314 Asteroids as of Last Night

Wednesday, 2 September 1891 - Nice, France

Nice Observatory in Nice, France
Last night I visited the Nice Observatory high above the city atop Mount Gros. It is privately funded and was started by the banker Raphaël Bischoffsheim. Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, designed the main dome. This is one of the highest observatories in the world and also has one of the largest telescopes.

Nice Observatory's very nice telescope

Henri Perrotin
also known as Joseph Perrotin
I really came to meet the astronomers here. Henri Joseph Anastase Perrotin, now the director, is famous for his observations of Mars, as well as discovering six asteroids. He has two assistants, both twenty-seven years old.

Stephanie Javelle he has been here since 1888 and will observe 1431 objects, 95% of which are new. He will also serve as inspiration for H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. In 1894 he will report seeing a strange light on Mars. We aren’t sure what it was, but it lit a fire under Wells imagination. He will name one of the characters in the novel “Lavelle” and no one believes that was a coincidence.

Perrotin’s six asteroids are impressive, but his second assistant has discovered six asteroids so far this year! In fact number six was last night--asteroid 314 Rosalia. That makes twenty-one asteroids for Auguste Charlois since he started working here in 1887. In 1893 he will discover a whopping twenty-four.

Just this year the observatory has started using astrophotograhy that allows more objects to be seen than could be found with the naked eye. (Sounds like Charlois was doing pretty well with just his naked eye.) It’s a technique perfected very recently by Max Wolf at the University of Heidelberg.

Charlois and Wolf are in competition to see who can find the most asteroids. Charlois is way ahead right now. He will eventually find ninety-nine asteroids in all. It would have been one hundred but 433 Eros was discovered the same night by Carl Gustave Witt who announced it to the press first. Hard to say who really found it first. But Witt only found two asteroids, so we will let him have Eros.

Wolf will eventually beat Charlois with two hundred finds, but Wolf will outlive him by twenty-two years. In 1910, when Charlois was only forty-six, he will be murdered by his former brother-in-law who was angry that he remarried. Odd thing to murder someone for, if you ask me. Murder seldom makes much sense. The scoundrel will be shipped off to New Caledonia for a life of hard labor.

But Charlois is only twenty-seven now, and a rising star among astronomers. (Erm, no pun intended.) I think Perrotin is maybe a smidge jealous (and who can blame him) but Charlois is doing hat tricks for the home team (that’s “hitting home-runs” for you Yanks.) I don’t think Perrotin would want to lose either of these sharp-eyed young men.

I know Charlois will discover four more asteroids this month, but it was still exciting to watch. I will always remember 314 Rosalia as “my” asteroid. All right, I was sitting quietly in the corner being careful not to bother anyone, but I suppose I did help in my small way. I did fetch coffee.

A list of asteroids found between 1801 and 1923.
Notice A. Charlois dominates the 1890s.

Photo of 298 Baptistina
298 Baptistina, discovered just last year, 9 September 1890, by Charlois, is believed to be the largest remnant of a much larger asteroid broken up when a smaller body hit it. One of these chunks fell to Earth and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs! (At least that's the current theory. No temporal anthropologist wants to go back and check it out.)

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