Astronomer’s contributions are out of this world
The stoic philosopher thought contemplating nature was a way to preserve peace of mind and gain inspiration while struggling with the thornier issues of life. His wise teaching was the kind of saying that would have grabbed the imagination of a bright inquisitive youngster like Robert Ariail as a third grader in Sumter back in the 30s.
The love of astronomy did indeed become like the earth, moon, and stars for Ariail in a very special way. He became a noted collector and stargazer himself as well as an extremely successful insurance executive as head of Elliott Ariail and Associates, which later became Southern Insurance Group, LP. He has traveled across the world in pursuit of astronomical adventures, lifting his eyes to the heavens as particular events have unfolded across the sky before his fascinated gaze.
As a result, Ariail was inspired to become a generous benefactor for his native state with the priceless gift of his collection to the South Carolina State Museum and the University of South Carolina. These days, he and his beloved wife, Pat, can’t hold hands and behold the stars as they once did because of her declining health. However, the spry and ever enthusiastic Ariail himself is making sure that South Carolinians get their chance to learn more about the skies above them through his contributions and related activities.
Just last Tuesday, he and others got the thrill of a lifetime when the once-ina century “Transit of Venus” across the surface of the sun took place. It is the first and last time for Ariail to see the celestial event. As Aurelius advised, Ariail has been watching the stars and running with them, hoping to see as much as he could of the wondrous skies.
The transit was everything he had anticipated and more, he said. All day, clouds and rain had obscured the sun and then, miraculously, just as astronomers had estimated the event would take place, the sun majestically broke through, and then the tiny planet made its appearance across the shining surface of earth’s nearest star. Venus, the second planet from the sun, named for the Roman goddess of truth and beauty, lived up to its designated place in the universe for the awe-struck observers.
“It was absolutely incredible. I was so thankful and humbled to behold it, the grace of the creator,” Ariail exclaimed.
“When we stand here on earth and look up and behold a wonder like that, we are reminded of our place in the universe. We are literally seeing the majesty of the heavens unfolding before our eyes,” he said.
“Venus is earth’s sister,” he noted, “and seeing that tiny object from afar making its way across the vast surface of the sun was truly amazing to see and to be able to contemplate our place as a part of the it all.”
Tom Falvey, director of education for the State Museum, worked with Alex Mowery, director of the USC Melton Observatory, and the staff at Thomas Cooper Library, to give Ariail a special view from a rooftop on campus. Safety considerations limited the participants there to just a few. Later, the group returned street level to share the wonderment with other interested observers.
The crowd of some 500 gathered there represented a fulfillment for Ariail’s vision when he made his gift to the university and state. “It’s wonderful to see people share the beauty and to see the children become excited and enthusiastic too.”
Falvey said, “" This was a unifying event, as people watched from every continent. And though there still are scientific goals related to the event, the opportunity to see our place in this world as part of something much larger is as important for many. I was thrilled to be here to see Mr. Ariail, who has spent so much of his life chasing astronomical events, get to observe one of the rarest.”
It is the last chance most earthlings will ever have to see the planet Venus pass in front of the sun. A transit of Venus is among the rarest of astronomical events, rarer even than the return of Halley’s Comet every 76 years. Only six transits of Venus are known to have been observed by humans before: in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882 and most recently in 2004, an event that Ariail went to great lengths to try to see at the time.
When it does come, it makes two appearances eight years apart before it fades from the sky again for another century. Despite extensive plans and arrangements made by Ariail in North Carolina, thought to be a good vantage point back then, clouds obscured the event from disappointed, hopeful would-be observers.
The next opportunity won’t come again until December 2117. For those who won’t be around for that, the Melton Memorial Observatory held the special observation session in the Wardlaw College parking lot. Midlands Astronomy Club volunteers and other knowledgeable authorities like Ariail, Falvey, and Mowery were able to expound on the wonderment for lay folk who wanted to be a part of the magic from babes in arms to gray-haired grandparents.
It was a moment made for a southern regional writer like Rick Bragg, who holds forth in a monthly feature for Southern Living. He has called the South, which was a major vantage point for the phenomena, “a place where grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven.”
The first recorded observation of the transit of Venus was in Persia in 1032. In the 17th century, astronomers became interested in observing the event because careful measurements would allow the calculation of the distance from the earth to the sun.
The South Carolina State Museum and the University of South Carolina announced last September that the institutions had been given Ariail’s major historic collection of telescopes and astronomy books and charts. The collection includes rare 18thand 19th-century volumes that detail the rare transit of Venus occurrence.
Ariail began collecting astronomy books while still a USC student, and over time was able to add increasingly rare and valuable titles. The Ariail book collection, now at USC totals over 5,000 books and other published items and is a major addition to the University’s research resources for the history of science. USC President Harris Pastides has described the collection of documents as one of the most significant gifts in the school’s history. The division of the Ariail Collection between the two institutions will allow each to do what it does best, he said.
The Ariail telescope collection at the State Museum, with some 63 telescopes and more than 100 other antique astronomy tools, is one of the finest astronomical instrument collections in the United States. Ariail said he donated the collections to the museum and the university because he knew they would be preserved and kept intact.
The generous gift of his collection to the State Museum and the University make the treasures he has collected available both to students and researchers and to the wider community. Planets for the People, in coordination with the South Carolina State Museum, is a regular public outreach program hosted by the Midlands Astronomy Club and the State Museum
As witnessed last week, Ariail remains active in astronomy circles, university functions, museum events and civic affairs, but he returns to spend what remains of the day and each night with his adored Pat. Being together, they can embrace each other and the teachings of Galileo, who said, “I've loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”