If asked to describe the history of the place in which they live, the average Centreville resident would probably sum it up in two words.
Oh, you might get a few mentions that George Washington slept here a couple times (which is true...but where didn't he sleep?)
You might get a mention of Mt. Gilead, or the Spindle House, or Level Green from some old timers...or from history geeks (like myself).
What I guarantee you will never hear are words like "nebula" or "galaxy" or "pulsar" or "binary star." To most people those words evoke thoughts of science or maybe science fiction, not history. But think about it, aren't they linked; describing a continuum from idea, to fact, to interpretation?
Today's science fiction, is tomorrow's science fact...and history describes how it got there.
I've always had a love of science. I love reading about it, the story of its progression, and how it changes society. I love the history of science. What I don't have is an aptitude for it. My brain was wired to get me through high school algebra..and that's it. Which also proves the theory that some familial traits skip a generation.
My father was a mathematician, and my son will be majoring in physics. My dad could calculate the derivative of any function in his head, and my son can coherently explain to me the particle-wave duality of light...I can balance my checkbook!
So what does this have to do with Centreville's history?
Well, as it turns out Centreville was the final home of a most prominent late 19th, early 20th century astronomer, educator and mathematician.
And oh yeah...one of the founders of the Fairfax County Library system...
And I bet you have even heard his name!
Born in Pekin, IL in 1847, Stone lived and worked during a time of rapid advancement and discovery in the areas of astronomy, cosmology, and physics. Just four months before he was born the planet Neptune was first observed, and twelve years later in 1859 spectroscopy was discovered—an advance that allowed celestial observers to understand the chemical makeup of the sun and stars.
It was a time when astronomers worldwide participated in expeditions to observe solar eclipses and to witness rare transits of Venus across the face of the sun.
And in 1905, just seven years before Stone's retirement to Centreville, Albert Einstein published his theory of Special Relativity that gave us the ubiquitous E=MC2, which taught us the speed of light was the universal speed limit.
Ormond Stone was in the middle of all this. Working in an era before computers had replaced the human eye as the primary method of observation, he gained a reputation as a tenacious and accurate observer. He contributed much valuable information to the store of knowledge on double stars, variable stars, nebula, and the moons of Saturn. In addition he led expeditions to observe solar eclipses in 1869, in 1878 and in 1900.
As a mathematician Stone's reputation equaled that of his as an astronomer. He founded the Annal of Mathematics contributing dozens of papers to it, mostly on the relationship between mathematics and astronomy. Titles of his papers included "On the Symmetrical Form of the Differential Equations of Planetary Motion," and "Direct Derivation of the Ordinary Canonical System of Elliptic Elements Employed in the Problem of Three Bodies."
Makes my brain hurt. Links provided so you can see why!
Despite his importance as an observational astronomer and mathematician, his most important contribution to those disciplines may have been through his effort to advance them by educating the next generation of scientists.
Through his work as an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory, as Director of the Cincinnati Observatory from 1875 to 1881, and as Director of the McCormick Observatory at the University of Virginia from 1882 to his retirement in 1912, Stone taught, mentored, and worked to advance the careers of, those who would make the next great set of discoveries—many of whom went on to distinguished careers in the sciences and education.
After his move to Centreville in 1912, Stone continued this work as an advocate for education in the community, and as the Vice President of the Virginia State Teachers Association, where he fought for improvement in the public schools.
In 1929 he and friend Thomas Keith, a lawyer, did something for which every citizen of Fairfax County should be grateful. They approached the Board of Supervisors and asked for resources to start a library. They weren't given money, but a small space was provided in the court house where Stone and Keith went to work gathering donated books. Ormond Stone spent the last three years of his life working on this small project, a seed from which sprung the Fairfax County Library System.
Tragically, while walking near his home, Ormond Stone was struck and killed by a C&P Telephone truck on January 17, 1933. His service was held in the Old Stone Church on Braddock Road which he attended, and he was buried at St. Johns Episcopal Church.
Ormond Stone is the type of person that should be better remembered. Oh...he wasn't a "Gray Ghost" or "Marse Robert." He wasn't a football star and didn't have a reality show.
All he did was advance our understanding of the universe, educate a generation of men who became important and successful scientists, educators and authors, and start what became the Fairfax County Library System. Pretty cool!
So, next time you are sitting on your porch (or at Starbucks, or Panera, or Jireh Bakery) pondering the history of the community you live in, I hope in addition to remembering the Mosbys, Stuarts, Ewells and Lees of this world, the name Ormond Stone pops into your head. Because if you ask me, his life was every bit as "ponder worthy" as these other folks.
If you have an interest in astronomy, a great place to start is through the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. Check them out for information, educational materials, and you might even join them for one of their public viewing events or star parties.
For more information on Ormond Stone you can check out his biography on the University of Virginia website here.
As noted above transits of Venus across the face from sun are rarely observable from earth. However, one is coming up in June, the last one until 2117. NASA has a website where you can learn more, and watch the transit online.