• March 10, 2014

Found: A Corner of the Cosmos

For the entirety of human history, we have been fascinated by the stars and planets that dot the sky. It’s only recently that we have been able to get close to space and begin to understand its amazing properties. When I first saw this 1919 picture of nebulae in the Pleiades, I was surprised to see such an old photograph of distant stars. To think that an image like this was published just a year shy of the end of the First World War and over 40 years before the first man stepped foot in outer space seems almost beyond comprehension.

Picture of nebulae in the Pleiades black and white Yerkes observatory
A photograph from Yerkes Observatory depicts nebulae in the Pleiades.

The image was taken at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Yerkes has the largest refracting telescope—all glass lenses, no mirrors—in the world. It also has been the home for numerous astronomical discoveries and a place of research for famous individuals such as Edwin Hubble, Carl Sagan, and Albert Einstein (pictured below). Yerkes was founded in 1897, and the main telescope is still in use today. The telescope has produced over 150,000 photographic plates, some of which are included in the August 1919 National Geographic magazine story.

Picture of staff and telescope albert einstein yerkes observatory
Albert Einstein and the staff of Yerkes Observatory

The original article, entitled “Exploring the Glories of the Firmament,” by William Joseph Showalter, takes its readers on a tour of the solar system with “first person” accounts from various stars and planets. This, from Neptune:

“If you please, sir, I long flattered myself with the thought that I was an uncle that you Earth-ites never knew you had. I am an elder brother of Mother Earth, though for ages and ages she and her children never suspected my existence.

But back in the ‘forties’ of the nineteenth century my brother Uranus overtook me in our Marathon around the sun. Though our track is a billion miles wide and he has the rail, yet whenever he passes me I fret him so much that he gets a case of ‘nerves.’”

Picture black and white spiral galaxy
The Whirlpool Nebula (galaxy) as seen from Yerkes Observatory

Although the language of the writer is reminiscent of a different time, much of what he expresses still rings true today:

“It is interesting to have a look at our own earth in its relation to the worlds that people the sky. When a mighty storm sweeps over the ocean, when a great war devastates a continent, when a Katmai [volcano] blows off her head, when an earthquake destroys a populous city, men stand overwhelmed and awed at the spectacle!

But how little and insignificant are such forces, measured by the majestic might of the earth as it sweeps on its course around the sun!”

Picture of the refracting telescope at yerkes observatory
The 40-inch telescope at the Yerkes Observatory

Whether it’s the dreamy-looking black-and-white photographic plates of distant stars or images of the artfully constructed telescope, it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe. Places like Yerkes bring us closer to worlds beyond our own imaginations.

Picture of a comet black and white yerkes
Yerkes observatory observes a distant comet.

More than three decades after the debut of “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” Carl Sagan’s stunning and iconic exploration of the universe as revealed by science, COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY sets off on a new voyage for the stars. Produced by Seth MacFarlane and Sagan’s original creative collaborators and hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the series will explore how we discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time.

Cosmos is a 13-part series that premieres tonight at 10/9c on the National Geographic Channel.

View more photographs from our archives on the National Geographic Found Tumblr.

There are 65 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Alex
    September 11, 2015

    is this true

    March 24, 2014

    If there is life after death l’d ask to
    be allowed to visit the universe.

  3. Jim Roberts
    March 20, 2014

    Outstanding! Most people assume that out of the billions of galaxies in our universe there must be life on other planets. But……what if….life on earth is all that exists in the universe and our destiny is to reach out and populate and develop all of the other planets…….what if?

  4. Arjun Ganpatarp Shinde
    March 20, 2014

    this is good information like that

  5. Herman Heyn
    March 19, 2014

    It was these same Yerkes photos in A Beginner’s Star Book by Kelvin McKready that, as a junior high schooler in the early ’40’s started my life-long love of astronomy. I still have the book! http://www.hermanheyn.com

  6. Lauren Sinclair
    March 18, 2014

    The caption of the third picture identifies the galaxy as the Andromeda Nebula, it is actually the Whirlpool Nebula.

  7. Rebecca
    March 17, 2014

    Wow that’s so cool!!!!!!!!!

  8. thomas kendrick
    March 17, 2014

    I visited Yerkes Observatory in 1974 as a 17-year-old astronomy nut. Being the owner of a small refracting telescope, I was excited to see the world’s largest refractor, and I could hardly sleep the night before. Alas, it must’ve been a Sunday when we got there (from out of state) because the observatory was closed. We spent two hours in something of a walking meditation circling the building, so close and yet so far from this magnificent telescope. I have not been back since, but still hope to get there, if for no other reason than to give that excited 17-year-old some closure. It is a beautiful telescope, and it is a beautiful universe.

  9. Tim
    March 17, 2014

    “The vitriol of the atheist camp has become a stifling distraction. Please, haters, stop spewing your anti – spiritual venom all over every article related to science, the age of the universe, etc. as a non-religious, pro-science person…”

    Haters? You language Kevin, is equally offensive. The first posting made the claim, the second responded.

  10. Anaking Zhang
    March 17, 2014

    I’ am so familiar with these pictures.I love astronomy.I respect Hubble.

  11. Steve Hiltner
    March 17, 2014

    I grew up at Yerkes Observatory, where my father was director. It’s a beautiful spot on the edge of a small Wisconsin town, overlooking Lake Geneva. The photos you show were probably taken by an astronomer enduring without complaint the subzero “photometric” nights that were best for observing. The massive telescope was so well balanced that it could be moved into position by hand. I would spend summer days tracking the trajectory of golf balls or arrows I had set in motion on the sprawling Yerkes grounds, which I later learned were designed by the Olmstead firm of Central Park fame. In the 60s, one of the early computers, which had to be fed data through punch cards, occupied a cramped room in the attic of the observatory. Maybe it was that long encounter with the physicality of astronomy–the beauty not only of a universe above but also of the observatory, its surrounding landscape, and the astronomers’ hands-on approach to doing research–that motivates me now in work to save the Oswald Veblen House in Princeton, NJ. Veblen was a visionary mathematician who helped the military in WWI to refine the trajectory of its artillery shells, facilitated early research on computers, found positions in the States for Einstein and other scientists seeking escape from Nazi Germany, and saved a great deal of woodlands in Princeton from development. He found walking and working in the woods to be conducive to thought, and would lead Einstein and other colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study on ventures into the woods to clear brush. Neil deGrass Tyson conveys a similar integration of physicality and intellect, having at various times pursued his passions for wrestling, dance, and most of all astrophysics. I hope the new Cosmos series leads people not only out into the universe but also to rediscover the tangible magic of our home planet, from which we take so much and give back so little. For starters, one way to help spare our own world and better see beyond it would be to darken the New Jersey skies enough to see the stars.

  12. Faith ;)
    March 17, 2014

    Wow! These are incredible pictures- although the captions are really messed up. Still beautiful, though. I can’t believe that some of these pictures were taken in 1919! That’s so long ago.

    • Janna Dotschkal
      March 18, 2014

      The captions have been updated and fixed. Thanks!

  13. StanFlouride
    March 17, 2014

    Your line “over 40 years before the first man stepped foot in outer space” reveals your relative youth.
    For many of us, 40 years has passed in the blink of an eye.

  14. Kevin Simons
    March 17, 2014

    The vitriol of the atheist camp has become a stifling distraction. Please, haters, stop spewing your anti – spiritual venom all over every article related to science, the age of the universe, etc. as a non-religious, pro-science person, I’m embarrassed by your desperate attempts to frame everything in an us vs. them argument between religion and science. Your tone won’t change any minds, and frankly it has nothing to do with this charming little story. Lighten- up.

  15. Gulzar Ahmed Shaikh
    March 17, 2014

    I have

  16. V.S.SURY
    March 17, 2014

    I am thrilled.

  17. Raviprakash
    March 17, 2014

    I love to see these pictures.

  18. George
    March 17, 2014

    Hi Janna,
    You’ve already fixed it (thank you!) but yes, that is correct. The comet is not in the atmosphere. The tail is due to light from the sun causing dust and volatile compounds to boil off (essentially), leaving a tail of those compounds behind it, which we see as the tail. The comet is very far from earth, so its motion appears slow relative to the stars and thus you can go out night after night to observe it and take photos through telescopes like this one.

    Meteors, on the other hand, are the objects that enter the earth’s atmosphere leaving trails of glowing superheated material behind them as they heat up when they slow down in the atmosphere. Because they are so close, they move across the sky very quickly and it would be pretty much impossible to get a telescopic picture of one.

    • Janna Dotschkal
      March 17, 2014

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge, George. We try our best to keep the captions accurate so I appreciate the information.

  19. Tatiana Vera Lescano
    March 17, 2014

    Very interesting. I love to see old school stuff,instruments and places that where inspiration for great discoveries…

  20. Dr Sushrut Patel
    March 16, 2014

    Great ! I loved the pictures. Caption on that last photo is missing. Which comet is this?

  21. Jerry
    March 16, 2014

    I am just a 3rd grader at heart, but I was reflecting upon how all those pieces of matter got to be out there in space, and how they got to be so precisely placed that they move predictably, and have done so for all of time. Think about that for a moment: where did that matter come from? (The answer: Genesis, Chapter 1)

  22. Bruce Jackson
    March 16, 2014

    I get an odd sense of pleasure that a telescope made around 1897 is still being used today.

  23. Randall Brown
    March 16, 2014

    These pictures brought me back to when I was a kid reading The Flammarion Book of Astronomy. Looks like the same prints. It is remarkable how the images made today have progressed in detail, beauty and information. Good article.

  24. Wolfgang
    March 16, 2014

    love this old school stuff …
    the instrument should still be useful
    it was made a well as possible back then, reminds me of some old house that still are just fine to live in !!

  25. Edward Medalis
    March 16, 2014

    I always enjoyed Carl Sagan. I always enjoy Neil deGrasse Tyson and the program is very good and desperately needed by everyone, especially people that believe in any gods or other supernatural nonsense. As much as I like Neil and the show I tend to cringe when physisists speak of “spacetime” as if it were a physical reality. Spacetime is an abstract model that helps brains to understand aspects of our environment, as is the concept of time. Space is not an abstraction. Space is as real as our senses can allow us to perceive the reality of the constantly moving changing now state and configuration of the universe and it’s sub-components. We can’t understand anything about motion, which is real, or change which is a result of motion, without the abstract concept of time.
    To be more inclusive, we can’t understand anything without the abstract concept of time. And that is the “why” of the time concept.

  26. David
    March 16, 2014

    Thanks for the history and photos. I am very excited about Dr Tyson’s Cosmos re-boot, and was a huge fan of Dr. Sagan’s original series, which broadcast when I was in high school. I would disagree with comments referencing the perceived “lack of humility” in the reboot. In fact, one of the most touching parts (IMO) of the reboot premier was seeing the tears in Dr. Tyson’s eyes as he described his 1975 encounter with Dr. Sagan. It takes incredible humility to acknowledge in an international forum that “we are all made of star stuff,” and that the science of each generation builds on the knowledge of our predecessors. To me, the photos in this post, showing Albert Einstein dwarfed by the huge telescope aimed at distant stars, just re-emphasized how small we really are. Thank you for sharing them.

  27. jon
    March 16, 2014

    Takes me straight to Robert Burnham’s Celestial Handbook which I have a copy of all 3 volumes with black and white pix taken from Mt. Wilson, Palomar and other observatories around the world. Out standing

  28. Robert Jones
    March 16, 2014

    It is a true testament to ones faith when they are confronted with unarguable facts regarding the age of the universe, they continue to believe the bumbling calculations of a medeivel pseudo scientist over the proof of modern discovery and achievement in astronomy. Is it any wonder that mankind lags their potential when there those that believe the earth is flat?

  29. jlw
    March 16, 2014

    Great pics. So some info may not be quite right the first time, but correction is graciously accepted. But if anyone gets their info from only one place, they sell themselves short.

  30. Bruce Kopetz
    March 16, 2014

    Today’s “dumbed-down” NGS has done it again. I’m reminded of a recent Sunday Stills underwater photo which depicted a sea lion devouring a penguin that was cited over and over as having been taken in the Arctic (north polar cap). The event could have occurred only in the Antarctic (south polar region), the penguin’s sole habitat.

    Of course, the comet photographed by Yerkes hadn’t entered Earth’s atmosphere let alone “breaking up”. Any 5th-grade “B” science student should know that. Or don’t we teach the difference between a comet and a meteor anymore?

    I’ve been reading NGM for over 50 years (I’m 62) and am embarrassed by such erroneous reporting!

    • Janna Dotschkal
      March 16, 2014

      Thank you for your feedback. As I previously mentioned in the comments, I will be updating the captions with corrected information. As to the article with the sea lion photograph, the post featured a video interview of a photographer that works both in the Arctic and Antarctic. The photo in the post was a sampling of his imagery overall. The title was meant to reflect the photographer’s work and goal, not the location of the photograph.

  31. Gene Bachman
    March 16, 2014

    A comet in the atmosphere would have certainly have made headlines – if anyone had been left to write them !

  32. Adam Handler
    March 16, 2014

    Fantastic imagery. Although a novice, I just got hooked by the large wall decals of a company that focused on space images (BigBangPrints.com) and when I saw them huge, it just changed my sense of mankind’s relative importance. More should be done to promote Space, and maybe we’d stop trashing our own planet as we gaze out at so many others.

  33. Ken
    March 16, 2014

    Replying to Janna Dotschkal about the original photo caption: The photo is of a comet, but the comet is not in the atmosphere.

  34. Evert
    March 16, 2014

    “The forty-inch telescope at the Yerkes Observatory” looks like it’s at least fourhundered inch..

  35. Patricia Hartmann
    March 16, 2014

    These are truly incredible photos and yet I am wary of the exact figures in terms of billions, millions of years for the existence of these bodies in the universe. “As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord” The Bible, Book of Joshua. I begin to diverge from Sagan when he dates the earth. The National Geographic is 100% evolutionist and I tire of the articles about the “missing link” the ape-man.
    I have loved the magazine since I was a child-my Dad had a collection of the ones in black & white. According to the Bible, the earth is about 10,000 years old. There is archeological, geological, anthropological and all other “ogical” evidence of this dating.
    Otherwise, thank you for these images. They attest to a mighty God and strengthen the faith of believers who read The National Geographic. I hope they will inspire non-believers to consider that there is a Prime Mover.

  36. cwcooper “Bill”
    March 16, 2014

    very interesting, I have always hd a desire to see more about space and love to read any articles and see pictures.

  37. George
    March 16, 2014

    Yeah the captions on the pictures are pretty bad. That was a spiral galaxy (not a nebula), and the comet certainly was not entering the atmostphere (or even breaking up). The comet certainly would not have a nice tail like that if it were entering the atmosphere and its fireball would outshine everything in the sky (wouldn’t be able to see the stars in the same exposure). The author should go back and actually look up what the photos are of, since this looks sloppy.

    • Janna Dotschkal
      March 16, 2014

      Hi George,

      Since the images are historical I have to go with the captions that we have on file. Since you have now brought this to my attention I will update the captions. Are you saying the comet is not in the atmosphere? Or is it not a comet?

      Thank you for your assistance.

  38. Laura Knox
    March 16, 2014

    Wow great !

  39. Antony Colvin
    March 16, 2014

    I recorded the pilot episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” last week and excitedly watched it last night; it was horribly boring and grandiose. It reminded me of what happens when a director “tells you” he’s making an epic motion picture. For those who are old enough to remember; this was the “Heaven’s Gate” of science shows. That’s the film not the cult; although this bored me to near suicide.
    Now I admit that I have never liked Neil deGrasse Tyson and I HATED Carl Sagan, but at lease the original “Cosmos” was full of new information. Last night’s episode seemed to be culled from five year old episodes of better produced Science Channel shows with spiffy new graphics added. When Cosmos originally aired it didn’t have much competition, but today not only do we have PBS shows like NOVA and Scientific American Frontiers; National Geographic has its own channel and Discovery’s Science Channel is 18 years old and received by some 77 million American households. The writers and producers of this new “Cosmos” should immediately subscribe to cable and go check out reruns of “How The Universe Works”, “Beyond the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman” and “Universe: The Infinite Frontier”. After which I will provide them with a list of five or six current science shows. Of course this was just the pilot episode, but when you beat me over the head with ads about the second coming of “Cosmos” and you get the President of the United States to do your intro–I expect more!

  40. Joyce Marie Alfrey
    March 16, 2014

    I just celebrated 76 years of life. I have always dreamed of viewing the sky through a telescope in an observatory. As a child, my dream was to be an astronomer. I will never get look at the sky through this magic “Mirror”, but because of you I can see and dream of the glories that lie, “out there”. My heart thanks you.

    • Antony Colvin
      March 16, 2014

      To: Joyce Marie Alfrey
      Joyce you can still live your dream directly. Google “observatories open to the public” find one near you and check this item off your bucket list. Enjoy!

  41. white owl
    March 16, 2014

    Sorry I missed first show. Will watch tonight.

  42. white owl
    March 16, 2014

    I’m sorry but I missed the first show. I so wanted to see it. I will watch it tonight. The pictures are stunning though. Thank you for posting them.

  43. Vladimir
    March 16, 2014


  44. Kathi Royal
    March 16, 2014

    I loved the picture of the telescope! What an awesome piece of machinery taking such beautiful pictures!

  45. Horace Gaims
    March 16, 2014

    What existed 50 billion years ago?

  46. Pete
    March 16, 2014

    I like what I have seen so far. Have read about black holes is that going to be something about them ?

  47. Steve
    March 16, 2014

    He didn’t say “13.8 thousand billion” – he said “13.8 thousand million” – which is exactly 13.8 billion.

  48. H. L.
    March 16, 2014

    I think everyone knows that 13.8 thousand million is 13.8 billion duh. a slip of the tongue maybe. I did not notice. and if you want to get Technical. The earth and even the oort cloud is in the suns Atmosphere!.
    great show. great job Neil. it ain’t bragging if you can do it. Neil is very grateful that Carl visited with the 17 year old boy.

  49. Danize
    March 16, 2014

    It must have been a significant year in 1919 for Albert in his colleagues. Lets view the pictures from 1920 and what their recordings were.

  50. Andrew
    March 16, 2014

    That’s unfair and inappropriate. Tyson does not lack humility.

  51. John Rees
    March 16, 2014

    I enjoy the comments.

  52. Sue Peacock
    March 16, 2014

    oops…Salinas, CA. With the Meskins and the Oakies!! Loved it, and miss it. Lived there 28 years.

  53. Sue Peacock
    March 16, 2014

    My husband Fred, my brother Lenny,& I saw Haley’s Comet on it’s latest pass close to Earth. We went through Hartnell Jr College in Sakinas, CA. Orion Telescopes of Santa Cruz put the gig together. Very cool, & some great pics. looked and attatched our cameras to a C-5 Celestron scope. Saturn and the moon were great. The comet blew us away.

  54. Fran Oldham
    March 16, 2014

    In answer to Rick, maybe what Neil said was “13.8 thousand million…..”, with an “m” not a “b”, which would have been right.

  55. John Dobias
    March 16, 2014

    Fantastic Pictures can’t get enough.

  56. Rick
    March 12, 2014

    I can’t believe the show didn’t retake the section of the show where Neil incorrectly states the age of the universe to be 13.8 thousand billion years old, instead of 13.8 billion years old.

  57. Gabriel
    March 11, 2014

    Cool. I loved the pictures

  58. James Corner
    March 11, 2014

    Surely the caption on that last photo is a mistake. A comet entering the atmosphere; really?

  59. Hasi
    March 10, 2014

    While Tyson may be as bright or brighter that’s Sagan, he is sorely lacking in one of Sagan’s most endearing traits: humility.

  60. Daniel
    March 10, 2014

    This is history. Cosmos tells of our history, but tells us where we can ( hopefully ) go from here, best case scenario.

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