk. Fyodor Alexeyevich Semyonov (1794-1860) from Kursk inherited a large factory, but preferred science. He built a 180-cm refractor telescope. He calculated the dates of the eclipses for 160 years, since 1840 till 2001 and was awarded the gold medal of the Russian Geographical Society. In 1914 teacher V.Zlatinsky discovered the comet 1914I (C/1914 J1 in the modern nomenclature). In 1916 a clerk from a remote factory in Nizhny Novgorod region Alexander Solovyov discovered his first variable star in Auriga. In 1947 he became the director of the Institute of Astrophysics. Nikolay Donich (1874-1953) was a fan of the Solar eclipses. He had his own observatory in Stariye Dubossary (Moldavia), but also travelled all over the world looking for the eclipses: from Spain to Sumatra. In 1905 he even headed the expedition of the Academy of Sciences to Spain and Egypt.

In 1908 the professional astronomers from Pulkovo observatory were looking for an observational site in Crimea when they suddenly saw two domes of an amateur observatory. It belonged to Nikolay Maltsov, who later presented his observatory to the profies. The Simeiz observatory still works in Crimea.

The end of the XIX century marked the rise of the amateur astronomy societies all over the world. The first of them was founded by Camille Flammarion in France in 1887. In Russia, the director of the Pulkovo observatory O. Struve opposed the foundation of an amateur organization, but the Solar eclipse that happened on 19 August 1887 (many years later Arthur C. Clarke called it "the Russian eclipse") gave such a surge to the interest to astronomy that soon the first such society appeared in Nizhny Novgorod. It was founded by two teachers, Shcherbakov and Shenrok, and the director of a local bank Demidov. Among the members of the society there were also peasants, like K.Kaplin-Tezikov, who built a telescope and organized a small circle of the astronomy lovers in his village. The society continued its work during the revolution of 1917 and the Civil war and even during the World War II. The amateurs from Nizhny Novgorod were well known in the world. So, in 1930 a group of Soviet scientists wrote a public letter to the Pope Pius XI, condemning the church for murdering Giordano Bruno and persecuting Galileo Galilei, and the Pope replied: "We know in the USSR only one group of astronomers from Nizhny Novgorod, who exchange the publications with the library of Vatican, and we are not aware of the group of people who call themselves Russian astronomers." Interesting that the society of Russian professional astronomers was founded only two years later, in 1890.

Bulletin of the Observing Corporation

In 1908 the Moscow circle of the amateur astronomers appeared. One of its members, painter Apollinary Vasnetsov painted the works like "The Solar eclipse near the Vyatskie meadows", or "The Solar corona (in Karadag)". In 1922 a group of active observers from the Moscow circle formed a special interest group called Kolnab (Kollektiv Nablyudateley, the Observing Corporation). They published a periodical named Bulletin of the Observing Corporation, partially in English (the first page of the issue 1, 1925 is on the picture). After the revolution, when all private initiative was frowned upon with suspicion, to put it mildly, many organizations were disbanded, like Russian Astronomy Society in 1928 or ROLM (Russian society of the amateurs of exploration of the world) in 1930. In 1932 the centralized VAGO (The All-Union Astronomical and Geodesic Society) united both amateurs and professionals. It has lost the "All-Union" part in 1992 and still works under the name of AGO.

The facts were taken mostly from the long article written by Sergey Maslikov for Sky & Telescope in 2001.

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