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The Observatory Science Centre
East Sussex
BN27 1RN
Tel: 01323 832731
Fax: 01323 832741

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Domes of Discovery Exhibition

The Domes of Discovery exhibition tells the story of Britain's Royal Observatory - one of the most famous scientific institutions in the world for more than 300 years. Four sections of the exhibition cover The Greenwich Years, The Herstmonceux Years, Research and Discoveries and The Telescopes.

The magnificent centrepiece of this exhibition is the impressive 38-inch Congo Schmidt telescope which was never used in earnest for astronomical research. See the section about the telescopes to find out more about the Congo Schmidt

Photograph by Martin Saban-Smith
Historic glassware on show includes telescope mirrors and a lens used in one of the 20th century's pivotal scientific events - the successful testing of Einstein's General Theory of  Relativity, during a total eclipse of the Sun on May 19, 1919.

Einstein's bizarre prediction was that space becomes curved when there is matter in it. The Astronomer Royal at the time, Frank Dyson, predicted it would be possible to test the theory by seeing if starlight was bent when it passed near the Sun during a total eclipse. Four stars in the vicinity of the Sun were marked on a photograph, taken of the 1919 solar eclipse in Sobral in the Brazilian jungle through the lens of the 13-inch refractor, now in Dome D at Herstmonceux. When this photograph was later compared to a photograph of the same patch of sky taken when the Sun was elsewhere, the images of the stars were found to have moved. The movement was tiny - less than 1/100 of a millimetre - but agreed with Einstein's prediction, light had been deflected by the Sun's gravity. The results took the world by storm, history was made and Einstein vindicated, becoming an overnight celebrity. The exhibition shows the historic photograph and a contemporary explanation which appeared in the press at the time.

A second lens which is on display in the exhibition was also used to photograph the 1919 eclipse on the West African coast. The Brazilian expedition and the African expedition were one and the same led by Sir Arthur Eddington. The group split into two when they reached the island of Madeira. Eddington boarded another vessel while HMS Anselm carried on to Brazil. It was thought that two teams at different locations would be useful giving a better chance of success if weather conditions were not good at one site. This proved to be a wise decision. Only one of the 16 photographs taken on the Island of Principe by Eddington was of scientific significance. All the rest were obscured by cloud. The Sobral team were more successful and the storms they experienced had subsided before the eclipse began leaving them with ideal viewing conditions. The results from Brazil corroborated the one from Principe and they were officially announced on the 6th November 1919.    

The exhibition also includes five interactive exhibits which show: how parallax is used to measure the distance to nearby stars; spectroscopy; light paths through refracting and reflecting telescopes; how an equatorial mount works; refraction and reflection.

In addition to the fascinating displays and interactive exhibits there are videos of former Royal Greenwich Observatory employees who explain what it was like to work in a world famous establishment in the middle of the East Sussex countryside. 

The exhibition is accessible to wheelchair users.