Out of Time: Norman Robert Pogson and His Groundbreaking Work in the Field of Astronomy

Words: George White
Illustrations: Ciaran Burrows
Friday 25 November 2022
reading time: min, words

From discovering Isis (the minor planet, that is) to having a mathematical equation named after him, Nottingham-born Norman Robert Pogson was one of the most influential astronomers of the nineteenth century - yet remained relatively unknown on British soil. We take a deep-dive into his fascinating, and unlikely, cosmic career…


Where those interested in astrology look to the stars for signs, astronomers do so for science; astrologers try to find some explanation for happenings here on earth, astronomers for happenings far, far away from earth. 

And very few have wanted to understand cosmic happenings more than Norman Robert Pogson, the Nottingham-born astronomer who was an unlikely source of scientific progress in the nineteenth century. Once seemingly destined for a life of power and luxury in the East Midlands, Pogson shunned it all to spend three decades looking after the Madras Observatory in India, helping to push forward knowledge of space in the country and beyond. That wasn’t before he became one of the most influential and well-respected young minds of his time back on home soil, though. 

Born into a wealthy family in March 1829, Norman spent his formative years preparing to take over the hosiery manufacturing business of his father, George. Receiving “commercial education” up until his sweet sixteenth, his mind was trained for one path, but his heart was set on another. That is, rather than wanting to learn about the art of the deal, he became fascinated with science and mathematics - to the point where he left business school before his seventeenth birthday, instead aiming to pass on his passion to others as a maths teacher. 

Yet before he could make his return to education on the other side of the classroom, Norman discovered that he had a natural talent for the galactic. By the time he turned eighteen, to say Pogson was already establishing himself as one to watch would be an understatement. Shortly after unearthing his interest in space at George Bishop's Observatory in 1846, he had already figured out how to calculate the orbit of two comets, with the help of fellow Nottinghamian John Russell Hind. 

Never one to settle, Norman continued to impress those in the field, discovering three asteroids in seven years

At the ripe old age of 23, he had bagged himself a gig at the world-famous Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, setting himself on a potential path to greatness by joining the most skilled astronomy team in the country - and his time there quickly became a success. Within two years he had received recognition for his work studying variable stars, compiling a comprehensive catalogue of the 53 known at the time - including seven that he had discovered himself. One such discovery, that of minor planet Isis - named after his daughter Elizabeth Isis, child one of fourteen - saw him draped with the prestigious Lalande medal for scientific advances in astronomy. 

For five years he continued to work hard on his obsession, but also turned his attention to studying phenomena a little closer to home - joining Astronomer Royal Sir George Biddell Airy in analysing the density of the earth, earning Airy’s “hearty thanks” and gaining a “cordial friend through life” as a result, according to Henry Meredith Vibart. 

Norman’s residence in Oxford would turn out to be the most productive period of what was a very productive life, with his observations on stars’ brightness magnitude leading to the establishment of Pogson’s Ratio, which calculates that stars of the first magnitude are a hundred times as bright as stars of the sixth magnitude - which means something to those in the know, our sources tell us. 

Before the turn of the decade, Norman had risen from assistant to director, taking the reins at John Lee’s Hartwell Observatory in 1859. Here, he remained as proficient as ever, becoming a regular contributor to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society with fourteen papers in a single year. 

This earned the attention of Sir Charles Wood, then Secretary of State for India, who decided to deploy him in, you guessed it, India - appointing him as government astronomer for the city of Madras (now Chennai). Despite being met with less effective technology than he was used to, Norman’s time at the Madras Observatory was still unsurprisingly efficient. Within a year, he’d discovered 67 Asia, a large main belt asteroid 61km in size, which became the first of its kind recorded from the continent.

Had he not shone so brightly so early on in his career, Pogson’s contributions to astronomy may have been even more profound

Never one to settle, though, Norman continued to impress those in the field, discovering three more asteroids in the following seven years - 80 Sappho, 87 Sylvia and 107 Camilla. These discoveries, plus a mere 51,000 more observations in total, made up Norman’s contributions to Taylor's Madras Catalogue, a codified collection of everything spotted at the observatory. 

This work was largely carried out in isolation, and using technology that was deemed “very old and inadequate” by the Science journal, making his successes all the more remarkable. In total, he discovered 134 stars, 106 variable stars, 21 possible variable stars and seven possible supernovae, according to Thomas R. Williams and Michael Saladyga, making him one of the most active scientists of his time. 

For all his accomplishments, however, Norman remained largely unknown back on home soil. The scientist spent the final three decades of his life in India, meaning that while he became the source of “some really good stuff”, he was, and still is, “someone no-one’s ever really heard of”, as Nottingham Trent University’s Dr Daniel Brown puts it. 

Had he not shone so brightly so early on in his career, and had he avoided the attention of Sir Wood, his contributions to astronomy may have been even more profound - and more widely recognised. As his eulogy in Nature summarised back in 1891, “Mr. Pogson [had] been so long absent from England that, in a sense, he may be said to have outlived his reputation; but those who can recall the condition of astronomy in this country some thirty years since will remember him as a rising astronomer of considerable promise, and as one of the most indefatigable observers at that time. If his subsequent career has not entirely fulfilled his early promise, perhaps the condition of the Madras Observatory is to some extent the cause… possibly Mr. Pogson has accomplished all that could be done with his instruments and his staff.” 

Still, for all the talk of unfulfilled promise, making vital scientific discoveries, picking up awards for your work and having an entire mathematical equation named after you ain’t half bad.

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