Charles Messier, whose birthday it is today (he was born in 1730), was a comet hunter par excellence (he was also French), finding thirteen of them. But his name is now pretty much a fixture for all time in astronomy because of the extensive list of fuzzy things that he knew were not comets, but that he wanted to record to make sure they didn’t get mistaken for comets at a later date. This list, now called the Messier Catalogue, contains nebulae, galaxies and star clusters, and eventually numbered 110 objects (some added later by other contributors). It’s a “must see” list of nearly all the biggest and best objects in the sky, but only if you live in the northern hemisphere. If you’re in, say, Hobart or Port Stanley, it’s pretty much useless. For Southern hemisphere observers I’d recommend Patrick Moore’s Caldwell Catalogue as a good tick list; it compliments Messier but includes objects in just about the whole sky from any latitude you care to be at.
What I never knew until recently about Messier was that he lived at what is now the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris, a building I’ve probably walked past about fifty times but never thought to look inside. I also now know that he’s buried near to Chopin in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. I found Chopin the last time I was there, so why did I miss Messier? I haven’t even seen his name on the map of important graves. I shall investigate.
1914 – birth of Lyman Strong Spitzer Jr., American theoretical physicist, famous for his work on star formation, and for having the idea of putting telescopes in space (one of which now bears his name).