Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers

2014 Edition
| Editors: Thomas Hockey, Virginia Trimble, Thomas R. Williams, Katherine Bracher, Richard A. Jarrell, Jordan D. MarchéII, JoAnn Palmeri, Daniel W. E. Green

Dick, Thomas

Reference work entry

Born Dundee, Scotland, 24 November 1774

Died Broughty Ferry, (Tayside), Scotland, 29 July 1857

Thomas Dick was the son of Mungo Dick, a Scottish linen weaver, and is best known for his reconciliations of science with religion. When about 8 years old, young Thomas witnessed a brilliant meteor and thereafter studied astronomy in earnest. The boy reluctantly tried to follow in his father’s profession but reportedly studied books even while working at his loom. He fashioned one or more crude telescopes from discarded spectacle lenses that he reground and polished himself. At the age of 16, Dick left his family to pursue his own vocation. For 4 years, he served as an assistant teacher in Dundee.

In 1794, Dick enrolled at the University of Edinburgh and supported himself by private tutoring. He studied chiefly philosophy and theology. After completing his studies circa1800, Dick was licensed to preach under the auspices of the Secession Church and became an itinerant pastor. He returned to teaching at the Secession school at Methven, circa1807. His educational reforms sought an increased role for science and fostered the principles of object teaching. Dick supported the abolition of slavery and the education of women. He founded a public library and a precursor of the later-named mechanics institutes. In 1817, Dick transferred to a school at Perth, where he spent another decade as schoolmaster.

It was at Perth that Dick composed his first significant work, The Christian Philosopher(1823), which established his subsequent literary career. Dick’s writings embraced the tenets of natural theology, by which the existence, benevolence, and wisdom of the Creator were to be inferred from an inspection of His works, especially the heavens. These included his Philosophy of Religion(1825), Celestial Scenery(1838), The Sidereal Heavens(1840), and The Practical Astronomer(1845).

In 1827, Dick gave up his teaching post and built a cottage at Broughty Ferry. It contained a tower observatory and three telescopes. Dubbed Herschel House, after astronomer   William Herschel , this was Dick’s final dwelling place and the source of his greatest literary output. His works were widely read and acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. Dick became a popular lecturer. In 1832, he was awarded an honorary L.L.D. by Union College of Schenectady, New York, USA. Dick was thrice married and had numerous dependents. Although his books sold well, he received little financial return from his writings. In his later years, Dick was supported by a pension from his friends, and by another from Queen Victoria after 1855.

Dick was a strong proponent of the “plurality of worlds,” i.e., a belief in the widespread existence of extraterrestrial life. He readily imagined races of beings residing not only among the Solar System’s planets but upon comets and around nearly every star in the sky. Dick, however, seems to have dodged more complex theological issues concerning the spiritualities of his purported aliens. His writings were infused with a cosmic mysticism that was nonetheless based on a firm grasp of astronomical principles.

Dick’s influence proved to be long-lasting. In 1935, Scottish industrialist John Mills established a public observatory at Dick’s birthplace of Dundee. For over two generations, the Mills Observatory has brought astronomy to visitors of all ages, exactly as Thomas Dick might have wished.

Selected References

  1. Chambers, Robert (1971). “Dick, Thomas.” In A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, revised by Thomas Thomson, pp. 445–446. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag.Google Scholar
  2. Crowe, Michael J. (1986). The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750–1900: The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds from Kant to Lowell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Hennessey, Roger A. S. (2000). “Thomas Dick’s ‘Sublime Science.’” Sky& Telescope99, no. 2: 46–49.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WisconsinMadisonUSA