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Sir Edward Sabine
(14 Oct 1788 - 26 Jun 1883)

Irish-English physicist, astronomer and explorer.


Sir Edward Sabine

Artist's illustration of solar bursts moving into the Earth's magnetic field.
High-energy pulses of solar wind from sunspot activity (“solar bursts” or “plasma bubbles”) travel from the Sun to the Earth at speeds exceeding 500 miles/sec. The pulses distort the Earth's magnetic field and produce geomagnetic storms that disrupt the Earth's environment. (source)

Edward Sabine was an Irish geophysicist, astronomer, and explorer, who made extensive pendulum measurements to determine the shape of the earth, and established magnetic observatories to relate sunspot activity with disturbances in terrestrial magnetism.

Sabine was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, London, commissioned in the Royal Artillery, served in Gibraltar and Canada, and eventually rose to the rank of major-general in 1859, retiring in 1877.

In 1818, he travelled as the expedition’s astronomer with his friend, Sir Clark Ross, to find the North-West Passage. He also joined the 1819-20 Arctic expedition of William Parry. During 1821-23, Sabine travelled in the Southern hemisphere, using careful pendulum experiments to determine the shape of the earth.

He devoted the rest of his life to a study of terrestrial magnetism. He assisted in the 1826 research of Britain’s terrestrial magnetism with the English mathematician, Charles Babbage, followed by his own additional survey during the 1850’s.

As director of an international project to collect measurements of the earth’s magnetic field, beginning in 1839, he established a number of observatories worldwide. In 1839, he founded The Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory, the oldest scientific institution in Canada. Correlating the accumulated data from these institutions, together with measurements of sunspot activity made by German astronomer, Samuel Schwabe, Sabine saw an important relationship.

Graph of sunspot cycle 1850-1975
Sunspot Cycle (1850-1975) which Sabine found has the same 11-year periodicity as magnetic storms. (source)

On 6 April 1852, Sabine announced that the 11 year sunspot cycle was “absolutely identical” with the geomagnetic cycle. Later, using a larger dataset, Rudolf Wolf confirmed this fact. Since Newton’s explanation of the effect of the sun’s gravity on earth, this was the first new phenomenon of the sun interacting with the earth. Thus began continuing studies of the solar-terrestrial activity.

During the 1840’s, he was involved with reforms of the Royal Society. He was also active with the British Society for the Advancement of Science. His political maneuvering caused great emnity from some scientists. He was even accused by some of falsifying data, though he may only have been naïve in using numbers.*

A Fellow since 1818, Sabine served as the Royal Society’s president (1861-71), Sir Edward Sabine was knighted in 1869. The Sabine gull was named after him. His brother, Joseph Sabine (1770-1837) was a noted botanist.

* Reference: Isaac Asimov, Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (2nd. ed, 1982).
See also:
Solar Activity and Geomagnetic Storms: The First 40 Years - includes Sabine's contributions.
On the Watch for Geomagnetic Storms by the US Geological Survey.
The Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory (1855). Photo.

See also:
  • 14 Oct - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Sabine's birth.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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