New Lands

A Hypertext Edition of Charles Hoy Fort's Book

Edited and Annotated by Mr. X





NEVERTHELESS I sometimes doubt that astronomers represent especial incompetence. They remind me too much of uplifters and grocers, philanthropists, expert accountants, makers of treaties, characters in international conferences, psychic researchers, biologists. The astronomers seem to me about as capitalists seem to socialists, and about as socialists seem to capitalists, or about as Presbyterians seem to Baptists; as Democrats seem to Republicans, or as artists of one school seem to artists of another school. If the basic fallacies, or the absence of base, in every specialization of thought can be seen by the units of its opposition, why then we see that all supposed foundations in our whole existence are myths, and that all discussion and supposed progress are the conflicts of phantoms and the overthrow of old delusions by new delusions. Nevertheless I am searching for some wider expression that will rationalize all of us — conceiving that what we call irrationality is our view of parts and functions out of relation to an underlying whole; an underlying something that is working out its development in terms of planets and acids and bugs, rivers and labor unions and cyclones, politicians and islands and astronomers. Perhaps we conceive of an underlying nexus in which all things, in our existence, are different manifestations — torn by its hurricanes and quaked by the struggles of Labor against Capital — and then, for the sake of balance, requiring relaxations. It has its rougher hoaxes, and some of the apes and some of the priests, and philosophers and wart hogs are nothing short of horse play; but the astronomers are the ironies of its less peasant-like moments — or the deliciousness of pretending to know whether a far-away star is approaching or receding, and at the same time exactly predicting when a nearby comet, which is receding, will complete its approach. This is cosmic playfulness; such pleasantries enable Existence to bear its catastrophes. Shattered comets and sickened nations and [29/30] the hydrogenic anguishes of the sun — and there must be astronomers for the sake of relaxations.

It will be important to us that the astronomers shall not be less unfortunate in their pronouncements upon motions of the stars than they have turned out to be in other respects. Especially disagreeable to us is the doctrine that stars are variable because dark companies revolve around them; also we prefer to find that nothing fit for matured minds has been determined as to stars with light companions that encircle, or revolve with them. If silence be the only true philosophy, and if every positive assertion be a myth, we should easily find requital for our negative preferences.

Prof. Otto Struve was one of the highest of the astronomic authorities, and the faithful attribute triumphs to him. Upon March 19, 1873, Prof. Struve announced that he had discovered a companion to the star Procyon. That was an interesting observation, but the mere observation was not the triumph. Some time before, Prof. Auwers, as credulous, if not jocular, as Newton and Leverrier and Adams, had computed the orbit of a hypothetic companion of Procyon's. Upon a chart of the stars, he had drawn a circle around Procyon. This orbit was calculated in gravitational terms, and a general theme of ours is that all such calculations are only ideal, and relate no more to stars and planets or anything else than do the spotless theories of uplifters to events that occur as spots in the one wide daub of existence. Specifically we wish to discredit this "triumph" of Struve's and Auwers', but in general we continue our expression that all uses of the calculus of celestial mechanics are false applications, and that this subject is for æsthetic enjoyment only, and has no place in the science of astronomy, if anybody can think that there is such a science. So, after great labor, or after considerable enjoyment, Auwers drew a circle around Procyon, and announced that that was the orbit of a companion-star. Exactly at the point in this circle where it "should" be, upon March 19, 1873, Struve saw a point of light which, it may be accepted, sooner or later someone would see. According to Agnes Clerke (System of the Stars, p. 173) over and over Struve watched the point of light, and convinced himself that it moved as it "should" move, [30/31] exactly in the calculated orbit.(1) In Reminiscences of an Astronomer, p. 138, Prof. Newcomb tells the story.(2) According to him, an American astronomer then did more than confirm Struve's observations: he not only saw but exactly measured the supposed companion.

A defect was found between the lenses of Struve's telescope: it was found that this telescope showed a similar "companion," about 10" from every large star. It was found that the more than "confirmatory" determinations by the American astronomer had been upon "a long well known star." (Newcomb)(3)

Every astronomic triumph is a bright light accompanied by an imbecility, which may for a while make it variable with diminishments and then go unnoticed. Priestcrafts are not merely tyrannies: they're necessities. There must be more reassuring ways of telling this story. The good priest J.E. Gore (Studies in Astronomy, p. 104) tells it safely — not a thing except that, in the year 1873, a companion of Procyon's was, by Struve, "strongly suspected."(4) Positive assurances of the sciences — they are islands of seeming stability in a cosmic jelly. We shall eclipse the story of Algol with some modern disclosures. In all minds not convinced that earnest and devoted falsifiers are holding back Development, the story, if remembered at all, will soon renew its fictitious lustre. We are centers of tremors in a quaking black jelly. A bright and shining delusion looks like beaconed security.

Sir Robert Ball, in the Story of the Heavens, says that the period in which Algol blinks his magnitudes is 2 days, 20 hours, 48 minutes and 55 seconds.(5) He gives the details of Prof. Vogel's calculations upon a speck of light and an invisibility. It is god-like command that out of the variations of light shall come the diameters of faint appearances and the distance and velocity of the unseeable — that the diameter of the point of light is 1,054,000 miles, and that the diameter of the imperceptibility is 825,000 miles, and that their centers are 3,220,000 miles apart: orbital velocity of Algol, 26 miles a second, and the orbital velocity of the companion, 55 miles a second — should be stated 26.3 miles and 55.4 miles a second (Proctor, Old and New Astronomy, p. 773).(6)


We come to a classic imposition like this, and at first we feel helpless. We are told that this thing is so. It is as if we were modes of motion and must go on, but are obstructed by an absolute bar of ultimate steel, shining, in our way, with an infinite polish.

But all appearances are illusions.

No one with a microscope doubts this; no one who has gone specially from ordinary beliefs into minuter examination of any subject doubts this, as to his own specific experience — so then, broadly, that all appearances are illusions, and that, by this recognition, we shall dissipate resistances, monsters, dragons, oppressors that we shall meet in our pilgrimage. This bar-like calculation is itself a mode of motion. The static cannot absolutely resist the dynamic, because in the act of resisting it becomes itself proportionately the dynamic. We learn that modifications rusted into the steel of our opposition. The period of Algol, which Vogel carried out to a minute's 55th second, was, after all, so incompetently determined that the whole impression was nullified —

Astronomical Journal, 11-113:(7)

That, according to Chandler, Algol and his companion do not revolve around each other merely, but revolve together around some second imperceptibility — regularly.

Bull. Soc. Astro. de France, Oct., 1910:(8)

That M. Mora has shown that in Algol's variations there were irregularities that neither Vogel nor Chandler had accounted for.

The Companion of Sirius looms up to our recognition that the story must be nonsense, or worse than nonsense — or that two light comedies will now disappear behind something darker. The story of the Companion of Sirius is that Prof. Auwers, having observed, or in his mania for a pencil and something to scribble upon, having supposed he had observed, motions of the star Sirius, had deduced the existence of a companion, and had inevitably calculated its orbit. Early in the year 1862, Alvan Clark Jr. turned his new telescope upon Sirius, and there, precisely where, according to Auwers' calculations, it should be, saw the companion. The story is told by Proctor, writing thirty years later: the finding of the companion, in the "precise position of the calculations"; [32/33] Proctor's statement that, in the thirty years following, the companion had "conformed fairly well with the calculated orbit."(9)

According to the Annual Record of Science and Industry, 1876-18, the companion, in half the time mentioned by Proctor, had not moved in the calculated orbit.(10) In the Astronomical Register, 15-186, there are two diagrams by Flammarion: one is the orbit of the companion, as computed by Auwers; the other is the orbit, according to a mean of many observations.(11) They do not conform fairly well. They do not conform at all.

I am now temporarily accepting that Flammarion and the other observing astronomers are right, and that the writers like Proctor, who do not say that they made observations of their own, are wrong, though I have data for thinking that there is no such companion-star. When Clark turned his telescope upon Sirius, the companion was found exactly where Auwers said it would be found. According to Flammarion and the other astronomers, had he looked earlier or later it would not have been in this position. Then, in the name of the one calculus that astronomers seem never to have heard of, by what circumstances could that star have been precisely where it should be, when looked for, Jan. 31, 1862, if upon all other occasions, it would not be where it should be?

Astronomical Register, 1-94:(12)

A representation of Sirius — but with six small stars around him — an account, by Dr. Dawes, of observations, by Goldschmidt, upon the "companion" and five other small stars near Sirius. Dr. Dawes' accusation, or opinion, is that it scarcely seems possible that some of these other stars were not seen by Clark. If Alvan Clark saw six stars, at various distances from Sirius, and picked out the one that was at the required distance, as if that were the only one, he dignifies our serials with a touch of something other than comedy. For Goldschmidt's own announcement, see Monthly Notices, R. A. S., 23-181, 243.(13)


1. Agnes Mary Clerke. System of the Stars. 2d ed. 1905, 173.

2. Simon Newcomb. Reminiscences of an Astronomer. New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1903, 138-40. Newcomb does not identify his "Professor Blank" as an American.

3. Ibid, 140.

4. John Ellard Gore. Studies in Astronomy. London: Chati and Windus, 1904, 104.

5. Robert Ball. The Story of the Heavens. New York: Cassell and Co., 1901. Rev. eds., 1901 and 1905, 485. The period was given, by Ball, as: 2 days, 22 hours, 48 minutes and 55 seconds; but, the period given by Fort is the correct figure, as stated by most astronomers, (or 2.867 days). The extreme accuracy claimed by H.C. Vogel failed to take into consideration further variations, beyond the simple hypothesis of an eclipsing binary system. There was a difference of 6 seconds in the period between its measurements by Goodricke in 1782 and by Argelander in 1855; and, these variations occurred with some regularity over a 680 day period, which suggested the existence of a third star (Algol C). These variations were not enough to be explained by eclipses, thus a stream of matter is believed to be flowing from Algol B (a darker subgiant star) to Algol A (the brighter dwarf star); and, further variations over 32-year and 180-year periods have suggested the existence of Algol D and Algol E (neither of which has been detected), magnetic cycles (such as occur in sunspot cycles), apsidal motion produced by Algol C, or variations in the transfer of mass from Algol B to Algol A. R.W. Argyle states: "The real nature of the Algol system is still far from clear. Even after 200 years of continuous observation it still continues to evoke considerable interest from astronomers." Patrick Moore, ed. The International Encyclopedia of Astronomy. New York: Orion Books, 1987, 21-2. Moulton adds to this mystery of the Algol system: "Sometimes the minima as determined photographically do not occur at the times found by visual observations." Forest Ray Moulton. An Introduction to Astronomy. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan Co., 1920, 518.

6. Richard Anthony Proctor. Old and New Astronomy. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1892, 773. Proctor gives the diameter of Algol as 1,061,000 English miles, the diameter of its satellite as 830,300 English miles, and the distance apart of their centers as 3,230,000 English miles.

7. S.C. Chandler. "Contributions to the knowledge of the variable stars." Astronomical Journal, 11, 113-6.

8. Enzo Mora. "Irrégularités dans le mouvement du Satellite d'Algol." Bulletin de la Société Astronomique de France, 24 (October 1910): 444-5. Mora states that the irregularities are not accounted for by the hypotheses of Chandler and Tisserand, but this would also imply disagreement with Vogel's hypothesis.

9. The existence of a companion of Sirius, (or Sirius B), was first raised by Bessel, who noted deviations in the movement of Sirius. Friedrich George Wilhelm Struve. Études D'Astronomie Stellaire. St. Petersburg, Russia: L'Académie Impériale des Sciences, 1847. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1981; 47, "Notes": 26-7, 51-7. The companion was the first white dwarf star observed; but, if it is no more than twenty astronomical units from Sirius A, the stars would appear adjacent to each other, (for a similar adjacent pair, see Krueger 60). Johannes Adrianus Friedrich De Rijk (Bruno Ernst), and, Tjomme Edzart De Vries. D.R. Walsh, trans. Atlas of the Universe. London: Nelson, 1961; 45 (pl. 36), 197.

10. "The companion of Sirius." Annual Record of Science and Industry, 1876, 18-9. In 1876, the companion's observed position by Hall and Holden, at Washington, did not agree with Auwer's theory.

11. Astronomical Register, 15, 186. Source not located. "The companion of Sirius." Nature, 13 (March 30, 1876): 428. Auwer's orbit and Clark's companion, in 1862, were notable: "...the agreement being pretty close throughout. But there can be no doubt that the calculation has given the angle too great since that year."

12. "The companions of Sirius." Astronomical Register, 1, 94.

13. "Companions of Sirius." Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 23 (March 1863): 181. Goldschmidt. "On the companions of Sirius." Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 23 (June 1863): 243-4.

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