The cloudy season is upon us. A lot of Christmas telescopes will sit forlornly for months as they wait for warmer weather and clearer skies.
As you well know fellow and sister stargazers, the winter sky in central Ohio is not known for its abundance of clear nights, which is a pity. Winter in the northern hemisphere features some of the brighter stars in the heavens and some of the sky’s most distinctive constellations.
Orion, rising in the southeast right now, is often the first (and only) constellation that many people learn to identify. The exception might be the Big Dipper, which, technically speaking, is not a constellation at all but only part of a larger constellation called Ursa Major, the Big Bear.
Orion contains a stellar nursery called The Great Nebula (M42), the most spectacular nighttime object not in our solar system. In a telescope of any size, nothing beats a 120-trillion-mile-wide cloud of glowing gas where stars are born.
Trailing Orion is the brightest star in the nighttime sky, Sirius, which marks the head of Orion’s faithful hunting dog, Canis Major. Turn your binoculars or telescope to its brilliant beauty and it will flicker and even change color as the turbulent winter atmosphere shows you what “twinkling” really means.
Even when the sky is hazy, owners of binoculars or telescopes can always observe the moon. Our celestial neighbor is available at least a few times every month.
At first, the moon looks like a rather boring pile of cratered rubble. However, lunar observers soon learn that they should observe its features along the line between light and darkness called the terminator. (Movie fans please note: We had the term first, thank you very much.) Do so, and Luna’s craters, mountains, valleys, and lava plains will seem endless in their variety.
Every mark or splotch, every crater and rill, has its story. None is weirder than the tale of a crater named after a mysterious character named Leo Brenner. The moon and Sirius combine to remind us of his strange life — a cautionary tale that encourages a healthy skepticism of exaggerated claims whenever or wherever we see or hear them.
Brenner was born in 1855 in Trieste, now in Italy but then in Austria. His name at birth was Spiridion Gopcevic, son of a wealthy Serbian ship owner.
His father’s shipping business soon failed, and he committed suicide when Spiridion was only six.
Spiridion and his mother eventually resettled in Vienna, where he briefly attended the university, but she died soon thereafter.
Little is known about his life immediately following his mother’s death. He reappeared as an author of several minor novels and non-fiction works about politics and war.
His politics were violent and nationalistic. As a Serb himself, he favored Serbian independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His inflammatory articles about the Austrian monarchy soon got him thrown into jail.
At some point soon thereafter, his politics shifted radically. He changed from a Serbian nationalist to a staunch supporter of the Austrian monarchy.
The reasons for his change of politics are unclear, but in them we see the beginnings of his con-artist future. He soon married a wealthy Austrian wife and settled with her in Mali Losinj on Losinj Island, now in present-day Croatia, in the Adriatic Sea.
With his wife’s money and a government grant, he soon erected on the island an ornate observatory with a seven-inch refracting telescope. For reasons that are now lost (but are highly suspicious), he also changed his name to Leo Brenner.
The telescope was particularly suited to the observation of the moon and planets. Brenner’s observations, which were widely published in the scientific journals of the time, gained the admiration of many astronomers.
Soon enough, some of those same astronomers began to doubt his work. Every time someone else made a discovery, he managed to make spectacular observations of it against all odds and the laws of physics.
He calculated the rotational period of Venus (a Venus “day”) at 23 hours, 57 minutes, and 36.2396 seconds. His grotesquely accurate figure is, of course, similar to Earth’s day, a logical assumption given that Venus is about the same size as Earth.
However, Venus is covered with an unbroken layer of clouds. It has no visible surface features against which to measure the planet’s rotation. As it turns out, the Venusian day is equivalent to 243 Earth days, but there was no way for Brenner — or, in fact, anyone else at the time — to know that.
After Percival Lowell of the United States discovered his famous (and, as it turned out, bogus) canals on Mars, Brenner drew detailed Mars maps crisscrossed with hundreds of canals, which he concluded were created by intelligent Martians as artificial waterways.
Astronomers had recently discovered that the bright star Sirius in the constellation Canis Major had a faint companion star orbiting around it. The companion was far beyond the reach of Brenner’s telescope Undaunted, he published measurements of the companion’s distance from Sirius.
Brenner did not take criticisms of his finding well. True to his explosive temperament, his comments and letters in reply were so threatening and extreme that people began to suspect that Brenner was, well, crazy.
Scientific journals soon refused to accept his articles, so Brenner began to publish his own journal and continued to publish it until 1909, long after anyone was reading it.
In the meantime, his spendthrift ways had bankrupted his wife. Abruptly, he sold his observatory in 1909, and the person called Leo Brenner ceased to exist.
As Spiridion Gopcevic, he traveled to the United States and ended up after some wandering in San Francisco. He apparently staged a couple of minor musicals while living there. The chameleon-like Brenner/ Gopcevic had now transformed himself into a composer!
Just before World War I, he returned to Austria and from there to Berlin in Germany. In Berlin, he edited an army journal. True to his weird ways, the last trace Gopcevic we have left is a 1922 article about the mythic lost lands of Atlantis and Lemuria.
After that, Spiridion Gopcevic disappears entirely as Brenner had before him. When and where he died remains a mystery. Most historians conclude that he died impoverished, friendless, and alone.
Was Brenner an astronomical con artist, or was he one of the sincere cranks who occasionally dot the history of astronomy? No one knows.
Despite everything, Brenner still made a few friends during his time as an astronomer. An obscure lunar mapper named Philipp Fauth was one of them.
In its way, Fauth’s story is nearly as fascinating as Brenner’s. He is best known as the popularizer of the pseudoscientific “World of Ice Doctrine,” which identified the buildup and motion of glacial water ice as the cause of the moon’s complex features on the moon.
He did so despite the fact that no evidence existed for the presence of any water in any state on the moon. In fact, the theory’s originator, Hans Hoerbiger, wrote that he came up with the theory one night in a dream.
Partly because of Fauth’s support of the theory, he attracted the notice of Heinrich Himmler, the infamous head of Adolph Hitler’s SS. Despite his lack of university teaching experience, Himmler bestowed on him the rank of a professor and put him to work in the SS-Ahnenerbe, a Nazi think tank. Their job was to provide intellectual support for the Nazi theory of Aryan superiority.
As repellant as the Nazis are to us now, Fauth perceived his elevation to a Nazi think tank as career advancement. He had started as a local schoolteacher in Germany, but his real passion was meticulously observing the moon in his small telescope.
Starting in 1884, he painstakingly observed the moon at high magnification, drew its complex features, and finally produced a complete moon map in 1940 after 56 years of labor.
The collected maps were finally published in their entirety only in 1964, a quarter-century after he completed them.
His maps were extraordinarily detailed — a work that anyone would be proud of, except for one small problem. As half a century had passed, the art of astrophotography continued to develop. All his efforts were outstripped and replaced by astronomers with cameras attached to their much larger telescopes.
But the name of at least one lunar crater stuck. To this day, detailed moon maps show a small crater near the large walled plain called Marius. That unassuming hole in the ground called Brenner stands as a monument to the cratered career one of the strangest characters ever to look through a telescope.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.