SOUTHERN plantations and the woolly heads of negroes pounding the ground — cries in northern regions and round white faces turned to the sky — fiery globes in the sky — a study in black, white, and golden formations in one general glow. Upon the night of November 13-14, 1833, occurred the most sensational celestial spectacle of the nineteenth century: for six hours fiery meteors gushed from the heavens, and were visible along the whole Atlantic coast of the United States.
One supposes that astronomers do not pound the ground with their heads, and presumably they do not screech, but they have feelings just the same. They itched. Here was something to formulate. When he hears of something new and unquestionable in the sky, an astronomer is diseased with ill-suppressed equations. Symbols persecute him for expression. His is the frenzy of someone who would stop automobiles, railroad trains, bicycles, all things, to measure them; run, with a yardstick, after sparrows, flies, all persons passing his door. This is supposed to be scientific, but it can be monomaniac. Very likely the distress and the necessity of Prof. Olmstead were keenest. He was the first to formulate. He "demonstrated" that these meteors, known as the Leonids, revolved around the sun once in six months.(1)
Then Prof. Newton "demonstrated" that the "real" period was thirty-three and a quarter years.(2) But this was done empirically, and that is not divine, nor even aristocratic, and the thing would have to be done rationally, or mathematically, by someone, because, if there be not mathematical treatment, in gravitational terms, of such phenomena, astronomers are in reduced circumstances. It was Dr. Adams, who, emboldened with his experience in not having to point anywhere near Neptune, but nevertheless being acclaimed by all patriotic Englishmen as the real discoverer of Neptune, mathematically "confirmed" Prof. [20/21] Newton's "findings." Dr. Adams predicted that the Leonids would return in November, 1866, and in November, 1899, occupying several years, upon each occasion, in passing a point in this earth's orbit.
There were meteors upon the night of Nov. 13-14, 1866. They were plentiful. They often are in the middle of November. They no more resembled the spectacle of 1833 than an ordinary shower resembles a cloudburst. But the "demonstration" required that there should be an equal display, or, according to some aspects, a greater display, upon the corresponding night of the next year. There was a display, the next year; but it was in the sky of the United States, and was not seen in England. Another occurrence nothing like that of 1833 was reported from the United States.
By conventional theory, this earth was in a vast, wide stream of meteors, the earth revolving so as to expose successive parts to bombardment. So keenly did Richard Proctor visualize the earth so immersed and so bombarded, that, when nothing was seen in England, he explained. He spend most of his life explaining. In the Student, 2-254, he wrote: "Had the morning of Nov. 14, 1867 been clear in England, we should have seen the commencement of the display, but not its more brilliant part."(3)
We have had some experience with the "triumphs" of astronomers: we have some suspicions as to their greatly advertised accuracy. We shall find out for ourselves whether the morning of Nov. 14, 1867 was clear enough in England or not. We suspect that it was a charming morning, in England —
Monthly Notices, R.A.S., 28-32:(4)
Report by E.J. Lowe, Highfield House, night of Nov. 13-14, 1867:
"Clear at 1.10 A.M.; high, thin cumuli, at 2 A.M., but sky not covered until 3.10 A.M., and the moon's place visible until 3.55 A.M.; sky not overcast until 5.50 A.M."
The determination of the orbital period of thirty-three years and a quarter, but with appearances of a period of thirty-three years, was arrived at by Prof. Newton by searching old records, finding that, in an intersection-period of thirty-three years, there [21/22] had been extraordinary meteoric displays, from the year 902 A.D. to the year 1833 A.D.(5) He reminds me of an investigator who searched old records for appearances of Halley's comet, and found something that he identified as Halley's comet, exactly on time, every seventy-five years back to times of the Roman Empire. See the Edinburgh Review, vol. 66.(6) It seems that he did not know that orthodoxy does not attribute exactly a seventy-five year period to Halley's comet. He got what he went looking for, anyway. I have no disposition for us to enjoy ourselves at Prof. Newton's expense, because, surely enough, his method, if regarded as only experimental, or tentative, is legitimate enough, though one does suspect him of very loose behavior in his picking and choosing. But Dr. Adams announced that, upon mathematical grounds, he had arrived at the same conclusion.
The next return of the Leonids was predicted for November, 1899.
Memoirs of the British Astronomical Association, 9-6:(7)
"No meteoric event ever before aroused such widespread interest, or so grievously disappointed anticipation."
There were no Leonids in November, 1899.
It was explained. They would be seen next year.
There were no Leonids in November, 1900.
It was explained. They would be seen next year.
Vaunt and inflation and parade of the symbols of the infinitesimal calculus; the pomp of vectors, and the hush that surrounds quaternions: but when an axis of co-ordinates loses its rectitude, in the service of a questionable selection, disciplined symbols become a rabble. The Most High of Mathematics — and one of his supposed prophets points to the sky. Nowhere near where he points, something is found. He points to a date — nothing happens.
Prof. Serviss, in Astronomy in a Nutshell, explains.(9) He explains that the Leonids did not appear when they should have appeared, because Jupiter and Saturn had altered their orbits.
Back in the times of the Crusades, and nothing was disturb- [22/23] ing the Leonids — and if you're stronger for dates than I am, think of some more dates, and nothing was altering the orbit of the Leonids — discovery of America, and the Spanish Armada, in 1588, which, by some freak, I always remember, and no effects by Jupiter and Saturn — French revolution and on to the year 1866, and still nothing the matter with the Leonids — but, once removed from "discovery" and "identification," and that's the end of their period, diverted by Jupiter and Saturn, old things that had been up in the sky at least as long as they had been. If we're going to accept the calculi at all, the calculus of probabilities must have a hearing. My own opinion, based upon reading many accounts of November meteors, is that decidedly the display of 1833 did not repeat in 1866: that a false priest sinned and that an equally false highpriest gave him sanction.
The tragedy goes comically on. I feel that, to all good Neo-astronomers, I can recommend the following serenity from an astronomer who was unperturbed by what happened to his science, in November, 1899, and some more Novembers —
Bryant, A History of Astronomy, p. 252:(10)
That the meteoric display of 1899 had failed to appear — "as had been predicted by Dr. Downing and Dr. Johnstone Stoney."
One starts to enjoy this disguisement, thinking of virtually all the astronomers of the world who had predicted the return of the Leonids, and the find, by Bryant, of two who had not, and his recording only the opinion of these two, coloring so as to look like another triumph — but we may thank our sorely stimulated suspiciousness for still richer enjoyment —
That even these two said no such saving thing —
Nature, Nov. 9, 1899:(11)
Dr. Downing and Dr. Stoney, instead of predicting failure of the Leonids to appear, advise watch for them several hours later than had been calculated.
I conceive of the astronomers' fictitious paradise as malarchitectural with corrupted equations, and paved with rotten symbols. Seemingly pure, white fountains of formal vanities — boasts that are gushing from decomposed triumphs. We shall find their furnishings shabby with tarnished comets. We turn expectantly to the subject of comets; or we turn cynically to [23/24] the subject. We turn maliciously to the subject of comets. Nevertheless, threading the insecurities of our various feelings, is a motif that is the steady essence of Neo-astronomy:
That, in celestial phenomena, as well as in all other fields of research, the irregular, or the unformulable, or the uncapturable, is present in at least equal representation with the uniform: that, given any clear, definite, seemingly unvarying thing in the heavens, co-existently is something of wantonness or irresponsibility, bizarre and incredible, according to the standards of purists — that the science of Astronomy concerns itself with only one aspect of existence, because of course there can be no science of the obverse phenomena — which is good excuse for so enormously disregarding, if we must have the idea that there are real sciences, but which shows the hopelessness of positively attempting.
The story of the Comets, as not told in Mr. Chambers' book of that title, is almost unparalleled in the annals of humiliation. When a comet is predicted to return, that means faith in the Law of Gravitation. It is Newtonism that comets, as well as planets, obey the Law of Gravitation, and move in one of the conic sections. When a comet does not return when it "should," there is no refuge for an astronomer to say that planets perturbed it, because one will ask why he did not include such factors in his calculations, if these phenomena be subject to mathematical treatment.(12) In his book, Mr. Chambers avoids, or indicates that he never heard of, a great deal that will receive cordiality from us, but he does publish a list of predicted comets that did not return. Writing, in 1909, he mentions others for which he had hopes:(13)
Brooks' First Periodic Comet (1886, IV) — "We must see what the years 1909 and 1910 bring forth." This is pretty indefinite anticipation — however, nothing was brought forth, according to Monthly Notices, R.A.S., 1909 and 1910: the Brooks' comet that is recorded is Brooks', 1889. Giacobini's Second Periodical Comet (1900, III) — not seen in 1907 — "so we shall have no chance of knowing anything more about it until 1914." No more known about it in 1914. Borelly's Comet (1905, II) — "Its [24/25] expected return in 1911, or 1912, will be awaited with interest." This is pretty indefinite awaiting: it is now said that this comet did return upon Sept. 19, 1911. Denning's Second Periodic Comet (1894, I) — expected, in 1909, but not seen up to Mr. Chambers' time of writing — no mention in Monthly Notices. Swift's Comet, of Nov. 20, 1894 — "must be regarded as lost, unless it should be found in December, 1912." No mention of it in Monthly Notices.
Three comets were predicted to return in 1913 — not one of them returned, (Monthly Notices, 74-326).(14)
Once upon a time, armed with some of the best and latest cynicisms, I was hunting for prey in the Magazine of Science, and came upon an account of a comet that was expected in the year 1848. I supposed that the thing had been positively predicted, and very likely failed to appear, and, for such common game, had no interest. But I came upon the spoor of disgrace, in the word "triumph" — "If it does come, it will afford another astronomical triumph" (Mag. of Sci., 1848-107).(15) The astronomers had predicted the return of the great comet in the year 1848.(16) In Monthly Notices, April, 1847, Mr. Hind says that the result of his calculations had satisfied him that the identification had been complete, and that, in all probability, "the comet must be very near."(17) Accepting Prof. Mädler's determinations, he predicted that the comet would return to position nearest the sun, about the end of February, 1848.(18)
The astronomers explained. I don't know what the mind of an astronomers looks like, but I think of a fizzle with excuses revolving around it. A writer in the American Journal of Science, 2-9-442, explains excellently.(19) It seems that, when the comet failed to return, Mr. Barber, at Etwell, again went over the calculations. He found that, between the years 1556 and 1592, the familiar attractions of Jupiter and Saturn had diminished the comet's period by 263 days, but that something else had wrought an effect that he set down positively at 751 days, with a resulting retardation of 488 days. This is magic that would petrify, with chagrin, the arteries of the hemorrhagicalest [25/26] statue that ever convinced the faithful -- reaching back through three centuries of inter-actions, which, without divine insight, are unimaginable when occurring in three seconds —
But there was no comet.
The astronomers explained. They went on calculating, and ten years later were still calculating. See Recreative Science, 1860-139.(20) It would be heroic were it not mania. What was the matter with Mr. Barber, at Etwell, and the intellectual tentacles that he had thrust through centuries is not made clear in the most contemporaneous accounts; but, in the year 1857, Mr. Hind published a pamphlet and explained. It seems that researches by Littrow had given new verification to a path that had been computed for the comet, and that nothing had been the matter with Mr. Barber, of Etwell, except his insufficiency of data, which had been corrected. Mr. Hind predicted. He pointed to the future, but he pointed like someone closing a thumb and spreading four fingers. Mr. Hind said that, according to Halley's calculations, the comet would arrive in the summer of 1865. However, an acceleration of five years had been discovered, so that the time should be set down for the middle of August, 1860. However, according to Mr. Hind's calculated orbit, the comet might return in the summer of 1864. However, allowing for acceleration, "the comet is found to be due early in August, 1858."(21)
Then Bomme calculated. He predicted that the comet would return upon August 2, 1858.
There was no comet.
The astronomers went on calculating. They predicted that the comet would return on Aug. 22, 1860.(22)
But I think that a touch of mercy is a luxury that we can afford; anyway, we'll have to be merciful or monotonous. For variety we shall switch from a comet that did not appear to one that did appear. Upon the night of June 30, 1861, a magnificent humiliator appeared in the heavens. One of the most brilliant luminosities of modern times appeared as suddenly as if it were dropped through the shell of our solar system — if it be a solar system. There were letters in the newspapers: correspondents [26/27] wanted to know why this extraordinary object had not been seen coming, by astronomers. Mr. Hind explained. He wrote that the comet was a small object and consequently had not been seen coming by astronomers. No one could deny the magnificence of the comet; nevertheless Mr. Hind declared that it was very small, looking so large because it was near this earth. This is not the later explanation: nowadays it is said that the comet had been in southern skies, where it had been observed. All contemporaneous astronomers agreed that the comet had come down from the north, and not one of them thought of explaining that it had been invisible because it had been in the south. A luminosity, with a mist around it, altogether the apparent size of the moon, had burst into view. In Recreative Science, 3-143, Webb says that nothing like it had been seen since the year 1680.(24) Nevertheless the orthodox pronouncement was that the object was small and would fade away as quickly as it had appeared. See the Athenaeum, July 6, 1861 — "So small an object will very soon get beyond our view." (Hind)(25)
Popular Science Review, 1-513:(26)
That, in April, 1862, the thing was still visible.
Something else that was seen under circumstances that cannot be considered triumphant — upon Nov. 28, 1872, Prof. Klinkerfues, of Göttingen, looking for Biela's comet, saw meteors in the path of the expected comet. He telegraphed to Pogson, of Madras, to look near the star Theta Centauri, and he would see the comet. I'd not say that this was in the field of magic, but it does seem consummate. A dramatic telegram like this electrifies the faithful — an astronomer in the north telling an astronomer in the south where to look, so definitely naming one special little star in skies invisible in the north. Pogson looked where he was told to look and announced that he saw what he was told to see. But at meetings of the R. A. S., Jan. 10 and March 14, 1873, Captain Tupman pointed out that, even if Biela's comet had appeared, it would have been nowhere near this star.
Among our later emotions will be indignation against all astronomers who say that they know whether stars are approaching or receding. When we arrive at that subject it will be the [27/28] preciseness of the astronomers that will perhaps inflame us beyond endurance. We note here the far smaller difficulty of determining whether a relatively nearby comet is coming or going. Upon Nov. 6, 1892, Edwin Holmes discovered a comet. In the Jour. B. A. A., 3-182, Holmes writes that different astronomers had calculated its distance from twenty million miles to two hundred million miles and had determined its diameter to be all the way from twenty-seven thousand miles to three hundred thousand miles.(27) Prof. Young said that the comet was approaching; Prof. Parkhurst wrote merely that the impression was that the comet was approaching the earth; but Prof. Berberich, (Eng. Mec., 56-316) announced that, upon Nov. 6, Holmes' comet had been 36,000,000 miles from this earth, and 6,000,000 miles away upon the 16th, and that the approach was so rapid that, upon the 21st the comet would touch this earth.(28)
The comet, which had been receding, kept on receding.
16. The astronomers making this prediction were Halley, Dunthorne, and Pingrè. George W.F.
Chambers. "The expected great comet." Recreative Science, 1 (1860): 139-40.
17. J.R. Hind. "On the expected reappearance of the celebrated comet of 1264 and 1556." Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 7 (April 1847): 260-5. Correct quote: "...its return to perihelion must be very near at hand."
18. "Sweeping ephemeris for the expected comet...." Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 8: 16. John Russell Hind. "Expected comet of 1264 and 1556." Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 8 (March 1848): 155.
19. "Expected return of the comet of 1556." American Journal of Science, s. 2, 9 (1850): 442.
20. George W.F. Chambers. "The expected great comet." Recreative Science, 1 (1860): 139-40.
21. John Russell Hind. The Comet of 1556. London: John W. Parker and Son, 1857, 22. No mention is made of "the middle" of August, 1860.
22. George W.F. Chambers. "The expected great comet." Recreative Science, 1 (1860): 139-40.
23. "...it never appeared." George Forbes. History of Astronomy. London: Watts & Co., 1909, 120.
24. Mary Ward. "The Great Comet of June and July, 1861." Recreative Science, 3, 141-50, at 142-3. The comet was seen by a few observers on the night of June 29, 1861; and, Webb stated that the last such comet was seen in 1680.
25. "The comet." Athenaeum, 1861 (n.1758; July 6): 19.
26. "New comets and planets." Popular Science Review, o.s., 1 (1862): 513.
27. "Comet Holmes." Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 3, 181-3.
28. "Holme's Comet." English Mechanic, 56 (November 25, 1892): 316, c.v. letter "34311" by T.A. Pickering.