Today is the birthday (1730) of Charles Messier FRS, a French astronomer most notable for publishing an astronomical catalogue consisting of nebulae and star clusters that came to be known as the 110 Messier objects. The purpose of the catalogue was to help astronomical observers, in particular comet hunters such as himself, distinguish between permanent and transient visually diffuse objects in the sky.
Messier was born in Badonviller in Lorraine, the 10th of 12 children of Françoise B. Grandblaise and Nicolas Messier, a Court usher. Six of his brothers and sisters died while young and in 1741, his father died. Charles’s interest in astronomy was stimulated by the appearance of the spectacular, great six-tailed comet in 1744 and by an annular solar eclipse visible from his hometown on 25th July 1748. In 1751 Messier began working for Joseph Nicolas Delisle, the astronomer of the French Navy, who instructed him on how to keep careful records of his observations. Messier’s first documented observation was that of the Mercury transit of 6th May 1753, followed by his observations journals at Cluny Hotel and at the French Navy observatories. In 1764, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society, in 1769, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and in 1770 he was elected to the French Academy of Sciences.
Messier discovered 13 comets, and in the process compiled what is now called the Messier Catalogue. Messier’s occupation as a comet hunter led him to continually come across fixed diffuse objects in the night sky which could be mistaken for comets. He compiled a list of them, in collaboration with his friend and assistant Pierre Méchain (who may have found at least 20 of the objects), to avoid wasting time sorting them out from the comets they were looking for. The entries are now known to be galaxies (39), planetary nebulae (5), other types of nebulae (7), and star clusters (55).
Messier did his observing with a 100 mm (4 inch) refracting telescope from Hôtel de Cluny (now the Musée national du Moyen Âge), in Paris. The list he compiled contains only objects found in the area of the sky he could observe, from the north celestial pole to a declination of about −35.7°. They are not organized scientifically by object type, or even by location. The first version of Messier’s catalogue contained 45 objects and was published in 1774 in the journal of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. In addition to his own discoveries, this version included objects previously observed by other astronomers, with only 17 of the 45 objects being Messier’s By 1780 the catalog had increased to 80 objects.
The final version of the catalogue was published in 1781, in the 1784 issue of Connaissance des Temps. The final list of Messier objects had grown to 103. On several occasions between 1921 and 1966, astronomers and historians discovered evidence of another seven objects that were observed either by Messier or by Méchain, shortly after the final version was published. These seven objects, M104 through M110, are accepted by astronomers as “official” Messier objects. The objects’ Messier designations, from M1 to M110, are still used by professional and amateur astronomers today and their relative brightness makes them popular objects in the amateur astronomical community.
Near the end of his life, Messier self-published a booklet connecting the appearance of the great comet of 1769 to the birth of Napoleon, who was in power at the time of publishing. I don’t know what came of it, but it was a generally servile and opportunistic tract praising the epoch of “Napoleon the Great” which, in fact, was coming to an end at the time. I don’t know what he hoped to gain by this crass move, but Napoleon had his hands full at the time, and certainly did not have time for a fawning astronomer’s praise when Europe was attacking him from all sides.
Messier died in April 1817 and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, in Section 11. The grave is plain and faintly inscribed, and while it is not on most maps of the cemetery, it can be found near the grave of Frédéric Chopin.
I have given recipes for several classic dishes from Messier’s native Lorraine, and no doubt will have occasion to do so in the future. The region gave birth to numerous influential people. Today I will give you potée Lorraine, a stew of pork with cabbage, beans, and root vegetables. Some cooks use local sausage in place of (or in addition to) bacon, and leeks in place of onions; some omit the beans. This is one of those “stick stuff in a pot and cook a long time” stews, so you can more or less do as you please, but the ingredients I give here work well together. It’s typical to make large quantities of the dish and serve it over several days. It will get richer when kept overnight in the refrigerator and reheated the next day. Some cooks make a dipping sauce of heavy cream, shallots, vinegar and whole grain mustard. This adds an extra twist.
6 bacon slices, chopped
3 lb boneless pork shoulder, cut into cubes
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups beef broth
1 cup dry white wine
2 bay leaves
1 ½ lb cabbage, chopped
3 large carrots, peeled and diced
2 turnips, peeled and diced
2 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 ½ lb cooked white kidney beans
1 tsp ground cloves (or to taste)
1 lb green beans, trimmed, cut into 1 ½ inch lengths, and poached lightly
Cook the bacon in heavy 8-quart stock pot over medium heat to render the fat. Take your time, and watch carefully, so that as much fat as possible is rendered, but the lean meat remains. Using slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a bowl. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pot and reserve.
Heat the fat in the pot over high heat and, working in batches brown the pork on all sides. Transfer each batch to the bowl with the bacon when it is browned. When the pork is all browned and reserved, reduce the heat to medium, add the onions to the pot, and cook them until they are soft and translucent.
Return the pork and bacon to the pot, add the chicken and beef broth, wine cloves, and bay leaves, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for 1 hour.
Heat the reserved bacon fat in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cabbage and cook until wilted. Add the carrots, turnips and potatoes and continue to cook, stirring often for about 5 minutes. Add the vegetables to the pot with the pork. Cover and simmer for another 45 minutes, or until the pork is tender.
Add the kidney beans to the pot. Simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes, so that the liquid reduces and thickens. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Add the green beans and let them heat though for a few minutes.
Some cooks serve the broth first and then the meat and vegetables, some serve everything at once in shallow bowls.