Who is the Irish astronomer Storm Agnes is named after?

2 days ago

Image: © lavizzara/Stock.adobe.com

As Cork bears the brunt of Storm Agnes, we briefly look at the life of the eponymous Cork native who popularised astronomy with her science writing.

If you’re wondering how to spend your time at home this week while you’re avoiding Storm Agnes, how about reading up on the history of the person it is named after: Agnes Mary Clerke.

First noticed by weather forecasters last week, Storm Agnes is the result of a low-pressure zone over the Atlantic Ocean that is making its way across Ireland towards the UK.

As of this morning (27 September), Agnes has made landfall in Cork amid an orange weather warning across several counties, leading to thousands of homes being left without power and multiple flights cancelled from Cork Airport.

Interestingly, the Irish scientist who lends her name to the eponymous storm was born in the same county around 180 years ago. This year’s list of names for upcoming storms features “those who work to keep people safe in times of severe weather”.

One of Ireland’s most prolific early science writers, Clerke born in Skibbereen in 1842, one of three children of JW Clerke and Catherine Deasy. Clerke developed her passion for celestial worlds from her father and elder sister Ellen, who also wrote about astronomy.

According to a profile of Clerke in Mary Mulvihill’s Ingenious Ireland, the family moved to Dublin in 1861 and to Queenstown (now Cobh) in 1863. By 1867, Clerke and her sister Ellen had moved to Italy to study science and languages. She eventually settled in London in 1877.

Her first article of import, Copernicus in Italy, was published in the Edinburgh Review in the same year. Clerke also went on contribute to the Dictionary of National Biography, write book reviews about new developments in astronomy for the journal Nature, and contributed to the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

However, it was her 1885 book A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century that put her on the radar.

Her second book, The System of the Stars, was published in 1890, followed by Problems in Astrophysics in 1903, the same year she was elected as an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society. She also became a member of the British Astronomical Association.

Clerke died on 20 January 1907 and is buried in London with her family. Other than Storm Agnes, a small crater on the moon on the border of the Sea of Serenity (close to the spot where Apollo 12 landed) called Clerke is also named after her.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic