"A Third Verification of Prediction!"(3)
Three times, in spite of its long-established sobriety, the Journal of the Franklin Institute, vols. 106 and 107, reels with an astronomer's exhilarations. He might exult and indulge himself, and that would be no affair of ours, and, in fact, we'd like to see everybody happy, perhaps, but it is out of these three chanticleerities by Prof. Pliny Chase that we materialize our opinion that, so far as methods and strategies are concerned, no particular differences can be noted between astrologers and astronomers, and that both represent engulfment in Dark Ages. Lord Bacon pointed out that astrologers had squirmed into prestige and emolument by shooting at marks, disregarding their misses, and recording their hits with unseemly advertisement.(4) When, in August 1878, Prof. Swift and Prof. Watson said that, during an eclipse of the sun, they had seen two luminous bodies that might be planets between Mercury and the Sun, Prof. Chase announced that, five years before, he had made a prediction, and that it had been confirmed by the positions of these bodies. Three times, in capital letters, he screamed, or announced, according to one's sensitiveness, or prejudices, that the "new planets" were in the exact positions of his calculations. Prof. Chase wrote that, before his time, there had been two great instances of astronomic calculation confirmed: the discovery of Neptune and the discovery of "the asteroidal belt," a claim that is disingenuously worded. If by mathematical principles, or by any other definite principles, there has ever been one great, or little, instance of astronomic discovery by means of calculations, confusion must destroy us, in the introductory position that we take, [12/13] or expose our irresponsibility, and vitiate all that follows: that our data are oppressed by a tyranny of false announcements; that there never has been an astronomic discovery other than the observational or the accidental.(5)
In The Story of the Heavens, Sir Robert Ball's opinion of the discovery of Neptune is that it is a triumph unparalled in the annals of science.(6) He lavishes — the great astronomer Leverrier, buried for months in profound meditations — the dramatic moment — Leverrier rises from his calculations and points to the sky — "Lo!" there a new planet is found.(7)
My desire is not so much to agonize over the single fraudulencies or delusions, as to typify the means by which the science of Astronomy has established and maintained itself:
According to Leverrier, there was a planet external to Uranus; according to Hansen, there were two; according to Airy, "doubtful if there were one."
One planet was found — so calculated Leverrier, in his profound meditations. Suppose two had been found — confirmation of the brilliant computations by Hansen. None — the opinion of the great astronomer, Sir George Airy.
Leverrier calculated that the hypothetical planet was at a distance from the sun, within the limits of 35 and 37.9 times this earth's distance from the sun. The new planet was found in a position said to be 30 times this earth's distance from the sun. The discrepancy was so great that, in the United States, astronomers refused to accept that Neptune had been discovered by means of
calculation: see such publications as the American Journal of Science, of the period.(8) Upon August 29, 1849, Dr. Babinet read, to the French Academy a paper in which he showed that, by observations of three years, the revolution of Neptune would have to be placed at 165 years.(9) Between the limits of 207 and 233 years was the period that Leverrier had calculated. Simultaneously, in England, Adams had calculated. Upon Sept. 2, 1846, after he had, for at least a month, been charting the stars in the region toward which Adams had pointed, Prof. Challis wrote to Sir George Airy that this work would occupy his time for three more months. This indicates the extent of the region toward which Adams had pointed.
The discovery of the asteroids, or in Prof. Chases's not very careful language, the discovery of the "asteroidal belt as deduced from Bode's Law":
We learn that Baron Von Zach had formed a society of twenty-four astronomers to search, in accordance with Bode's Law, for "a planet" — and not "a group," not "an asteroidal belt" — between Jupiter and Mars. The astronomers had organized, dividing the zodiac into twenty-four zones, assigning each zone to an astronomer. They searched. They found not one asteroid. Seven or eight hundred are now known.
Philosophical Magazine, 12-62:(10)
That Piazzi, the discoverer of the first asteroid, had not been searching for a hypothetic body, as deduced from Bode's Law, but, upon an investigation of his own, had been charting stars in the constellation Taurus, night of Jan. 1, 1801. He noticed a light that he thought had moved, and, with his mind a blank, so far as asteroids and brilliant deductions were concerned, announced that he had discovered a comet.
As an instance of the crafty way in which some astronomers now tell the story, see Sir Robert Ball's The Story of the Heavens, p. 230:(11)
The organization of astronomers of Lilienthal, but never a hint that Piazzi was not one of them — "the search for a small planet was soon rewarded by a success that has rendered the evening of the first day of the nineteenth century memorable in astronomy." Ball tells of Piazzi's charting of the stars, and makes it appear that Piazzi had charted stars as a means of finding asteroids deductively, rewarded soon by success, whereas Piazzi had never heard of such a search, and did not know an asteroid when he saw one. "This laborious and accomplished astronomer had organized an ingenious system of exploring the heavens, which was eminently calculated to discriminate a planet among the starry host...at length he was rewarded by a success which amply compensated him for all his toil."
Prof. Chase — these two great instances not of mere discovery, but of discovery by means of calculation according to him — now the subject of his supposition that he, too, could calculate triumphantly — the verification depended upon the accuracy of [14/15] Prof. Swift and Prof. Watson in recording the positions of the bodies that they had announced —(12)
Sidereal Messenger, 6-84:(13)
Prof. Colbert, Superintendent of the Dearborn Observatory, leader of the party of which Prof. Swift was a member, says that the observations by Swift and Watson agreed, because Swift had made his observations agree with Watson's. The accusation is not that Swift had falsely announced a discovery of two unknown bodies, but that his precise determining of positions had occurred after Watson's determinations had been published. The accusation is not that Swift had falsely announced a discovery of two unknown bodies, but that his precise determining of positions had occurred after Watson's determinations had been published.
Popular Astronomy, 7-13:(14)
Prof. Asaph Hall writes that, several days after the eclipse, Prof. Watson told him that he had seen "a" luminous body near the sun and that his declaration that he had seen two unknown bodies was not made until after Swift had been heard from.
Perched upon two delusions, Prof. Chase crowed his false raptures. The unknown bodies, whether they had ever been in the orbit of his calculations or not, were never seen again.
So it is our expression that hosts of astronomers calculate, and calculation-mad, calculate and calculate and calculate, and that when one of them does point within 600,000,000 miles (by conventional measurements) of something that is found, he is the Leverrier of the text books; that the others are the Prof. Chases not of the text books.
As to most of us, the symbols of the infinitesimal calculus humble independent thinking into the conviction that used to be enforced by drops of blood from a statue. In the farrago and conflicts of daily lives, it is relief to feel such a rapport with finality, in a religious sense, or in a mathematical sense. So then, if the seeming of exactness in Astronomy be either infamously, or carelessly and laughingly, brought about by the connivances of which Swift and Watson were accused, and if the prestige of Astronomy be founded upon nothing but huge capital letters and exclamation points, or upon the disproportionality of balancing one Leverrier against hundreds of Chases, it may not be better that we should know this, if then to those of us who, in the religious sense, have nothing to depend upon, comes deprivation of even this last, lingering seeming of foundation, [15/16] or seeming existence of exactness and realness, somewhere —
Except — that, if there be nearby lands in the sky and beings from foreign worlds that visit this earth, that is a great subject, and the trash that is clogging an epoch must be cleared away.
We have had a little sermon upon the insecurity of human triumphs, and, having brought it to a climax, now seems to be the time to stop; but there is still an involved "triumph" and I'd not like to have inefficiency, as well as probably everything else, charged against us —
The Discovery of Uranus.
We mention this stimulus to the text-book writers' ecstasies, because out of phenomena of the planet Uranus, the "Neptune-triumph" developed. For Richard Proctor's reasons for arguing that this discovery was not accidental, see Old and New Astronomy, p.646.(15) Philosophical Transactions, 71-492 — a paper by Herschel — an "account of a Comet discovered on March 13, 1781."(16) A year went by, and not an astronomer in the world knew a planet when he saw one: then Lexell did find out that the supposed comet was a planet.(17)
Statues from which used to drip the life-blood of a parasitic cult —
Structures of parabolas from which bleed equations —
As we go along we shall develop the acceptance that astronomers might as well try to squeeze blood from images as to try to seduce symbols into conclusions, because applicable mathematics has no more to do with planetary inter-actions than have statues of saints. If this denial of calculi have place in gravitational astronomy be accepted, the astronomers lose their supposed god; they become an unfocussed priesthood; the stamina of their arrogance wilts. We begin with the next to the simplest problem in celestial mechanics: that is the formulation of the inter-actions of the sun and the moon and this earth. In the highest mathematics, final, sacred mathematics, can this next to the simplest problem in so-called mathematical astronomy be solved?
It cannot be solved.
Every now and then, somebody announces that he has solved the Problem of the Three Bodies, but it is always an incomplete, [16/17] or impressionistic demonstration, compounded of abstractions, and ignoring the conditions of bodies in space. Over and over we shall find vacancy under supposed achievements; elaborate structures that are pretensions without foundation. Here we learn that astronomers can not formulate the inter-actions of three bodies in space, but calculate anyway, and publish what they call the formula of a planet that is inter-acting with a thousand other bodies. They explain. It will be one of our most lasting impressions of astronomers: they explain and explain and explain. The astronomers explain that, though in finer terms, the mutual effects of three planets can not be determined, so dominant is the power of the sun that all other effects are negligible.
Before the discovery of Uranus, there was no way by which the miracles of the astro-magicians could be tested. They said that their formulas worked out, and external inquiry was panic-stricken at the mention of a formula. But Uranus was discovered, and the magicians were called upon to calculate his path. They did calculate, and, if Uranus had moved in a regular path, I do not mean to say that astronomers or college boys have no mathematics by which to determine anything so simple.
They computed the orbit of Uranus.
He went somewhere else.
They explained. They computed some more. They went on explaining and computing, year in
and year out, and the planet Uranus kept on going somewhere else. Then they conceived of a powerful perturbing force beyond Uranus — so then that at the distance of Uranus the sun is not
so dominant — in which case the effects of Saturn upon Uranus and Uranus upon Saturn are not so negligible — on through complexes of inter-actions that infinitely intensify by cumulativeness into a black outlook for the whole brilliant system. The palæo-astronomers calculated, and for
more than fifty years pointed variously at the sky. Finally two of them, of course agreeing upon the general background of Uranus, pointed within distances that are conventionally supposed to
have been about six hundred millions of miles of Neptune, and now it is religiously, if not
insolently, said that the discovery of Neptune was not accidental —
That the test of that which is not accidental is ability to do it again —
That it is within the power of anybody, who does not know a hyperbola from a cosine, to find out whether the astronomers are led by a cloud of rubbish by day and a pillar of bosh by night —
If, by the magic of his mathematics, any astronomer could have pointed to the position of Neptune, let him point to the planet past Neptune. According to the same reasoning by which a planet past Uranus was supposed to be, a Trans-Neptunian planet may be supposed to be. Neptune shows perturbations similar to those of Uranus.
According to Prof. Todd there is such a planet, and it revolves around the sun once in 375 years.(18) There are two according to Prof. Forbes: one revolving once in 1,000 years, and the other once in 5,000 years. See Macpherson's A Century's Progress in Astronomy.(19) It exists according to Dr. Eric Doolittle, and revolves once in 283 years, (Sci. Amer., 122-641).(20) According to Mr. Hind it revolves once in 1,600 years, (Smithson. Miscell. Cols., 20-20).(21)
So then we have found out some things, and, relatively to the oppressions that we felt from our opposition, they are reassuring. But also they are depressing. Because, if, in this existence of ours, there is no prestige higher than that of astronomic science, and, if that seeming of substantial renown has been achieved by a composition of bubbles, what of anything like soundness must there be to all lesser reputes and achievements?
Let three bodies inter-act. There is no calculus by which their inter-actions can be formulated. But there are a thousand inter-acting bodies in this solar system — or supposed solar system — and we find that the higher prestige in our existence is built upon the tangled assertions that there are magicians who can compute in a thousand quantities, though they cannot compute in three.
Then all other so-called human triumphs, or moderate successes, products of anybody's reasoning processes and labors — and what are they, if higher than them all, more academic, austere, rigorous, exact are the methods and the processes of the astro- [18/19] nomers? What can be thought of our whole existence, its nature and its destiny?
That our existence, a thing within one solar system, or supposed solar system, is a stricken thing that is mewling through space, shocking able-minded, healthy systems with the sores on its sun,
its ghastly moons, its civilizations that are all broken out with sciences; a celestial leper, holding out doddering expanses into which charitable systems drop golden comets? If it be the leprous
thing that our findings seem to indicate, there is no encouragement for us to go on. We cannot discover: we can only betray new symptoms. If I be part of such a stricken thing, I know of nothing but sickness and sores and rags to reason with: my data will be pustules; my
interpretations will be inflammations —