CORRESPONDENCE

Astronomy was his undoing: why a Colombian pioneer got shot

Austral University of Chile, Valdivia, Chile.
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This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Colombian scientist, inventor, naturalist and astronomer, Francisco José de Caldas, who directed South America’s first astronomical observatory, in Bogotá (then in New Granada). In 1816, a Spanish general had Caldas shot in the back for supporting independence of his country from Spain, claiming that “Spain does not need savants”. The eminent scientist’s legacy proved otherwise.

His pioneering contributions include the invention of the hypsometer for measuring altitude, based on his observation that the boiling temperature of distilled water is proportional to atmospheric pressure. He put this device to good use as a participant in the Botanical Expedition of New Granada (present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela), discovering that organisms adapt along altitudinal gradients in tropical ecosystems.

A passion for meteorology led Caldas to publish a paper in 1808 in which he explored the influence of the physical environment on human behaviour (F. J. D. Caldas Semanario Nuevo Reino Granada 22, 200–207; 1808). His weather observations also enabled others to pin down the exact date of a volcanic eruption in the tropics in 1808, which had been suspected from sulfur isotopes in ice cores but was not recorded by eyewitnesses at the time (see A. Guevara-Murua et al. Clim. Past 10, 1707–1722; 2014).

In the end, astronomy was his undoing. His Newtonian views on the Universe were considered heretical in the Spanish colonies at that time. And Caldas used the observatory as a cover for his revolutionary activities.

Nature 558, 30 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05341-4
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