UNSOLVED Green-Flash Mysteries

Even though I've found a lot about green flashes, there are many open questions. Maybe you know the answer to one of these; or maybe something here might jog your memory, and you could come up with a clue. If so, please send me email.

NOTE: Boldface links here are to the monster bibliography file, which takes a long time to load. Please be patient if you follow a link!

The Jules Verne Mystery

How did Jules Verne learn of the sunset flash? He was an avid sailor; maybe he picked it up from a seaman on one of his own voyages. Or he might have read (or indirectly heard about) the publications of Joule and Winstanley.

Is there a Verne scholar out there who has even a clue about this? Note that French astronomer Jacques Crovisier has a website devoted to Verne's astronomical background, with a page (in French) devoted to this particular question. He's as puzzled as I am.

SOLVED! Actually, Eric Frappa has pretty well nailed down the French translation of Winstanley's work that Jules Verne could have read. The story is long and involved; the details are given in Eric's 2019 paper in the Bulletin de la Société Jules Verne; see its entry in the bibliography for a summary.

Does the Green Flash Really appear in Hieroglyphics?

In a long series of articles in Bull. Inst. Egypt. in the mid-1890s, William Groff claimed that the glyph kha represents the rising Sun, and that the use of the colors green or blue in this sign represent the green flash.

Groff's claim is widely hailed in the green-flash literature; but, at the time it was published, it was contested by Daressy. Though Daressy stumbled badly in his misunderstanding of green flashes, his arguments with respect to the use of color by the ancient Egyptians might still be right.

I have been unable to find a modern Egyptologist who will offer an authoritative judgment in this dispute. Granted that Groff's physical arguments about green flashes are correct, how valid are his linguistic ones?

Did Tyndall ever publish anything about green flashes?

In an editorial in Monthly Weather Review 33, 408 (1905), there is the statement that

... the green ray seen just as the last glimpse of the sun disappears below the sea horizon was originally introduced into meteorology by Tyndall as an evidence of the special absorptive power of the aqueous vapor in the lowest layer of the atmosphere.

I'm unable to locate anything this might refer to. Did John Tyndall in fact ever suggest any such thing?

It's true that Tyndall did a lot of work on the absorption of water vapor; but all his papers I've seen say it is transparent to visible light. Furthermore, the phrase “last glimpse” is a direct quote from Joule's pioneering paper. Could the editor have got these two British physicists mixed up?

A Mysterious Work of Fiction

Dean Newman put me onto the couplet

Glimpse you e'er the green ray,
count the morrow a fine day,

which he remembers one character in a novel reciting to another at the rail of a ship — but he cannot recall where. Can anyone identify the source?

Who changed the estimated duration?

When the Duchess of Bedford reported her pioneering observation of a flash seen from the air to the Times, she said it “lasted quite two or three seconds.”

But when her letter was reprinted in Q. J. Roy. Met. Soc., the duration mysteriously became “quite one to two seconds.”

Who changed the number — and why?

GF used to measure longitude?

In his History of Nautical Astronomy, C. H. Cotter makes the tantalizing remark that “The method of finding longitude from an observation of the Green Flash which occurs in favourable meteorological conditions when the upper limb of the Sun sinks below the visible horizon has been suggested on many occasions during the present century.”

Oh? Care to cite a reference? Where did this idea come from? Has anyone out there ever heard of this before? Let's hear when some of those “many occasions” actually occurred!

I have actually found one such reference: a letter by Brett Hilder (1951), entitled “Longitude by the green flash.” Are there any others?

What did William Black write about the Green Flash?

In a 1929 letter to the London Times, W. W. Gill referred to “Literary use made of the actual phenomenon, as by Jules Verne and William Black”. William Black wrote a series of 19th-Century novels set in Scotland; but what literary use did he make of the flash? Could someone supply a reference?

Was there a version of Cassini's letters printed at Rome?

According to Poggendorff, Cassini's three letters on the solar parallax and refraction were first printed in Rome in 1665. I can only find the versions printed in Montanari's Ephemeris, and reprinted by Roberti considerably later.

Was there really a 1665 Rome edition, or is Pogg. just confused?

What did Alexander von Humboldt have in mind?

In his “Personal Narrative” of travels in the New World, Humboldt appends to his observations of mirages the remark that while these phenomena were almost unknown to the Greeks and Romans, they were often mentioned by “the Indian, Persian, and Arabic poets.” Can someone familiar with those works supply some examples?

In addition, Humboldt offers the Sanskrit phrase “mriga-trichna' ” as meaning the mirage of the desert. Again, an actual example or two would be very welcome!

Our Mysterious Authors

A number of authors in the references are listed by initials only in the original publications. Sometimes they can be guessed (e.g., if they are on the editorial staff of the publication). Sometimes, someone else has left us a clue that needs to be run down. Here are some examples:

SOLVED — thanks to Edward Gilbert! The mysterious "C. Mostyn" who used the pseudonym "Treadle" in numerous letters to English Mechanic turned out to be Charles Browne Mostyn, born in Wales in 1840. He seems to be the first person to have noticed the connection between shipboard green flashes and the distortions due to inferior mirages.

Mostyn mentioned having seen green flashes while on “the old Macquarie, now [1901] a training-ship for officers under Lord Brassey's scheme.” According to Edward Gilbert, Mostyn was a passenger on this ship when it left London on October 28, 1890; it reached Sydney, Australia, on January 29, 1891. Gilbert says, “This iron hulled clipper ship held the record from London to Sydney in 68 days in the 1890's and carried passengers and freight. It had been built in 1875 as the MELBOURNE. In 1888 her name was changed to MACQUARIE.She was undoubtedly best known in Australia under this name. In 1904 it was renamed FORTUNA a name it retained until it was broken up in Sydney in 1953. The Sydney Morning Herald of February 11, 1953 , which can be seen online, has an interesting and complete history about this ship.” Mostyn made several trips by sea between England and Australia, which provided him with numerous opportunities to see green flashes.

Mostyn's last GF publication was in 1906, when he lived in Tunbridge Wells. He used his own name in his 1891 letter to Nature, but adopted "Treadle" a decade later in letters to E.M. He apparently picked the pseudonym "Treadle" because of his interest in treadle-powered bicycles. He died in 1922.

According to Eric Hutton, who has been scanning the English Mechanic:

He was a Welshman, his main hobby was not astronomy but using a microscope. He bought his first microscope in 1858. In the 1860's he was a member of the Microscopical Society later to become the Royal Microscopical Society, but he quit this on leaving the UK. He also tells us in 1864 he owned the fourth 'bone-shaker' (an early type of early bicycle) to be built in the UK, and has rode almost every type of bicycle and tricycle built. Often doing journeys of over 100 miles. His last letter I can find in EM dates to 1919. He also ran a business for 10 years (I don't know what or where, but once I have some of the earlier volumes of EM digitised this may become apparent).

Any additional information about this perceptive GF observer would be very welcome!

Another author I'd like to see identified is the gentleman who signed his extraordinarily informative letter to T.P's Weekly simply “Another Engineer Officer.” Sometimes, when someone in a family has made such a contribution in print, the event is remembered by his descendants. Does anyone recall a great-uncle or the like who wrote such a letter?

Then, there's the incredibly stubborn R. Claude Cann Lippincott, who defended the notion of afterimages long after it should have been laid to rest. I cannot find him in Who's Who, nor does he seem to have been a member of the British Astronomical Association. Yet, at one point, the editor of Symons's Meteorological Magazine sounds as if he might be a known member of the British meteorological community — perhaps an avid amateur observer. Did Lippincott ever publish on any other subject? Had he any sort of technical training, or was he simply a fool with an inexhaustible supply of paper and ink?

Another unidentified author is the one who wrote a good summary of Boccara's review of the fata Morgana literature in Nature — but signed it only with his initials (“G.H.B.”). He might have been the mathematician George Hartley Bryan, FRS. Was he?

What are the “American observations” alluded to by M. A. Ainslie?

Captain Alfred Carpenter was an experienced green-flash observer who published a number of reports in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association early in the 20th Century. When he reported some observations at a meeting of the BAA in 1914, M. A. Ainslie commented that “remarkable results had recently been obtained, chiefly by American officers,” in measuring the varying dip of the horizon. Ainslie went on about this at some length; see the original publication for details.

I'd like to see a reference to this work, so I can add it to the "dip" file. Ainslie's account makes it sound interesting, but I have not found the original.

Has anyone photographed a Green Ray display?

So far as I know, a real “Green Ray” has never been photographed. As the green ray is usually several times larger than the Sun itself, even an ordinary camera should be able to capture this phenomenon. There might be someone out there with an unpublished photo that shows it.

Maybe, as often happens, the picture came out yellow instead of green; that's a common problem in GF photography, owing to the bleaching of the retina that makes sunset flashes look green even at the yellow stage. Even such a “spoiled” photograph would be scientifically useful, however. If you have such a picture, I'd like to see a copy.

What was Athanasius Kircher referring to?

In his Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, Athanasius Kircher says that mirages or Fata Morganas are mentioned by a couple of ancient authors. One is Pomponius Mela, who supposedly says they are seen in Mauretania. (I have looked at all of Mela's references to Mauretania, but not found anything that could be construed as a mirage report.) Anybody have any idea what Kircher might have had in mind?

Likewise, Kircher says that Pliny reports that there is a region in Scythia where the figures of men and beasts are seen in the air between the mountains. Presumably this refers to Pliny's Historia Naturalis, which would indeed be a likely place for mirages to be reported; but I have not been able to find the passage referred to. Is there someone out there familiar with Pliny who can point me to the correct passage?

Can anyone find those references?

Finally, there are some references I haven't been able to get. If you're near a good research library, maybe you could turn one or two of them up; please take a look and see.

If you think you have an answer, or even a possible clue to finding one, for any of these questions, please send me email.

© 1999 – 2007, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2019 Andrew T. Young

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