I’m currently writing a story where one of the characters is an astronomer-archaeologist who has been working a lot on comparing old observations with recent ones. Just to get some sort of a feeling of what this work entails, I took a look at some old but famous astronomical writings.

And thanks to the awesome Internet folks, I found a translation of the Messier catalogue as it was originally published in 1771. There’s a lot of talk about what the objects look like, stuff about the observation equipment and conditions, and a few all-important details like, uh, the coordinates. Which can be pretty important, because, if you’re looking for the most famous Messier object, right ascension 7° 26′ 32″ declination 39° 9′ 32″ N (1771 epoch?) sounds a bit more accurate than “girdle of Andromeda”, at least to my non-astronomer ears.

But the weird stuff is in the end. Apparently, Charles Messier decided to make a detailed drawing of M42, also known as the Orion Nebula.

Messier's drawing of M41

My first thought when I saw this drawing was “Hmmmmmm… that looks pretty interesting. Let’s look up that thingy in Wikipedia and see what it looks like through the wonders of modern telescopes and photography…”

Hubble image of M42

“…hooooolyyyy shit!”

And this, my good people, is why it’s important that we keep getting better and better technology.

Also note the comment in Messier’s drawing: “Presentee au ROI” - “presented to the King”. I wholeheartedly support that sentiment - except we don’t have too many kings these days. This sort of stuff is available right now to the folks in power: the general public. Look at the marvels of science now. This is where the taxpayer money goes. Awesome shit gets done. I support getting awesome shit done. (I got sidetracked here because of Wikimedia Commons’s announcement on ten million files uploaded - and a large part of that comes from various government projects around the world. Tons of awesome, high-quality stuff. Go look.)

(Hubble image courtesy of NASA/ESA. You can find higher resolution images from Wikimedia Commons: Messier drawing, Hubble image.)