Astronomy Bio...Charles Augustus Young

Jay Bitterman

Charles Augustus Young, an American astronomer who made some of the first spectroscopic investigations of the Sun, was born in Hanover, New Hampshire, on December 15, 1834. At the age of 14 he began his education at Dartmouth College in Hanover, and he graduated in 1852. Although he had other interests, it may have been family tradition that eventually drew Young towards a career in astronomy. His maternal grandfather, Ebenezer Adams, was the Chair in Mathematics and Philosophy at Dartmouth College. In 1833, the year before Charles was born, his father Ira Young succeeded to the Chair.

Young first taught classics at the Phillips Academy, Massachusetts. In 1855 he enrolled to train as a missionary, part-time, at the Andover Theological Seminary. He abandoned this idea a year later, however, and became Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at the Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio. Apart from a brief interlude during the American Civil War, Young stayed at Western Reserve College until 1866. He then accepted the Chair at Dartmouth College that had previously been held by his father and grandfather. In 1877 Young moved from Hanover to the College of New Jersey, which has since become Princeton University.

Most of Young's serious researches in astronomy were carried out while at Dartmouth College. The facilities and modern equipment available at the College inspired Young's interest in the recently developed field of spectroscopy. He was particularly interested in the Sun and many of his investigations were carried out during solar eclipses. Young was the first person to observe the spectrum of the solar corona in addition to discovering the reversing layer in the solar atmosphere in which the dark hues of' the Sun's spectrum are momentarily reversed, but only at the moment of a total solar eclipse. He published a series of relevant papers about his spectroscopic observations of the solar chromosphere, solar prominences and sunspots. He also compiled a catalogue of bright spectral lines in the Sun and used these to measure its rotational velocity.

In addition to his solar research, Young wrote several excellent textbooks that introduced astronomy to subsequent generations of astronomers. In 1888 he published his first book General Astronomy. Lessons in Astronomy, published in 1891, was a basic text for young students. By 1910, 90,000 copies both books had been sold, making them best sellers of their day. Young's most famous work was his Manual Astronomy (1902), which was directed to a more intermediate level. Because its popular was so great it underwent numerous reprints and in 1926 Henry Russell (1877-1957) republished a revised edition.

On January 3, 1908, three years after retiring from his post at Princeton he died, in Hanover.

Published in the December 1999 issue of the NightTimes