One of the most important astronomical discoveries of recent years has
been made by a man who is British, an amateur, and (of all things) a music-hall
humorist. Mr.Hay has discovered a strange "spot," 20,000 miles wide, on the
planet Saturn, and he he has been officially recognised by the British
Astronomical Association as the first to observe it.
A spot on Saturn may not sound exciting to most people, but to astronomers it is an important discovery. It may lead to new facts being established about Saturn - always a mystery planet. The discovery was claimed by America. It was stated yesterday that Mr.John E.Willis, of the Naval Observatory at Washington, saw the spot first on Saturday morning. On making enquiries, the Daily Mirror discovered that Mr.Will Hay saw the spot late last Thursday night. He telephoned immediately Dr. W.H.Steavenson, of the British Astronomical Society, who confirmed it. Britain thus beat the United States by at least thirty hours. Mr.Hay talked to the Daily Mirror yesterday about his discovery in the garden of his house at The Chase, Norbury, where he has a miniature Greenwich Observatory.
Thousands of pounds have been spent on the telescopes and other scientific apparatus in this garden. There are two telescopes - one a 6in refractor through which Mr. Hay first saw the Saturn spot, and the other a 12 & a half reflector. "It was almost by accident that I happened to look at Saturn the other night," said Mr Hay. "Like other astronomers, I often take a look at Saturn because, with it's rings, it is the most beautiful of all the planets. When I saw the spot I admit I felt excited. I telephoned Dr.Steavenson at once - just to be sure I was not 'seeing things.' If I had not seen it, the spot would have been observed sooner or later," added Mr.Hay modestly. "Strictly speaking the spot is not on Saturn at all, but in the dense atmosphere several miles deep which surrounds it. No one has ever seen the body of the planet.
The spot shows bright against the rest of the atmosphere of Saturn. It takes up at least one-fifth of the diameter on the equator, or about 20,000 miles across - two and a half times the size of earth. What has caused it? It may be an eruption of some sort, but it is really impossible to say. Saturn is 800,000,000 miles away from the earth. One thing the spot will render possible is to discover more exactly the time it takes Saturn to revolve on it's axis. Ordinarily Saturn presents a blank face, with no mark to show it's speed of rotation. Now we can see this mark moving around, and calculate the speed. It is thirty years since a similar spot was observed on Saturn." Every night, when the weather is suitable and he is not too far away, Mr.Hay returns from whatever music-hall he is appearing at and studies the stars. He is a member of the Royal Astronomical Society.
MR. William Thomson Hay, the astronomer, deplores the amount of time he
has to put into the study of Will Hay, the music-hall "star," The two Hays
are one in body but two in mind, and for material reasons it is the comedian
who usually gets priority. This is hard on the astronomer because he would
like to take advantage of his stay in Manchester to visit Stonyhurst Observatory,
especially as he has to compile a paper on his recent discovery of the spot
on Saturn to read next week before the Royal Astronomical Society, of which
he is a Fellow. The comedian's two - and often three- shows a day give him
hardly any chance. But he has one consolation for not being able to visit
Stonyhurst. Father Rowland, the director of Stonyhurst Observatory, will
attend the meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society which Mr.Hay is to address,
and will lecture on the Saturn spot first observed in this country by Mr.Hay.
"I have heard that Father Rowland has put in a lot of work in connection
with the spot," said Mr.Hay "and I shall be very interested in what he has
to say.My paper will be just a resume of the observations I made when the
spot was discovered. I shall leave it to the physicists to propound any theories
about it. What is there interesting to see in the sky just now? Well, there
are shooting stars called Leonides, because they seem to radiate from the
constellation Leo, and what could you see in this Manchester weather,
"The worst of being an amateur discoverer," said Will Hay confidentially, "is that the minute you discover anything all the other discoverers start ringing you up to tell you what they've seen..." He was standing in his little square of garden in Norbury, S.W., where nothing grows but giant telescopes. Inside the house the telephone rang incessantly. The "schoolmaster comedian"- who looks nothing like a comedian and still less like a schoolmaster - had time and time again to interrupt his talk about the stars to exchange astronomical statistics with another excited star gazer. For Mr.Will Hay..happens to be the serious and excellent amateur astronomer who discovered the big white spot on Saturn last week, and no body is letting him forget it. There is one thing he cannot stand, and that is having his stage work and his astronomy what he calls "mixed up." That means that when he is talking about astronomy(which is often) he dislikes being reminded of the stage, and when he is in full comic rig at the Palladium he does not think jokes about his stars are funny. Knowing how people laugh at him behind the footlights, he is a little afraid they will think him equally comical at the telescope - which he isn't by any means. Other astronomers probably don't even think of him as a comedian. To them he is a very reputable scientist, who has done valuable astronomical work over a period of 30 years, and has deservedly happened upon an interesting discovery. His house is furnished with the hap-hazard collection of a man who thinks instruments more beautiful than furniture. There is a piano in the sitting room, and a telescope; and a sofa and a chronometer, and a photographic apparatus and a spectroscope, and a couple of easy chairs and a microscope, and a billiards table and a noisy Greenwich mean time clock. The garden is nothing but observatory. The big telescopes are painted grey like guns, and a circular observatory with a sliding dome is being built around the biggest."This has been the thing I've like best for more than 30 years," said Mr Hay, swinging the delicately balanced great tube of the telescope with an affectionate finger. "I was quite a kid when I started. Somewhere about 1901 there was a partial eclipse of the sun, and we were sent out from school with little bits of smoked glass and given a lecture about the sun and the moon. That fired my imagination. I started saving up my pocket money for a book about the stars, and then nothing would do but I must have a little telescope...." His telescope ambitions have grown since then, and the biggest instrument he uses is a 12 in which is about as big as a gun in a battleship, only not so long
Mr.Hay works at night, when he gets home from the theatre, but is more than willing to give you a look through his beautiful telescopes in the daytime. "I found the spot on Saturn quite by accident" he said, "I was doing some work of my own - research for the British Astronomical Association - and I took a look at Saturn because he's always an interesting planet to study. He has nine moons, you know, and it's always amusing to see how many you can find....and there it was, the spot, looking me straight in the eye. There hasn't been one seen for 30 years, so I was pretty startled. Of course, there's no telling what it might be. It's only a spot on Saturn's atmosphere; he's so closely shrouded in heavy clouds that we hardly ever get a glimpse of the planet's actual surface."
Will Hay is a curious man. He is as much in love with astronomy as a man can be with anything. His face glows with excitement when he talks about it. He believes astronomers to be the finest brotherhood on earth, the only men who see life in it's true proportion. If we were all astronomers there'd be no more war." he says. He has the broad, calm philosophy of a man who thinks habitually in terms of universes. All astronomers are philosophers, he will tell you.
He is 44, and a grandfather. He was one of the first private aeroplane owners in England, and had a glider before that: but now he has given up flying because the stars take all his time. He is writing a book called "My Friends the Stars," to introduce the man in the street to his own absorbing passion. "Though I dare say," he said wryly, "a lot of people will buy it under the impression it's about George Robey...."